November 16, 2011 by Tim

I’m having a lot of fun with Skyrim.

It’s pretty much what you’d expect from a Bethesda open-world RPG… lots of exploration, tons of content, and a truckload of freedom to do all sorts of crazy shit.

On the downside… it’s also exactly what you’d expect from a Bethesda open-world RPG. And by that I mean a ton of quirks, bugs and generally lackluster features that, while they don’t necessarily hold back enjoyment of the game, certainly keep it from truly reaching mind-blowing proportions.

To put that another way… the game seems absolutely huge. And it’s gorgeous too (mostly… as long as you don’t look too close). The landscape feels naturally formed, there’s wildlife to hunt, plants and ore to harvest, towns and caves to explore, and far, far too much to experience in one play-through. But at the same time, there are a lot of things that stand in the way of it feeling like a truly living, breathing world.

The new graphics engine is incredibly welcome, long overdue, and far better than the one they used for Oblivion and Fallout 3 (no more play-dough faces, yay!). Yet it still doesn’t quite feel “next gen”. Up close the sparkly illusion starts to fade some, and you come across a lot of the same visual issues that Oblivion/Fallout had. Textures and models that are over-used. NPCs that all share the exact same body-type, with just a different head tacked on top (even for different species). Very stiff and awkward animation is also present, especially in the third-person view.

Also returning are the Bethesda trademark Dumb-as-bricks™ NPCs. I’m sure many of you have seen the video of the guy running around Skyrim putting baskets and pots on NPC’s heads, and watching them do… nothing. I can run into some dude’s shop and knock his shit all over the place. He may tell me to stop, but beyond that he’s not going to do much but stand there and stare at me.

Your companions don’t fare much better. It’s nice to have the extra damage, and it definitely helps on some quests, but more often than not your companion is either nowhere to be found (stuck on landscape somewhere), or totally in your way. If they decide they’re going to stand in the hallway or doorway that you need to get through, often the only way to get past them is to manually speak with them, tell them you want them to do something, and then specifically direct them to stand somewhere else.

Enemy AI is passable, but also does nothing to really immerse you in the world. Your many human enemies may as well be some mindless, less-intelligent species for the way they just engage without question. At no point are you really given any option (or reason) not to kill a human enemy. It doesn’t matter if you just wiped out four dudes in a matter of seconds, the fifth dude will not hesitate to trip over the bodies of his friends to come at you.

All in all though… this should all be familiar territory to anyone who played Oblivion and/or Fallout 3. And if it didn’t break the game for you then, it probably won’t this time either. While it would have been nice to see some of these areas improved upon to a greater extent, it’s important to stress that none of these issues really manage to detract from Skyrim’s overall fun-factor. It’s still a huge game, you can still kill almost everyone you want, steal almost everything you want, and generally sink dozens and dozens of hours into exploring every corner of the game.

Bethesda has pretty much got open-world RPG down to a science… we know they can make a great game, and Skyrim is a blast. It just… doesn’t do much of anything new. For Bethesda’s next outing I’d love to see them try and push the envelope on their NPCs. At the very least, make them more reactionary. Even just the physics/collision from an Assassin’s Creed game would do wonders for making these NPCs feel more real. If you shove one into the dirt (or put a pot on his head) and he starts a fight with you because of it, even better.

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