It may seem a bit early for a Skyrim retrospective, but come November 2014, Bethesda’s massively popular RPG will have been out for three years. And so it goes, that for nearly three years I have tried to enjoy this game; sinking many hours into its various quests and characters, but rarely finding a moment that I could say I genuinely appreciated.

Sales of the PC version of Skyrim have no doubt seen a healthy spike what with the the latest Steam summer sale just passing and it was during which that a colleague of mine expressed his excitement: “Skyrim, the complete collection for £6.99, it’s a bargain!” Now, discussing the attitude of gamers during a large sale on Steam is a topic in its own right but this sentiment gave me pause for another reason. “Is it?” I said.

It's amazing how much more interesting the game looks in screenshots...

It’s amazing how much more interesting the game looks in screenshots…

I had been so remarkably dissatisfied with Skyrim’s many bugs and problems at launch that I decided to sell my copy of the original game and wait for the inevitable ‘gold’ edition. Sure enough, two years later in June 2013,  Skyrim: Legendary Edition appeared for the Xbox 360 and I decided to give the game a second chance.

I started afresh with a new character and a new outlook, once again ready to devote my time to the game properly. Skyrim was still buggy of course, but there was another realization that was hampering my enjoyment, something I slowly began to understand as I attempted the game for a second time; it was a realization that this game just wasn’t very good.

Within a month or so I had shelved it again, bored and increasingly frustrated with the experience as a whole. My brother would take the game from me to play for himself and in time I would forget about it altogether.

Fast forward another year: my PC decides that it really really wants to visit the repair shop and so one evening I found myself staring at the seldom looked-upon shelf of retail Xbox 360 games and of course I spot Skyrim sitting there. Intrigued to learn where I had left off and with little else to do at that particular moment, I popped the disc into the dusty console and loaded it up. It was during this third chance that I was giving the game that it finally dawned on me; Skyrim sucks.

My very first experience was a bad one. It was during the opening cutscene where your character; an imperial prisoner, is shackled and being transported by cart to a place where they’ll be executed. The sounds of horse hooves ominously clopped away and the opening credits proudly faded away to reveal… wood.

Yes; wood. I found myself staring at wood.

I couldn’t move but I looked around to see that I was standing in front of a stationary wooden carriage with other prisoners standing next to me, all of them staring. And next to them were guards and they too were staring. All of them just, staring at me… It was like something out of Being John Malcovich.

I quickly surmised that this was not the correct start of the story and was in fact a showstopping glitch. As a prisoner I should have spawned in the carriage for a lengthy opening cut-scene riding down to the chopping block, but no. No more than five seconds into the game and Skyrim had already glitched out on me. As first impressions go you might say it was not the best.

You can almost hear the Gamebryo engine creaking in this screenshot.

But amusing glitches aside, the problems with this game often stem from one of its supposed strengths; the “freedom” that it offers the player. I have never thought there was much problem with a bit of linearity in games but that aside, the Elder Scrolls’ big selling point is that you can go wherever you want in the world, speak to whoever and undertake quests at your leisure without the game bearing down on you with mandatory tasks. Whilst that statement might be true enough for the most part, there’s very little to do in this world that is of any interest.

The gameplay in Skyrim essentially comes down to two things: stealing things and murdering people.

Gold can be spent on training your character (so you can get better at murdering people) or meaningless fluff such as a house which does very little but make you feel proud to be a homeowner. Yes, let’s buy a house in Skyrim and furnish it with chairs we will never sit in, a bed in which we will never sleep or food we will never eat.

The majority of quest rewards tend to be weapons or items (that help you murder people) or gold that will help you buy weapons and items (that also help you murder people).

