Sunday, November 20, 2011

Skyrim - Technical Aspects

My readers persuaded me that I absolutely had to play Skyrim, and the good news is that I didn't regret buying the game. Skyrim is quite a good game, and I can play it without puking. Bethesda improved the 3rd-person view from previous Elder Scroll games to a point where it is actually usable. I can play Skyrim for about 1 hour before having to take a break, and managed over the weekend to get up to level 7 with nothing more than a minor headache.

The bad news is that Skyrim is not as flawless as the extremely high review scores would suggest. Maybe it is inevitable that somebody analyzing and reviewing games sees these flaws more than somebody consciously or unconsciously overlooking the flaws to just play and have fun. But my fun with Skyrim was marred with several immersion-breaking technical and game design flaws. As this is a rather large subject, I decided to split it up and talk about the technical aspects in this post, keeping the game design aspects for another post.

It all started at the beginning. I install and launch the game, and find my character sitting in a cart. The NPC in front of me is visibly talking to me, but I can't hear a thing. Listening closely I can confirm that he *does* talk, but the volume is so low as to be nearly inaudible. Now the technical fiddling begins. I look up the problem in Google, and follow the advice to set my sound to 44100 Hz quality. I put the in-game, Windows, and hardware volume controls to absolute maximum. And hurrah! I get the speech up to a volume where I can actually understand it. Only that every time I stop playing I need to think of turning the volume down, otherwise the next game I start blasts my ears off. And it turns out that once Skyrim is started, all Windows volume controls don't work any more. You can't Alt-Tab out of Skyrim, and the volume control knob on my keyboard is apparently disabled while Skyrim is running. So every time I launch the game and notice I forgot to turn the volume up, I need to quit the game, turn the volume up, and relaunch the game. Annoying!

So now I'm back in the game, listening to the NPCs through the starting sequence, and come to the point where I am supposed to actually move and do stuff. Only the keyboard controls aren't working. It turns out that Skyrim detects that I have an XBox controller plugged into my computer and assumes that if I have a gamepad, I certainly want to use it. And curiously keyboard controls are completely disabled when a gamepad is plugged in. I can't even find an option to switch to keyboard/mouse controls in the menu. In the end the solution is to unplug the gamepad, at which point Skyrim grudgingly accepts me wanting to play with a keyboard and mouse.

As others have mentioned, graphics are a mixed bad. The scenery is great, sometimes even stunning. The textures could be better. And the animations are second-rate at best. That turns out to be especially problematic when playing in 3rd-person view: Whether the game believes that I hit the enemy with my sword, and whether the animations show that I hit him, are two very separate and not closely related things.

Controls take getting used to, but aren't quite as bad as some commenters here said. I did play console games in the past, and thus understood where the controls were coming from and how they work. Actually the most annoying control for me is that getting out of a menu is the TAB key, and not the ESC key. ESC opens the save screen, and then you need to hit ESC again to close it, and hit TAB to get one step back in the menu. What is sorely missing is a screen which shows your character, his equipment, and status, like buffs and debuffs. As far as I can tell there is a body slot, a helmet slot, a hand slot, and a foot slot. But I can't be sure whether my character is running around without pants because there is no legs slot, or whether the NPCs are snickering behind my back because I haven't found any pants yet. I've seen rings and necklaces, but none with stats yet, and am not sure whether they would be wearable or not. And at one point I contracted a disease, and couldn't find the debuff anywhere. It turns out that buffs and debuffs are well hidden in the Magic menu, in the active effects subcategory at the bottom (you need to scroll down to actually see that one).

The main disadvantage of 3rd person view is that aiming is a lot harder. As 1st person view in Skryim makes me nauseous, I decided to solve that problem by concentrating on melee skills, with only a little bit of archery thrown in. For magic I only do restoration (healing), which doesn't require targeting an enemy. I tried changing the FOV value, but a wider field of view results in the lines on the edges of my view being curved, with only increases nausea instead of reducing it. I'll stick to 3rd person view.

So overall I did manage to find a modus vivendi which allowed me to play Skryim. But I guess the Metacritic review scores apply mainly to the console version. People who buy Skyrim on the PC need to be aware that this is a console port, and not the best one. It sure is adequate and playable, but don't expect technical excellency!

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