Skyrim Is Finished – What Now For The Elder Scrolls?
Skyrim is done. Over. Finished.
No more DLC. No more content. No more quests. No more updates.
Okay, that’s not quite true. Skyrim will have minor updates as it’s needed but Bethesda also says the studio is ‘moving to our next adventure’. It’s done with Skyrim. ‘Minors updates as it’s needed’ sounds like little more than occasionally kicking the tires on its old car to make sure it still works (though not kicking too hard in the case of the PS3 version).
And on PC, the modding community will sustain the life of Skyrim by improving the game (new items, realistic lighting, character enhancement) or distorting it through their own lens (Macho Man dragons, posh mudcrabs, giant chickens).
Oh, go on then. We know you’d much rather see the Macho Man mod.
Skyrim has been a huge success for Bethesda. Huge. Whatever metric you use to try and measure the impact it had, you’ll see numbers that are so large, they barely mean anything anymore – 230,000 people playing on Steam concurrently on the first day of release, 3.4 million copies sold at retail in two days and 10 million copies shipped to retail by December 2011.
It became the most played game on Raptr in 2011, despite its late November release, and was second only to Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 in the Xbox Live activity charts for the same year.
So the real success story here is the cultural impact it had. Skyrim is a modern day dungeons and dragons adventure, with trolls, dwarves, mages and orcs, yet it found acceptance with the Call Of Duty and FIFA crowd without ever compromising these elements.
Remarkable for a game that had TV ads starring an odd bloke in a mammoth-skin hat shouting gibberish.
Skyrim’s Weaknesses – Room For Improvement
Skyrim had flaws.
The most obvious issues were found in the PlayStation 3 version, as the wobbly frame-rate would eventually descend into unplayable territory. It was a problem that grew worse as the Skyrim saves on PS3 grew larger, technical hiccups becoming large enough that the game began to suffocate.
Bethesda’s attempts to keep the PS3 issues under control have been well-documented – not just the studio’s struggles with the technical problems themselves but also in its communication with the PS3 playerbase, who felt alienated and left out as DLC hit PC and Xbox 360 with no word of a PS3 version besides vague statements and half-promises.
If there are technical issues with the PlayStation 3 game, then perhaps that’s understandable to a point. The full extent of the problems didn’t become known until after launch and it seemed patching it up after it was out in the wild could only plug some of the leaks that sprung up in the Skyrim’s code – there’s a full (and somewhat embarrassing) list of problems that continue to plague the PS3 version to this day on GameFAQs. Will ‘minor updates it’s needed’ include zapping those problems? Seems unlikely.
With next-gen consoles looming large, perhaps these technical problems are problems of the past. The lack of communication is the bigger lesson to be learnt here. Bethesda seemed evasive and unwilling to engage an increasingly vocal fanbase and inevitably, PS3 owners felt they were being shunned and ignored. Bethesda appeared to be unwilling to dedicate itself to fixing the PS3 version while it continued creating content for the 360 and PC version. That may not have been the truth but that’s certainly how it appeared.
There is a lot to have been learnt from these problems for the next installment of The Elder Scrolls. Hopefully, Bethesda has learnt those lessons. It needs to have learnt from those problems, otherwise there is nothing to have been gained from the PS3 issues Skyrim had.
Skyrim’s Design Flaws
There was clear room for improvement with the actual design of the game. NPCs were flat and devoid of character, rarely offering lines of dialogue even worth the few seconds it took to wander their way and press Interact. Extended playing time made it easy to distinguish between the NPCs worth talking to and the filler dropped into towns to create the illusion of hustle and bustle.
The downloadable content for Skyrim was also disappointing – creating a playable Vampire Lord too big to fit through most of Skyrim’s doors for Dawnguard remains one of the strangest design decisions we’ve seen from any DLC to date.
In case of both NPCs and DLC, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas are far superior.
Melee combat has been a weak spot for Bethesda since you swung your sword through a mudcrab at the start of Morrowind. In Skyrim, Sword now connects with mudcrab shell (as it should) but melee combat hasn’t really moved on much beyond that. It’s still a case of looking at your opponent, waiting for an opening and then mashing triggers.
Archery, stealth and magicka have all been buffed up as viable combat options and they are engaging in their own ways. Pure melee remains the dull cousin of the group.
It’s hard to argue that Bethesda wanted players to ignore melee outright in favour of another combat style, given two of the skill trees are dedicated to melee (perhaps even three, if you’re counting Block alongside One-Handed and Two-Handed). There is work to be done in this area.
What amplified the melee problem was scaling, of the lack thereof.
The world of Skyrim is at its most interesting when it’s backed up by threat. The barely visible mammoths and giants roaming the land in the distant horizon kept you from exploring that territory and piqued your interest – when will I be strong enough to get past? What secrets were they guarding? What even bigger creatures lie past them?
Threat made the world feel exotic and interesting. Sneaking into uncharted territory was exciting. Poking and prodding around bandit caves was thrilling. The swoosh of a dragon overhead was terrifying.
That feeling slowly began to seep out of Skyrim as you clocked up playing time. Not due to familiarity – the thrill of exploration never really gets old – but eventually your leveled up skillset becomes enough to crush all opposition in Skyrim.
Mammoths, giants, necromancers, sabrecats, vampires, draugrs and yes, the dragons themselves – none of them are a worthy match for a leveled up adventurer, arrow to the knee or otherwise. And if you do take a scratch? You’ve got hundreds of health potions jangling around in your pockets.
The point at which this happens will differ from player to player but it will happen, as enemies don’t scale up alongside the player. It robs Skyrim’s world of its edge and makes it feel too safe and too cosy. The only obstacle to exploration is your own curiousity.