The problem with this is that the ‘murdering people’ part just isn’t well done. If you’ve chosen to be a melee character then your modus operandi is to simply storm towards an enemy and repeatedly use power attacks until it’s dead. The inventory screen handily pauses the game and allows you to drink several health potions without any delay, so even if your enemy does get the upper hand it won’t stay that way for long. If you’ve chosen to be a mage then magic spells don’t scale with your character’s level which makes progression rather awkward and you won’t get to see any of the cool-looking execution animations that fighters will see on a regular basis. In fact if you’re not a fighter you will find yourself constantly back-pedalling away from 90% of the melee orientated enemies as you try to bring them down from range. The enemies still haven’t learned how to jump though so as long as there’s a handy table or rock to stand on you should be fine. There’s very little finesse to any of it and chances are once you’ve seen one combat encounter you’ve seen them all. Dark Souls made great strides in this area, making Skyrim look and feel rather dated.

The level scaling, whilst not as botched as Oblivion, is still far from ideal. Playing as a thief, I spent a good three character levels in a town almost exclusively improving my pickpocketing ability (which improves insanely fast compared to other skills). Then I step outside of town to find a simple wolf is able to tear out my throat with ease to make up for the fact that I’m better at picking people’s pockets…  And the enemies will continue to get tougher and tougher which for wholly combat orientated characters (to be honest it’s pointless going any other way in this game) will still not equate to an adequate challenge anyway. Even more obnoxious is the scaling as it applies to items, their stats being based on the level you receive them at. So getting the best weapons and armour before level 40 or so is a waste of time as their comparatively low stats will become outmoded before you know it.

Dragons are not as big a threat as the game makes them out to be.

Dragons are not as big a threat as the game makes them out to be.

Speaking of skills, Skyrim uses skill trees to keep track of a player’s abilities. I hate skill trees. Or more correctly; I hate skill trees where I’m forced to take crap skills in order to unlock better ones later. And that’s exactly the kind of approach that Skyrim takes, leading to many level-up sessions which feel disappointing.

Now, I’ve played Skyrim almost exclusively as a thief orientated character. That is to say, the bulk of the skills I have used and upgraded have all been from the stealth skill set. Now it’s clear to me that the stealth perks in Skyrim are considerably less useful than most of the others and just to make this point even clearer and a little more fun of course, here is a breakdown of my thoughts on each one:

 

Pickpocketing

Light Fingers

Effect: +20% bonus to pickpocketing for each rank in this perk (max: 5)

Comment: A decent perk which will make the skill easier to use. Having lots of ranks here is usually pointless though as pickpocketing success chance caps at 90% and you’ll easily reach that limit with bonuses from other perks and items etc.

Night Thief

Effect: +25% chance to pickpocket if the target is asleep.

Comment: Useless. You already get a bonus if the mark is asleep and it’s rare that you’ll find many sleeping targets who are worth stealing from in the first place. Success caps at 90% so this will likely have little effect when combined with your other bonuses.

Cutpurse

Effect: Pickpocketing gold is 50% easier.

Comment: Mostly useless. Gold is one of the easiest items to steal from a character so this bonus is largely wasted (hello 90% cap!). The only time this perk will help is if you’re trying to steal a difficult 1000+ gold back from someone who you’ve just paid. But then again you could just murder them or better yet simply not care because you could make that gold back in 10 minutes of gameplay anyway.

Keymaster

Effect: Pickpocketing keys almost always works.

Comment: Useless. Keys are tiny and already amazingly easy to take from someone, so why do I need this!? The lack of specificity in this perk is also galling; “almost always works” ? What happened to the percentages we were using a minute ago Bethesda?

Poisoned

Effect: Silently harm enemies by placing poisons in their pockets.

Comment: Wow, they really tried with the name for this one didn’t they? I guess the imagination well was running a bit dry when it came time to name the perks. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes; this perk is useless. Now the idea is pretty fun I suppose but the returns you get from it are rarely going to be all that helpful. You will need training in the sneak skill if you want to be able to plant poisons on enemies without being seen but then sneak already grants you assassination perks that do insane amounts of damage if you simply strike your mark with a dagger instead. Poisoned is much slower, requires strong poisons (which won’t scale very well by the way) and also risks the 10% chance that the mark will catch you doing it anyway. Also rather stupidly, if you plant a poison it does not count as a crime and makes it entirely possible to kill innocent people, in plain view of everyone without incurring a bounty. This perk had potential but the execution just ends up being too much effort when you could just “hit it” instead.

