torstai 16. toukokuuta 2013

REVIEW - The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim | Xbox 360 | 2011

RELEASED: November 11, 2011
DEVELOPER(S): Bethesda Game Studios
PUBLISHER(S): Bethesda Softworks

There's now proof of only one game being big enough to distract me from blogging for nearly one whole month, and I would be stupid not to take advantage of the impact the game has made on me and tell you about it right now, be the Marvel marathon on or not. Since its transition from a PC-exclusive role-playing treat to a multi-platform title in the summer of 2002 with the release of the still immensely popular The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, The Elder Scrolls has gained a foothold as one of the most popular video game franchises in the world, overshadowing the Fallout revival Bethesda carved off the same bark in 2008 in terms of unanimous acclaim. However, Fallout has had its fans through these five years, and I've been one of them - save for a few brief sessions with Morrowind on the PC in 2002, I've never really been an Elder Scrolls expert or fan. I've owned all of the main series games made prior to Skyrim for ages, and the most remarkable thing they've done thus far is look good on my shelf. Little over a month ago, I cashed in on a "promise" I made long ago and did exactly as I promised - I bought The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim 'cause the price was finally low enough. One more Elder Scrolls game on my shelf couldn't have hurt. Well, that particular evening (April 15th) turned out quite a bore, so I decided to take a small trip in Skyrim to numb the senses and kill some time. Last night (May 16th) that trip came to (somewhat of) a close, and I was ready to go out into the real world again, with a daring declaration from someone who's never been much of a "Scroller" - despite its trademark flaws and despite slowly numbing down on the go, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is easily one of the best games ever made, and it definitely deserves some prestigious reward from how it's better worth your money than any game released in... well, ever.

I used to play short, overtly cinematic and unrewarding games like you, but then...

Vladimir Kulich : Ulfric Stormcloak
Corri English : Elisif the Fair
Daniel Riordan : Alduin / Hircine
Charles Martinet : Paarthurnax
Max von Sydow : Esbern
Christopher Plummer : Arngeir
Joan Allen : Delphine
Michael Hogan : General Tullius
Cindy Robinson : Astrid
Stephen Russell : Mercer Frey / Clavicus Vile / Barbas / Cynric Endell / Belethor / Mallus Maccius

200 years after the Oblivion Crisis, the province of Skyrim finds itself in all sort of uproar. The murder of High King Torygg at the hands of Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak has escalated a simple rivalry into all-out civil war between the Stormcloaks and the Imperial Legion. As if that wasn't enough, Ulfric's public execution is interrupted by the first dragon attack in centuries, marking the return of Alduin the World-Eater, the most powerful dragon in history, and thus, the imminent end of the world. You play the part of Ulfric's fellow prisoner, caught by the Legion while attempting to illegally cross the border of Skyrim, and as it happens, you're Dragonborn, the one capable enough to permanently slay a dragon by devouring its soul. The choice of who to stand with and against is yours - but you can't escape your destiny.

Welcome to Jorrvaskr, the home of enfuriating
elitists who've more bark than bite. Literally.
First of all, there's never been a game quite like Skyrim. Whereas its predecessors Morrowind and Oblivion, and obvious spiritual predecessor Fallout 3 were open-world games, Skyrim is rather a whole open world of its own. I know that's about the geekiest remark I've ever made, but it's by far the only way to summarize a game that goes to these kinds of lengths to work towards a basically endless game totally worth your time and money. For example, I'm 157 hours in, and there's still a lot to do, not only randomly generated quests via the new Radiant system, but whole scripted questlines in the style of the previous games - but once again there's so much more to 'em than ever before, complete with full customization of your character's class, gender, race, personality and traits (not to mention the add-ons, which however are expensive as fuck, not sure of their individual worth just yet). The main questline is of the same vein as ever with Bethesda, though - it's the sideway strolling that truly makes the game stick. The main questline is invisibly divided up into a few acts, some of which are very interesting and some are less so, and the whole thing comes to a screeching halt, after which however you can continue to play as you please, unlike in the case of Fallout 3 for which you had to get an expensive add-on just to be able to continue the game after finishing the story (which was a good add-on all around, but that's not the point). After playing the game non-stop for weeks, I've picked up a lot of flaws, repetition has inevitably reared its ugly head, and the appeal of the game numbs down slowly but surely after the first 50 to 60 hours, but we've got to keep in mind that only a few games last even that long these days. Skyrim is a marvel to behold and to experience... if you've got enough time on your hands.