This isn’t being overly critical of Skyrim. It’s just clear that time has shown where the room for improvement lies, just as it’s clear where the strengths are – there is more to be learnt from fixing flaws than repeating strengths.
In any case, the best elements of Skyrim come from how immersive the experience is. That’s a fluffy sentence but translated into English, it means exploring is fun, because exploring is meaningful. The design of the world itself does a far better job of telling you its story and history than the NPCs do (the script is fairly clunky and dry, likewise the delivery of the dialogue) and the variety is the main impetus that pushes you forward. Lush mountains, snowy peaks, beaches littered with shipwreckes and craggy caverns. There’s a bizarre joy in a new marker suddenly appearing on your map, as you realise there’s a new place to be found.
Sound is an overlooked aspect of most games. Skyrim is a great example of what sound can add to the game and arguably one of the few games where it earned its deserved recognition. Jeremy Soule’s score is sweeping and dramatic but perhaps at its best when it’s filling in the gaps between action. It is, in turns, moody, pretty, somber and enchanting. It’s perfect.
The sound also amplifies the presence of the dragons, singling them out as the biggest threat in Skyrim’s world (at least until the scaling problem crushes them) – the whoosh overhead, the crunch as the land, the bone-shattering roar. The gravely tones of Paathurnax stands alongside Mass Effect’s Sovereign as the best examples this gen of how to voice otherworldly creatures and give them gravity, tinged with a sense of menace.
Skyrim’s Accidental Comedy
But the most fun we had with Skyrim was one that isn’t necessarily a deliberate strength. As with any ambitious sandbox game, it’s compelling to push and pull at the code itself, seeing how it responds. Skyrim is the most ambitious sandbox game out of there so with a million cogs spinning at once to keep the entire game from toppling over, it’s fascinating to prod at things and see how they respond. It was the same sort of fun we had in Morrowind and Oblivion.
One famous is example is how you could stick a bucket over a shopkeeper’s head, allowing you to rob him blind because… well, he can’t see. The game’s code was detailed enough that the shopkeeper used sight to detect whether you’d be robbing from his store but Bethesda didn’t have the foresight, or time, or available resources to deal with someone sticking a bucket on his head.
There are other examples too. How bandits react if they fell in water during combat, how frozen enemies would topple down mountains, FUS-RO-DAHing everything, everywhere.
Oh, and this.
This would suggest Skyrim was a broken game. But as with Morrowind and as with Oblivion, it was something you’d accept as inevitable byproduct of the scale of ambition and in any case, experimenting and prodding the game itself was engaging because you could never quite predict how things would play out.
Skyrim never toppled over when you did what was expected – talking to shopkeepers rather than sticking buckets on their hand, fighting bandits rather than tricking them into a nearby river – but it was those accidental moments that proved so compelling. No other game, not a Grand Theft Auto, not a Witcher, not a Saints Row, gave you as many tools to play with the world as Skyrim did.
On PC, the modding community has done a fantastic job of providing adrenalin shots for Skyrim, showing how imagination and craft can re-invigorate the experience.
Skyrim Is Done – What’s Next?
What next for The Elder Scrolls?
The Elder Scrolls Online is looming into view but that’s unlikely to have any real impact on plans for the next mainline Elder Scrolls title. The obvious reason is that as a MMORPG, the gameplay will differ from the traditional Elder Scrolls experience. If you want to read more about how, we’ve got a chunky Elder Scrolls Online gameplay preview to get through.
The other reason Elder Scrolls Online’s presence won’t impact on the next mainline Elder Scrolls title is that it’s being developed by ZeniMax Online Studios and not Bethesda Game Studios, which developed Oblivion and Skyrim.
So what is Bethesda Game Studios working on? Rumours continue to mount about Fallout 4, and will likely continue to do so until Bethesda confirms what BGS is working on. We’re almost certain it will be Fallout 4 but again, Fallout 4 talk is rumour territory right now.
Elder Scrolls Next-Gen
There are also next-gen consoles looming into view. What will this change for the series?
This question has been answered once before, with Oblivion, which was one of the earliest releases for Xbox 360. It was also, of course, a sequel to Morrowind for Xbox. What the new hardware afforded the Elder Scrolls series was a chance to scale the size of the experience up but the basic gameplay template set out in Morrowind wasn’t tinkered with too much.
Combat was cleaned up, fast travel and so on but there was no fundamental difference to the core gameplay. It was largely the same. So if/when (delete as appropriate) the next Elder Scrolls title is announced, we doubt the new hardware will change too much, except the scale and ambition of the experience.
Bethesda will push the technology to create bigger and more intricate worlds. There will be more spinning cogs added to the machine. Bethesda will have more experience in creating these kinds of worlds but that will be tempered by the drive to top Skyrim, using the hardware to push the size of the experience. We’d be very surprised if the same type of physics glitches and AI exploits weren’t present in whatever next-gen Elder Scrolls game will eventually come forward. Again, it likely won’t detract from the game itself but instead a fun element to toy around with, adding an extra layer to the game.
Thanks For The Memories, Skyrim
Bethesda’s statement that it will move on from Skyrim isn’t the final chapter for the open-world RPG, which will be supported by modders and will continue to find its way into new homes via discounted and second-hand copies.
But with no more DLC or content from the studio in the pipeline, we can finally close the book on Skyrim and look forward to the next chapter in the Elder Scrolls series, however far off it may be.
And when it does arrive? The first thing we’ll try is putting a bucket on the shopkeeper’s head.