more rambling about Skyrim

I’ve been wanting to write about Skyrim for a while now, but I’m having a hard time figuring out just what to say.

I suppose I should start by mentioning that I’m playing it twice.  I’ve invested around 30 hours into my level 23 character on the 360 – a male Imperial, two-handed weapon specialist with some destruction magic to back it up – but I’ve also working on a female High Elf on my PC*, who is strictly all magic, all the time, and who is less inclined to be polite if the option is available.  This essentially means that I’m still visiting a lot of the same places, but that I’m having totally different experiences.

*   Playing it twice wasn’t my original intention, but I was feeling guilty about hogging the TV in the living room.  This is an ongoing issue in my house.  My wife has always been totally understanding and supportive of my gaming habits, and I do my best to accommodate her when she wants to watch her shows, but I still feel guilty if I’m monopolizing the main room in the apartment.  In a few weeks we’ll be getting multi-room DVR, and that will hopefully alleviate some of this guilt.

This is key, I think.  Every night when I fire up my 360, more than half of my friends are playing Skyrim, but we’re all having vastly different experiences.  This isn’t a bad thing, by the way; it’s just that the very fact that everyone’s experience is unique means that my story won’t be as interesting as yours.  Talking about one’s Skyrim adventure is basically the same thing as talking about one’s dreams; unless you were there as an active participant, you don’t really care.  Even the crazy shit that’s on youtube (Exhibit A) simply serves to remind you that there’s a lot of stuff in the game that you aren’t doing.

And, of course, the game’s got problems.  Tom Bissell wrote an interesting piece over on Grantland basically calling Bethesda out for making the act of getting through the narrative a chore.  The whole piece is worth reading, but I’m copying the meat and potatoes, since Tom’s a much better writer than I am and his points echo my own:

 The real problem with theElder Scrolls games — the real artistic problem, I mean — is that when you’re not out there chopping and shopping, or dropping a Helmet of Alteration to make room for an Axe of Freezing, you’re stuck in some town, being buttonholed by a loquacious elf inexplicably determined to tell you all about a magic tree. The series’ designers have always mercifully allowed the player the option of spamming through the tedious pre-quest dialogue at the speed of thumb, but the problem with the Elder Scrolls games has now grown more significant than its narrative content’s optionality. The problem, it now seems clear, is that the way in which the Elder Scrolls games present their narrative content — the way, in other words, they try to communicate “drama” — has never worked and will never work.

The dialogue in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is without question the best written and most capably performed of any Elder Scrolls game. Another way of saying this: It remains terrible. Please know that, two hours into Skyrim, my astoundometer remained soaringly high. Whether you’re watching some lonely club-carrying giants herd woolly mammoths across the steppe or journeying up a snowy mountain to a hidden monastery or hiding in a watchtower from a poison-breathing dragon or doing something as desultory as catching butterflies, for god’s sake, the game is as visually compelling as it is experientially gratifying. Every time one of Skyrim‘s characters opened his or her mouth, however, I felt my irritation begin to nibble away at Skyrim‘s edges. Irritation in response to a game’s dialogue is especially problematical when said game contains hours upon hours of dialogue. How can it be that the part of the game that exerts so much effort to accomplish something succeeds in accomplishing nothing?

*   *   *

I can hear you: Who cares? None of this has to do with what makes Skyrim so great. I agree. The question becomes why the thing that doesn’t make Skyrim so great is such a prominent part of Skyrim. Why, in fact, is it in Skyrim at all? I ask these questions as an admirer of Skyrim. Everything else in the game — from the beautiful simplicity of the user-interface system (at least when compared to previous Elder Scrolls games) to the crunchiness of the combat to the graphical fidelity of the environments — has improved upon previous Elder Scrolls games, so why hasn’t this? Are we not at the point where dramaturgical incompetence in a game as lavishly produced and skillfully designed as Skyrim is no longer charming?

*   *   *

It surely says something that even my most fervent Skyrim-loving friends cop to skipping through the expository narrative sequences. They laugh when they admit this, and it’s a nervous, uncomfortable laugh — a laugh that suggests they’re wondering why they do this. I’ll tell them: Because the stuff they’re skipping is so bad that it makes the rest of the game seem like a waste of time, which it’s not. When many of a game’s biggest fans are unable to endure large parts of that game, it may be time to reexamine the vitality of certain aspects of the experience…. Like most who play Skyrim, I’m greatly drawn to these incredible environments because the act of exploring them becomes uniquely my experience. When I’m listening to and watching Skyrim‘s interminable characters, I’m skipping through the same dumb cartoon everyone else is.