I seem to remember a time Oblivion was called the most beautiful game ever made. Well, that time has long since passed, and even if you haven't caught a glimpse of what Skyrim looks like, you can probably concur that playing Oblivion in 2013 isn't quite the same as playing it in 2006 - I said "probably" 'cause I have one friend who strongly disagrees, and he's played Skyrim, for much longer than I in fact. Well, Skyrim is just plain gorgeous, all around. The new Creation engine takes the age-old Gamebryo engine and mops the floor with it. Just to mention an example of eliminated irritation is the better flow of dialogue; the world around doesn't just stop whenever you're having a discussion with someone, and you can even move the camera a bit during the dialogue, which alone makes dialogue feel a little more interactive. There are much less randomly generated NPC's, which helps you actually remember folks that you last met 40 or 50 in-game hours ago, even if you've not had much or any quest-related dealings with them.

Them sceneries.
However, there's only so far advanced technology can reach, and voiceover work is beyond that reach. There are a few names you might know in this bunch as essential story- and questline characters, but the voices you'll be hearing most of the time belong to in-house (non-)talent. There are thousands of NPC's, only a relative few actors, most of who speak in extremely overdone, annoying Nord accents, and there aren't many random quotes for NPC's of the same type to go around, the most famous example being the guards' lament "I used to be an adventurer like you, but then I took an arrow to the knee" which really makes one wonder who hires these guys. Do they have a union or something? Plus, it's possible to engage in battle with a companion on your side, with both your companion and one of the enemy avatars speaking in the exact same voice, shouting the exact same combat quotes at each other. That doesn't just sound incredibly stupid, it can turn out quite a problem in a dark environment; you see, your companion can only take so many swings from your axe before losing his/her temper and attacking you. Not the only bug with these useful, but flawed henchmen - I'll tell you about it later.

The music by Elder Scrolls veteran Jeremy Soule is just magnificent. The soundtrack might get a little repetitive for your taste after the clock strikes one hundred in-game hours, but at the very least the epic theme song "Song of the Dragonborn" is a classic on arrival, which hits at certain phases only during the game and always makes your heart beat a bit faster - and a short excerpt also cues your transition to the next level, which adds to the consistent pleasure of hearing it. Bard NPC's around the world are open for requests for songs that can't be heard anywhere else, and those songs are also among the best on the soundtrack; the performers could sound better, though.

The simple reason why I wasn't apeshit about Skyrim or the whole Elder Scrolls franchise in the first place is that I've never been a medieval fantasy geek. I'm not too much into traditional dungeons, dragons, swords, kings, all that. I've always been an RPG fan, but the RPG's through time I have held the dearest have _usually_ been far from traditional fantasy, either they're pure sci-fi, post-apocalyptic stuff or radically multi-influential. Skyrim is a very multi-influential game, much more so than it would seem on the outside, on which it's the fantasy geek's holy book. Yeah, sure, it's a dungeon-crawler above all - and there are dragons, magic swords, kingdoms to save / ravage, elves, dwarves - or rather dwarven ruins, as dwarves have been dead in the Elder Scrolls universe for centuries - all sorts of races for the other ones to despise in a vintage adaptation of real-life racial disputes, all that. But, there's much more. Vampires and werewolves, assassins, smugglers, God-sized conspiracy theories, religion wars, even time travelling to some interpretation and extent for a non-fantasy geek like me to thoroughly enjoy. Not to mention the huge fucking world this small disc contains. I dare not even think how much bigger Skyrim is than the Capital Wasteland, but it definitely is much bigger, and almost every step you take reveals a new spot of interest on the horizon. Shit gets so crazy that you'll find yourself revering the inventor of fast travel as a god before all that long. If it isn't clear to you fellow anti-Elder Scrolls people by now, Skyrim's one to watch for if you had half the adoration for the last two games in the Fallout series. It will stick on you like an arrow to the knee! Just had to fit that in somewhere.

Building your own house in the somewhat
poorly received Hearthfire add-on. It was
decent, I think.
For me, personally, once more, Skyrim might not be the most interesting concept from Bethesda, but I cannot emphasize enough how it transcends everything Bethesda's done so far - and by a lot. Sure, there are some things about it, especially things related to character development, that initially don't make sense to a Fallout fan - the leveling system's kind of a cross between Oblivion and Fallout, more in line with the latter - and it can be really slow and tedious at times. But, it's all part of the masterplan - the beauty behind these "problems" is revealed to you as you go, with the main agenda being able to play just the way you want to, do what you're interested in, develop just the skills you actually need, without much or any scripts or tutorials telling you what you should and shouldn't do to experience the game as someone else wants you to. Don't feel like continuing on with whatever you're doing? Fine, choose something else, there's a LONG list of errands for you to do, complete with a short, detailed summary of what's happened thus far so you won't lose scent of a particular quest's plot even if you've agreed to do it tens of hours prior. Or just go on a walk, something will come up: a derelict dungeon with some sweet loot just waiting to get picked up, an awesome sidequest or two just waiting to be handed out, or simply a lot of flowers and mushrooms to pick for your potentially volatile alchemy tests. Basically the game is just as slow and tedious as you want it to be; lengthy loading times, shitloads of deadly glitches and ten system lockdowns per hour are the real problems here, ones you can't work your way around. As for leveling up... well, I'm getting to it. Right now, in fact.

