By Alec Meer on November 11th, 2011 at 10:49 am.
Right, you’re all playing it now, or at least sitting miserably at work wishing you’d pulled a sickie. For those that haven’t yet made the groat-dropping decision, I have more to offer. My piece yesterday focused primarily on the experiential aspect of the game, that tending to be RPS’s bailiwick instead of the whole graphicsability out of 10 thing, but I concede there are HARD FACTS in need of additional discussion. So, here’s a breakdown of further thoughts on combat, interface and tech issues.
Broadly comparable to Oblivion – real-time, contact-sensitive swiping. This means the run in, hit, run backwards, repeat system is still the most advisable tactic for melee combat, and as such this is hardly Mount and Blade. However, the dual-wielding system is what elevates it above Oblivion’s simplistic take on things for me. I tended to have a weapon in one hand and a lightning spell in the other, so there was a constant mid-range engagement and softening up while I timed my blows with my axe (yes, I was a thief with an axe).
Later in the game, I was using the Soul Trap spell an awful lot, in order to fill my Soul Gems and go enchanting later, so trying to pull that off without getting hit was an added timing challenge. I also used Fast Heal and Raise Dead regularly. So, despite being roughly similar mechanics to Oblivion, it didn’t have that stop-start awkwardness – generally, I was always doing something with one hand. Matron.
OK, this is the element I really should have spared a paragraph for in my initial WIT, in retrospect. First, I’ll note that I don’t seem to suffer issues of mouse lag/smoothing as badly as other folk do, in games in general. This morning, I activated the various Skyrim mouse tweaks forums have dug up, and I’ll be buggered if I can tell the difference, but good to know they’re out there.
What is a whole lot more universal is the menu system. It looks pretty good – nice and clean, quick to find what you need and the Favouriting system, whereby you tag preferred items for isnta-access from a pop-up menu activated with Q, is a gift from the gods. However, the the fonts could stand to be smaller – it’s an age-old Bethesda problem, with the amount of on-screen info not being adapted from the giant-worded console version. It’s nowhere near as bad as Fallout 3 and Oblivion, though. More annoying was the fact the interface is clearly designed for dual sticks, which means there’s some discrepancy in whether you should be scrolling with WASD or cursors, or using the mouse – it’s sloppy and I don’t like wasting my time hitting buttons that don’t do anything but clearly should. Eventually I learned what was what, but there should have been far more consistency and universality. There’s also a tendency for the wrong option to end up highlighted: picking soul gems to recharge magic weapons is particularly fiddly, with an additional sub-menu that seems to have been shoe-horned in without the same polish as the core interface.
Then there’s the issue of left and right items. Any one-handed weapon and any spell can be equipped in either the left of the right hand, but the game gets all confused in terms of the right hand being your character’s main hand, but the left mouse button being your main button. So equipping an item in the right hand marks it with a little L for left, and vice-versa. I don’t think this is actually a gamepad-focused failing – there’s no other console iconography in there – so much as just a slightly thoughtless design boo-boo, not appreciating the difference between character and player. Patching this to LMB and RMB would be a very sensible thing for Bethesda to do.
All told, the interface could stand to be a lot better and a lot more consistent (and I look forward to the mods that do this an awful lot), but it’s much better than the giant, clunky, screens of (unmodded) Oblivion and Fallout.
I had a hell of a time getting the game running to start with, which I didn’t mention purely because I thought it was my old X-FI soundcard causing problems (switching to onboard sound fixed everything) and that seemed too specific to my system to browbeat the game about. However, I’ve since discovered that it’s actually to do with sound quality settings in Windows. In sound properties, hit Speakers, Properties, Advanced and, if it’s currently anything higher than the following, set Default Format to 24 bit,44100 Hz (studio quality), otherwise you’ll experience crashes to desktop and occasional missing dialogue. This is the only technical instability I encountered; it drove me spare for a while, but I honestly thought it was just my machine being a dick as I was informed no other PC reviewers were having similar problems.
A few people have asked about this. Again, broadly similar to Oblivion, in that once you’ve discovered a place you can click on it on the map to zoom right to it. Your horse and any companions will zoom along with you. You can also hire a carriage to take you to as-yet undiscovered major areas – i.e. cities, primarily – for a fee, comparable to Morrowind’s Silt Striders. Also, you’ll occasionally find military maps covered in flags showing the current state of the Empire/Stormcloaks war. Click on these flags one-by-one and they’ll add new locations to your map – but you can’t fast travel to them until you’ve journeyed to them at least once. I know Fast Travel is much-maligned in some quarters, but obviously it’s a matter of choice, and also the winding, elaborate mountain paths, far more arduous than anything in Oblivion, meant that shortcutting was significantly more appealing when needing to get from one end of the map to the other. Although the view if you do it manually is spectacular if you’re not in a hurry.
To reiterate – this is not a game about fighting dragons and being all crazy Mr Action Hero. If you want to go down that path it’s there; if you don’t you won’t hear anything about it. I’m now approaching 50 hours and I’ve had absolutely nothing to do with dragons bar what’s brought up in the (over-long) introduction. Once that’s over, you’re completely free of the main quest if you so wish. I certainly did, and was.