I don’t know if the narrative sequences are really that bad, but I do skip through them.  I skip through a lot of narrative sequences, actually, although that’s mostly because I play with subtitles on (the audio on my TV is kinda shitty) and I read a lot faster than people talk.  But I would certainly agree that my interactions with NPCs in Skyrim can be kindly described as “stiff” and “awkward.”  That doesn’t stop me from enjoying the overall experience, but it certainly does cause me to spend as much of my time wandering around on my own as possible.


Meanwhile, I finished Saints Row the Third in a mad rush last Wednesday, when I was home sick from work.  It wasn’t the kind of sick that causes fever dreams, which meant that the stuff that I did and saw in the game actually happened.  And while Saints Row 3 is just as much of a sandbox as Skyrim, it’s also a much more focused experience, which means that anyone who plays it is liable to see the same crazy shit that I saw, which means we can talk about it.

Holy shit.

I won’t spoil it.  Frankly, not enough people on my friends lists are playing it, which is a bummer – I imagine that most people will be playing Skyrim for the foreseeable future in lieu of other games (myself included, which is why I’m not talking about Assassin’s Creed Revelations).  I implore you, though – do not miss it.  And not just because the game is completely insane – it’s also that it’s a really well-made game, with lots of worthwhile additions (the new map system is a thing of genius) and rock-solid fundamentals (it’s still got better combat than GTA) and a new city that might be a little bland and forgettable but still has a ton of stuff to see and do.  Of course, the stuff that makes it insane is why it’s worth picking up – you get a ridiculous amount of firepower in a very short amount of time, and you have plenty of opportunity to use all of it.  You are constantly being rewarded just for messing around – the game keeps track of everything, and so if, for example, you spend all your time driving on the wrong side of the road, you’ll eventually level up and add a perk to your character – you’ll take less damage from bullets, or you’ll carry more ammo, etc.  It’s a really smart system hidden inside a lunatic asylum, and it’s well worth seeking out.

further adventures in multitasking

Firstly – apologies for the weird takedown of the site the other day; WordPress apparently let some feral hamsters inside their servers and shut both of my blogs down for some alleged (and non-existent) violation of their Terms of Service.  They fixed it, apologized, and so here we are, no harm, no foul.  #OccupyWordpress

There’s a lot to talk about, and little time to do it, so here goes.

1.  Gamespot is reporting that Microsoft is going to release its new Xbox next year, during the holiday season.  This is maybe a little on the early side – I wasn’t expecting anything until an announcement in 2013 of a console release in 2014 – but in a way it makes sense.  Judging from the amount of sequels we got this year, I’m thinking that developers are a bit reluctant to launch any new IP so close to the end of the Xbox360’s life cycle.  I’ll have more to say about the next round of consoles in a later post – I’m already starting to ramble (in my head) and I haven’t even gotten started yet.

2.  I’ve started working on my favorite annual post to write – the 2011 Game of the Year.  Problem is, I feel like I can’t really get into the nitty-gritty until I finish Skyrim, Saints Row 3, and Assassin’s Creed Revelations, and meanwhile I’m still plugging away in Modern Warfare 3 and I haven’t even touched Rayman Origins yet.  I don’t think there’s any chance that I’ll be done with Skyrim until next spring, frankly, but I do want to at least put in a good dent – and yet I’m trying to stay away from it until Bethesda releases the patch that will let me install it on my HDD – my 360 (the newest model) tends to get very hot when it spins a disc, and this would be the absolute worst possible time to have a meltdown.

3.  Regarding Modern Warfare 3… I didn’t think I’d get around to playing it, but here I am.  I’m a few missions into Act 3; I have no idea how much farther I have to go before I’m done.  I have no idea what the hell is going on, either; I show up in a strange place and I kill hundreds of enemy soldiers and I press “X” a lot and then a lot of shit blows up.  It occurred to me last night that the Call of Duty games are kind of amazing in that they really don’t allow for any player creativity whatsoever.  You’re almost never alone, for one thing; you’re always part of a group, and you’re being led from place to place by someone else, and if you fail to follow their instructions (i.e., if you move out of stealth or shoot too early), you invariably die and the mission ends.  There aren’t any puzzles; every obstacle is handled by the X button, whether it’s setting a C4 charge, or opening a door, or helping a dying soldier by pressing on a wound.    It’s impossible to get lost; even if you run around looking for “hidden intel”, there’s only so many places you can look – the path is incredibly narrow.  Everything is scripted to within an inch of its life.  If I were the cynical sort – and I am – I’d say that one of the reasons why so much crazy shit happens in Call of Duty campaigns is because it helps distract the player from realizing that they’re not really contributing anything to the experience.   And yet… I’m kinda having fun.  I hate admitting it, and I don’t know why I hate admitting it.