In most RPG's of late - or games with an RPG-like character development system, the line between an action game and a role-playing game is very thin nowadays - you gain EXP from everything. Well, let's return to Fallout 3 "for a change". You leveled up from killing enemies, completing quests, lockpicking, hacking, disarming traps, simply discovering new locations, whatnot - that summed up pretty much the whole game. That kind of applies to Skyrim, but it also retains the individual skill development system from the earlier Elder Scrolls games at the same time, resulting in a system that a lot of people will dislike but which I believe those same people will learn to comprehend and respect as time goes by. Since I was never a serious Elder Scrolls fan, I'll use a very early example of how the system works from a franchise I know "pretty well" - Final Fantasy II.

Released in 1988, Final Fantasy II was one of the first console role-playing games, as well as the first (and thus far, only) Final Fantasy game to incorporate a character development system that depended on the skills you actually used. If you used a lot of magic, your mana points went up. If you took a lot of damage, your health and endurance points went up. Now just imagine how this system would work for Fallout, and you're pretty close to how it works for Skyrim. Use a lot of one-handed weapons, your One-Handed skill goes up. Use your shield a lot, and your Block skill is bound to go up. On the other hand, refrain from picking locks and/or pockets, and you're up shit creek if and when you join the Thieves' Guild, 'cause the most essential skills you need in that company are still at the nominal level for your chosen race - of course it's not that big of a problem if you're a representative of a race famous for their natural thieving skills. Yes, it has that much weight; each race has a natural perk or two, which you should carefully investigate at the start of each new game. Anyway, as each skill develops to a new level - I'm too lazy to list 'em, but you can probably guess at least a half of 'em - your overall character level goes up a notch as well. But, you won't level up from anything else, which basically means that you can hack through tens of less busy or low-level dungeons without leveling up at all. Well, not quite, but that's how you'll feel like. That's not all to initially hate about character development in Skyrim.

A little bit o' Alice in Wonderland.
The good news is that perks tied to certain skills and their development, familiar to any Fallout geek, finally make their long-anticipated debut in an Elder Scrolls game. The bad news is that instead of being up for grabs as soon as you hit a certain skill level, each skill has a tree, and you cannot choose a perk without choosing an adjacent one from the tree first - you guessed it, the best perks are behind the most useless ones, which means you'll have to spend precious perk points (you get one at each level up) on perks that you have absolutely no use for. Well, again in good news, there's no real level cap in this game, words can't even begin to describe how retarded it'd all be if it was 20 or 30, seeing how many different perks are available. Of course Bethesda chose to go this way to prevent the game from becoming too easy and your character becoming too overpowered too fast, but it might take you tens of hours to realize that, as it somewhat slows the game down, especially when you're at a moderately high level, high enough to make leveling up and gaining perk points a lot slower as it is.

Well, that's it for character development, let's take a gander at some other stuff. I mentioned your character's race as a key factor, but there are no real pre-determined classes here - you can pretty much decide on it on the go, once again thanks to how the skills develop according to their usage. Let's take my character, for example - 1. I'm always into melee contact, and preferrably with "light" weaponry, in this case a mace and shield, and the heaviest armor I can possibly carry. 2. I'm not too much into any kind of magic tricks; even when it comes to health, I'd rather use potions than restoration magic. I make the potions myself, too. 3. I love picking locks (especially since they replaced Oblivion's irritating lockpicking feature with one taken straight off Fallout), but I'm not that much into emptying a passer-by's pockets. 4. I'll much rather build and upgrade my own armor set than pay my ass sore for just one piece of it. 5. I love sneaking around and picking off individual, unsuspecting enemies with a well-placed arrow to the kn... neck. If that won't work, I return to entry number 1. There are more skills which are important to me as well, but these five entries are the most essential descriptions of my gameplay style. They basically summarize that I have very high skill levels in One-Handed, Block, Heavy Armor, Alchemy, Lockpicking, Smithing, Sneak and Archery - and very low skill in Two-Handed, Light Armor, all schools of magic and Pickpocketing. And still, I've made it well in my own way - I've finished most main questlines, and I'm at level 50. At no point whatsoever has the game forced me to learn some skill outside my personal comfort zone or brought me to a complete halt.

Skyrim includes a LOT of options for both hands and other vitals, so a traditional speed dial for items and weapons isn't nearly enough. Instead, there's a Favourite menu, to which you can add all the stuff you want, and a list of the stuff is easily accessible by one upward press of the digital pad, which pauses all action. Weapons, armor, spells, potions, special powers, and even more special powers which I'll get to next, all that you want to be there can be moved there with ease.

They know, you know. What is it they know?
Who knows.
Each race starts off with a unique power bestowed to them by their heritage like in the previous games, but in Skyrim your character also has another type of power by his Dragonborn inheritance - the power of the Voice. Shouts are combinations of three words spoken in an ancient dragon language, of which I'm sure you're familiar with "Fus-Ro-Dah". Each Shout has a special effect - it can be offensive or defensive, or it can even manipulate the environment or affect the enemy in an indirectly harmful way. Fus-Ro-Dah, for example, stands for Unrelenting Force, which pushes an opponent back and staggers him/her, creating an opening for a powerful melee attack. The Shouts are extremely powerful, especially once you've travelled the world enough to learn all three words of an individual Shout, but the downside to their extensive use is that they do absolutely jack for your character's development, and there aren't that many Shouts that would really be of any use outside of their importance to making progress in the main storyline, which again, is the weakest part of the game anyway - despite being lightyears ahead of Bethesda's previous open-world epics.

As the final subject of gameplay, before letting you who still haven't experienced Skyrim correct that outright mistake, I'll speak of the Companions. Not the prominent faction of warriors you'll most likely bump into first out of 'em all, but the NPC's that you can take along by your will and that alone. Some of them are mercenaries; you don't need to do anything but find them in the world, pay them, and they'll tag along as long as you want 'em to. Some of them are more unique NPC's you might have to help with some issue(s) before they swear their allegiance to you. Especially the outdoor areas in Fallout: New Vegas were very hard to manage without a companion at your side, and the same applies to Skyrim's early goings, but as useful as a companion is, especially in those early goings, having a companion means having to endure some serious brainfuckery. Think of Donna in Doctor Who - you've got every companion in Skyrim. Basically effective, but ultimately annoying, sensitive and riddled with glitches.

These guys keep popping up in the most
random occasions at the most awkward of times,
but well, at least they're accompanied by a
killer theme song.
Let's start with the good stuff. At first, your carrying capacity is extremely small and with this amount of sometimes extremely precious loot for appliance of your choice (Smithing, Alchemy, whatever), you'll find yourself in need of storage or item drops extremely often. No worries, your companion can accept to carry quite a bit of excessive stuff and hand it back over just as easily. They'll even equip the optimal sets of weapons and armor you're willing to give up, which makes them effective and enduring fellow combatants... usually. But, you'll have to listen to them speak. All the time - some more than others - and mind you, they've only got four to five usual quotes. You can always ASK them to do stuff on your behalf, like pull a lever, or stand somewhere else, but complying to your requests is damn near always an incredibly hard task for them to execute. They keep getting in your way in narrow hallways and even in combat - hit them one too many times just to provoke them to get out of the way, or by accident, and they'll attack you, stopping only when they fall dead. Trespassing, even on enemy ground, turns your companion into a complete retard - he/she still fights at your side, but can't be spoken to or given items. They just remind you that you're not supposed to be there - again, even if you're doing it on the behalf of the guys that are definitely good in their intentions.

There are all sorts of glitches all over Skyrim, and some of them can never be gotten used to, primarily the occasional system lockdowns which have plagued Bethesda's games for years, as well as the occasionally very untrustworthy autosave system, which very often goes hand in hand with the sudden freezing. But, the situation with the last update for the game is not nearly as bad as it was with the final updates for Bethesda's last two games - I guess I have to give them some credit, after all the game is too damn big to be even imagined as completely bug-free. Besides, hilarious glitches are always a treat to witness on a bad day - severed heads spontaneously rocketing off the ground, floating corpses, naked priests, suicide divers.

Even the damn forest's out to get ya.
As tradition is slowly forming - with the exception of New Vegas - the system-specific Achievement list isn't all that hard to complete, it's just an extremely lengthy process as it requires you to see pretty much every essential, unique thing there is to see about Skyrim. I haven't done it yet, but I'm going for it, and I'm fully prepared for a few more hundreds of hours of in-game time. We're still speaking hundreds after 140+ hours, which should answer your question about Skyrim's value - I don't know about actual replay value, but just one round trip gives you more than five of them in any other game, so pick your race carefully. It's going to be a long journey, no matter how you choose to manage it.