4.  I’ve read in reviews that Assassin’s Creed: Revelations gets off to a slow start, and BOY THEY AREN’T KIDDING AROUND.  It’s funny; I kept being worried about the annualization of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, and yet they’d kept making each successive game better than the last one.  So I had no reason to doubt that this year’s edition would be just as good.  Problem is, it’s coming out at the worst possible time – and not just because so many other great games are fighting for my attention.  It’s that the free-running and building climbing is much better in Uncharted 3, and that the hand to hand combat is much better in Batman Arkham City.  Those two games are still very fresh in my mind, and while I can’t necessarily hold AssRev accountable for other people’s work, nevertheless, I am nonplussed.  The other thing is that the controls are ridiculous.  I’ve played every game in the franchise for many many hours and yet the controls here are still finicky and overly sensitive and contextualized to death, which means that I end up jumping off a cliff instead of climbing a wall, or that I attempt to embrace an enemy instead of killing him with a sword that the game won’t let me pick up.  Being that I’m inundated with other games, I’ve decided that I’ll get to it when I get to it, which at this rate might be July.

5.  I’ve put in an hour or two into Saints Row the Third.  It is, in a word, bananas.  I can’t really offer anything more substantial at this point, since I’ve done maybe 1% of the crazy shit that the game apparently allows me to do.  That said, it looks great, and the combat works and feels responsive and fun, and the driving is a little stiff but I’ll get used to it.  Good times all around.

Skyrim: the first 11 hours

I’m going to be honest here; I’m having a hard time figuring out where to start when it comes to writing about my experience with Skyrim.

The logical answer would be:  the beginning.  But the thing is, Skyrim doesn’t really start out all that well.  The tutorial mission is relentlessly linear and combat-focused, and while that’s more or less a necessity in order to teach you how to play, it’s also woefully misleading (especially if this is your first Elder Scrolls game).  The combat is certainly improved over Oblivion, but it’s still problematic.  The intro is also graphically unimpressive; the people in the game are still ugly and animate strangely, and the creatures don’t look much better. You progress through a murky dark dungeon, kill a few creatures, and then you’re kinda on your own.

Of course, that’s when the game really hits its stride.  The moment I finally emerged into Skyrim proper wasn’t as jaw-dropping as it was in Oblivion, but since I’d already had that moment and knew what to expect, I was more interested in seeing what the world was about.  And it immediately became clear to me that while Bethesda still doesn’t know how to make people or animals look good, they certainly know how to make a world.  Within 5 minutes of aimless wandering I’d found some sort of magic stone that imbued my character (Hermano, an Imperial) with quicker XP bonuses in combat, and then I stumbled upon a dungeon that provided me with some gold and some decent weapons.   And I was hooked.

I’ve played over 100 hours of Oblivion, and certainly at least 40 into Fallout 3, and so Skyrim feels immediately familiar in my hands.  The much-ballyhooed menus are indeed worthy of their praise; they’re much more intuitive and easier to extract useful information from.  (Strangely, though, there’s no sorting option anymore, which makes dealing with over-encumbrance a bit of a pain in the ass.)  I’m a big fan in general of games that level you up based on what you actually do – Resistance 3 did a great job with this in terms of its weaponry – and so I’m seeing tangible results in the skills I’m using the most (i.e., one-handed combat, healing/destructive magic).  The perk system is useful, too – it’s nice to be able to see exactly what you’ll be getting, and the perk trees offer many tantalizing options.

So, yeah.  I managed to squeeze in 11 hours this weekend in short, unconnected bursts, and it’s all I’ve been able to think about today while I’ve been at work.

the calm before the storm

So this is just a quick check-in before I am utterly consumed by Skyrim, Saints Row 3, and Assassins Creed Revelations.  And also Modern Warfare 3 and Rayman Origins and even perhaps the Metal Gear HD Collection and Need For Speed: The Run.

1.  I’m kinda scared of Skyrim, to be honest.  Was listening to yesterday’s Bombcast this morning and Brad mentioned that he’d put in 50 hours and had “barely touched the side stuff.”  Now, I’ve got no problem sinking tons of hours into a game – I sunk at least 100 in Oblivion and I’ve approached similar numbers in many Rockstar titles.  But it should be noted that I’ve been binge-gaming of late – I’ve been sick a lot lately and so I’ve been spending more time at home than usual, and as such I’ve been engaged in marathon gaming sessions.  (I blasted through Uncharted 3 in two sittings, and Lord of the Rings: War In the North in one, and LOTR wasn’t very good, either.)  Point being, I’m already predisposed to hunker down with a game for long stretches of time, and if Skyrim is even half as good as Oblivion was, I may not leave the house until the spring.

2.  This has happened a few times recently, I think in both Uncharted 3 and LOTR, where I’ve been in a seemingly endless battle with hordes of enemies, and then more enemies have swarmed the scene, and my player character quips something to the effect of – “Again with this?”  or “Don’t these guys ever quit?”  I think it’s supposed to be funny, or at least some sort of nod from the designers that maybe this is what you, the player, are thinking as well; but it isn’t funny, and if you as the designer decide to mock the player’s frustration with your tedious bullshit by giving them even more tedious bullshit, then that’s basically just you being a dick.

3.  I wasn’t planning on playing Modern Warfare 3, but here it is in my hands.  (Thanks, Amazon, for your goddamned pack-in deals.)  My antipathy towards the franchise is probably a little bit unfair considering that I’ve played most of the campaigns in the franchise, dating back to COD2, and while I don’t particularly care for multiplayer shooters in general, I can’t deny that it’s generally pretty fun, and certainly many millions of people love it.  I think my antipathy is more directed at Activision’s merciless whoring of the franchise, which (to me) appears somehow even more greed-induced than even EA’s relentless shilling of Madden.  I get that this is a business, and the Modern Warfare franchise is among the biggest in that business, and there’s nothing wrong with making money (especially in this economy).  But I’d be lying if I didn’t cop to feeling a tremendous amount of shooter fatigue these days.  I’m playing it mostly just so that I can be part of the larger conversation about it, and yet I suspect that there probably won’t be very much to talk about.

4.  I’ve been thinking a little bit lately about the question of Games being Art.  It’s a question that seemed pretty loud back when “arty” games were coming out (i.e., Braid, Flower, Bioshock), and it’s more or less died down these days (since, well, there’s almost nothing super-popular this year that qualifies).  And I guess I arrived at the conclusion that it’s a totally irrelevant question.  Most games are not striving to be art (as is the case with most popular films and TV and even music).  They are striving to be fun, certainly, and they are striving to be entertaining, obviously, but they are mostly striving to be purchased.  This realization is not particularly profound, I know, but I was somewhat taken aback by the realization that I kinda don’t care.  If a game comes along that truly knocks me on my ass in a deep, profound, metaphysical way, I’ll be all for it.  I’ll appreciate the effort.   But I’m not sure that I’m looking for an artistic experience when I fire up my 360.  Most of the time, I’m looking to escape into the game’s story – or, since most game stories suck, I’m looking to get lost in the moment-to-moment thrill of the game itself.

5.  I know the audience of this blog is small, so this probably won’t make that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things, but I must recommend Tom Bissell’s excellent book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.  For one thing, I’ve played pretty much every game he talks about, so I understood where he was coming from.  But he’s also probably my favorite writer in today’s videogame space; his pieces for Grantland (especially this L.A. Noire essay) are incredibly insightful and knowledgeable and just plain readable, frankly.  I am hoping to emulate his quality here in the future.

Uncharted 3: Gut Check

I was home sick today, and so I ended up finishing Uncharted 3.  Some key statistics:

Time played: 8:42
60 treasures found (out of 100)
791 enemies defeated
156 checkpoints failed/restarted

791 enemies defeated – that’s a lot of bad guys.  That’s a militia, is what that is.  That seems like maybe too many enemies.  I’m not sure I’ve killed 791 bad guys in all three Gears of War games combined.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with all three games in the Uncharted franchise.  When I’m away from the game and reflecting on what I’d seen and done, I’m swept away by the game’s technical merits.  The presentation in U3 is, as always, outstanding.  Attention has been paid to every last pixel.  The voice acting is terrific, and they’re working from a great script, which goes a long way.  The story is maybe a little silly, but it’s nothing that would seem out of place in an Indiana Jones movie.  The action set-pieces are out of this world.  I had a smile on my face for much of the cutscenes, and I genuinely cared about Nathan and Sully and the gang.