Some - OK, quite a lot of folk - claim that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is so magnificent and fresh that it'll take away all your desire to play the earlier games if you still haven't. I disagree - I think Skyrim is just so magnificent that I'm finally ready to take on the whole series after all these years. It adds to the thirst instead of quenching it - who gives a shit about how the earlier games look nowadays, really? Even though I'll always be on Fallout's side when it comes to thematic appeal, I have to admit that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is thus far the best, most balanced and diverse game Bethesda have ever made. My hunger for a new Fallout game has grown to ridiculous proportions thanks to this role-playing GEM.

+ Of ridiculously epic size, there are literally hundreds of hours to spend in the largest open world yet
+ Equally ridiculous freedom to develop your character
+ Great level design with a good amount of different enemies
+ Beautiful graphics, awesome soundtrack
+ A handful of simple, yet effective solutions to usual small nuisances, for example the Favourite menu
+ Unique, great character development...

- ...Which takes some time to present its good side
- The storyline has its fair share of good parts, but a lot of dull parts to tip the scale; it's the sidequests which make the game (Dark Brotherhood!!!)
- Glitches galore, Bethesda-style
- Monotonic voiceover work, Bethesda-style
- Shouting's an amusing feature, but not all that useful

< 9.4 >

torstai 2. toukokuuta 2013

Then came the first days of May...

...And there were probably a couple of guys and gals wondering what the hell's going on with VGMania. The blog was even utterly offline a few days, and there hasn't been a slightest update or review in weeks. To be honest, I don't know what the hell went down with that offline shit. I checked in one morning to read my e-mails - which I don't do nearly as often as I should - and Google claimed that someone from Hong Kong had attempted to hack my account. Whether this was true or just a technical error as they always are, I was furious when I found VGMania to be wiped clean, and left wondering how long the blog had been in the complete dark - a week or two had passed from my previous update and I hadn't logged in after that. Well, I hope that you didn't give up on the account of just one random occasion you couldn't gain access to the blog.

To put it all simply, and into one single sentence: I've had a lot to do. And (there goes the single sentence), I will continue to have a lot to do, for a period of time that is currently very hard to define. No, this ain't another declaration of a half-dead hiatus, but this ain't a promise of a review or two in the next couple of days, or even weeks, either. I have daily commitments beyond the usual scope, as I've recently returned to making music. A couple of months ago, the vocalist in a local band I like decided to leave the band after four years of service, and the guitarist - a friend of mine - asked me if I'd like to come for a try-out, and here we are. I'm not an official member of the band, at least not yet, but the future's looking OK, and I'll do my best to not cloud it up. But, that's not the real reason I've been so quiet, and it's not women either.

If things get this bad, I'll worry. For now, I'm OK.
Ironically, the main reason for the hold-up is a game. A single game. Believe me, you will know everything about this game - or at least a lot of essentials - and my opinion on it when I get things rolling again. The Marvel marathon is still a long way from the end, I have the Metal Gear material to attend to, but I have played this one game so vigorously and thoroughly for the last couple of weeks that I can't bear pushing its review for a later date. I'm actually going to begin work on the review today, but I can say for certain it won't speed up the process at all, it only helps me to jot down everything I want to say about it. Hell, I could've begun work last week, and the review still wouldn't be done. It's funny that I bought this game on a complete whim just a few weeks ago with no immediate desire to go at it, and now I'm 103 hours (!!!) in, there's no end in remote sight, and I'm still enjoying myself! Yeah... I think you know which game I'm talking about, there's no need to mention it by name. I know it's only May 2nd, but the only thing I can promise with complete certainty is that the review of this game is coming _this month_. I'm trying to squeeze some Marvel reviews in the between, I really am. I have a burning desire to write _something_ - it's not my fault the main project's so damn big. :)

In the last brief bit of news: the PlayStation, the very original model of the nearly 20-year old legend, is returning to my collection, courtesy of a friend who was actually planning to throw the thing away, with a little over ten games along with it. I couldn't stand for such debauchery, so I quickly stepped in after reading about his evil plan on Facebook. God bless that social porn site. Also, I got an original print of Lost Odyssey for the Xbox 360, found from a freakin' flea market, still in wraps, at the measly price of €5, to replace my re-issue. Actually, I didn't pay a dime for the game, it was rather a present or a donation, depends how you look at it. I was just rather stunned, since usually brand new games sold at the local flea markets for the usual flea market prices are sports or kids' games.