But when I’m actually playing the game?  That’s a different matter.  Enemies continue to soak up large amounts of bullets – it’s not as egregious as it was in the first game, but it’s still pretty bad here, with enemies sometimes requiring 4 shotgun blasts to the head from point blank range before falling.  They can see me when I’m hidden; they outflank me before they have any right to know where I am.  They have uncanny aim.  They do like throwing grenades an awful lot – so much so that I actually got pretty good at throwing them back.  If you see above, I failed/restated 156 checkpoints – I’m assuming that number is specifically related to how many times I died.  That’s a lot of dying, and not all of it was my fault.

I do want to play it again at some point – I want to get all the hidden treasures, because that’s always fun.  Actually, another reason as to why I’d like to get all the treasures is so that I can actually look at the world, instead of looking in the corners and tucked-away places.  Every time I play these games, I get distracted by shiny objects.

A number of reviews have all said something along the lines of Uncharted 3 being a great game although it fails  to surpass the lofty highs of Uncharted 2.  I’d agree with that, for the most part.  Uncharted 2 was unexpectedly great – indeed, it’s probably still one of my favorite games of this generation.  Uncharted 3 has some pretty amazing moments – the burning chateau, the sinking ship, the crashing plane, and the finale are all pretty jaw-dropping.  But the combat remains my least favorite element of this franchise, and unfortunately the combat is what ends up overwhelming the experience.

It’s still a must-own if you’re a PS3 owner, there’s no question about that.  I haven’t even touched the mulitplayer, which is robust and feature-packed and probably pretty fun.  Just know that the campaign can get a bit frustrating, even in spite of your jaw being on the floor.

Batman and Uncharted and GTA5, oh my

1.  I just finished watching the GTA5 trailer.

So it’s Los Angeles.  And it looks like it’s keeping the gravitas of GTA4.  The most impressive thing to me is how colorful the trailer is – not that GTA4 was bland, but everything here is crisp and bright and beautiful.  Didn’t catch a release date, but I’d guess it comes out next spring/summer.


2.  So I’m a little over 2 hours into Uncharted 3; I finished the “burning chateau” section and that seemed like a logical place to stop for the night.

The good:  it looks absolutely phenomenal.  It is, hands down, the prettiest game of this generation – which includes Uncharted 2.  The dialogue and voice acting are terrific; I like these characters and care about them and I enjoy watching them interact.  The platforming is still engaging, and the few puzzles I’ve encountered so far are interesting and have been immensely satisfying to solve.

The bad:  the melee combat is really awkward and unsatisfying, and this sticks out specifically because I’ve spent the last 20 hours of my game-playing life beating the shit out of every living thing in Batman: Arkham City, which does 3rd-person melee combat better than anyone else.  The gunplay is still awkward, too – the early enemies aren’t bullet sponges, which is much appreciated, but it’s still a bit touchy, and it’s also a bit off-putting to consider how many people Nathan Drake murders over the course of an adventure.   (As noted above, I’m only 2 hours or so in and I’ve already killed dozens of bad guys.)   The walking/running animations are, for the most part, really beautiful and fluid – except when they’re not, like when you suddenly change direction.  And there are quite a few chase sequences when you’re running towards the camera, and the controls in those sequences are pretty rough, and you’ll die a lot, and in doing so you lessen the impact of the chase itself – it becomes less about HOLY SHIT LOOK AT WHAT I’M RUNNING FROM and more about rote memorization and hoping that the controls move the way you intend.

I’m still enjoying the hell out of it, but I’m not as enthusiastic about it as I’d hoped.  Its strengths are still top-notch, but its weaknesses are becoming glaring.


3.  I’m more or less done with Batman: Arkham City.  As noted above, I’ve put at least 20 hours into it; I’ve found almost 300 Riddler trophies, and that’s probably enough for the time being.  I may put it in every once in a while during a release lull to try and get all 400, but it’s not a priority.

My first impressions were not overly kind, to be honest; in my excitement for the new game during the summer I’d replayed Arkkam Asylum on the PC and so the first hour of AC was pretty much the exact same experience.  But I grew to really enjoy it.  The story is ludicrous if you look at it for more than 5 seconds, but if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief it’s an enjoyable ride, and the ending is easily one of the best endings I’ve ever seen, in any medium.  (Again, keeping my disbelief suspended.)  And I was certainly excited to know that after I finished the story I’d still have more to do – and for the most part, that was true.  But I’m a little fatigued with it now.  Knowing that I have over 100 Riddler trophies to go is not enticing – it’s exhausting.

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