Extra Pockets

Effect: Carrying capacity is increased by 100.

Comment: Useless. And, no! DO NOT try and justify this perk to me! People love this kind of bonus in Skyrim, “useful for every character who likes to carry round loads of stuff!” Just, why!? All this allows me to do is weigh myself down with useless vendor trash so I can sell it all and make lots of gold… But you’ll already have 10,000+ gold after a few days of gameplay so remind me please why I need a perk that makes me richer? If you did absolutely, desperately need the extra carrying capacity you could just drink a strength potion instead. Pointless.

Misdirection

Effect: Can pickpocket equipped weapons.

Comment: Finally, something useful! The next two perks are the highlight of the pickpocket skill tree. Misdirection allows you to steal weapons right out of an enemy’s hands, which is a both a fun and effective way of gimping tough opponents. These kind of actions are also very difficult too which means all those percentages in pickpocketing you’ll have been collecting are going to get put to some real use.

Perfect Touch

Effect: Can pickpocket equipped items.

Comment: The final perk of the pickpocketing tree allows you to steal practically everything a target currently has on them including the shirt off their back! It’s hilarious being able to strip NPCs to the waste of everything they own but there’s also the more practical application of robbing tough enemies of their armour and amulets to weaken them. A very fun perk.

Khajiits; these cats are for RP purposes only as their starting bonuses are truly terrible.

Khajiits; for RP purposes only.

Sneak

Stealth

Effect: You are harder to detect when sneaking. Improves with each rank (max: 5)

Comment: A decent perk which will make the skill easier to use.

Backstab

Effect: Sneak attacks with one-handed weapons now do six times damage.

Comment: A very effective perk that allows you to turn sneaking into a powerful combat advantage. Archers won’t be able to benefit much from Backstab mind but they’ll sadly be forced to “waste one” on this perk in order to get to the archery related perk that appears higher up in the tree (do you see why I dislike skill trees now?).

Deadly Aim

Effect: Sneak attacks with bows now do three times damage.

Comment: A very effective perk that allows you to turn sneaking into a powerful combat advantage. Melee combatants won’t be able to benefit much from Deadly Aim mind but they’ll sadly be forced “waste one” on this perk in order to get to the melee related perk that appears higher up in the tree (do you see why I really really dislike skill trees now?).

Assassin’s Blade

Effect: Sneak attacks with daggers now do a total of fifteen times normal damage.

Comment: A real game-changer of a perk for sneaking specialists. Combined with a powerful enchanted dagger, this perk makes the sneak skill viable for high level murdering. Good synergy with the one handed skill too which is always nice.

Muffled Movement

Effect: Wearing armour makes half as much noise when you move

Comment: Another rather poorly explained perk that makes it easier to stay undetected. A good perk made redundant by many pieces of armour found in Skyrim that will offer the same thing as well as the Silence perk which comes later. In other words; it’s useless.

Light Foot

Effect: You won’t trigger pressure plates.

Comment: Useless. This rather circumstantial perk allows you to wander through dungeons and avoid the rather crappy levels of damage that floor based traps inflict if carelessly stepped on. Just pay attention to what you’re doing and you don’t need this.

Silent Roll

Effect: Sprinting while sneaking executes a silent forward roll.

Comment: Not overly useful but it essentially allows you to quickly close the distance with a target who is walking away from you (presumably so you can line up a backstab). The roll looks pretty cool at least and it’s more interesting than another dull % bonus.

Silence

Effect: Running does not increase your detectability.

Comment: This makes your character silent and is an awesome perk for sneaking in general. The problem here is this perk completely invalidates the Muffled Movement perk that came before it which makes that selection feel like a waste.

Shadow Warrior

Effect: Crouching stops combat for a moment and forces distant opponents to search for a target.

Comment: Another late “game-breaking” perk that allows you to escape an opponent’s gaze and line up a fresh sneak attack. Truly deadly, but it can make combat a bit of a fussy affair. It will take you ages to learn this without a trainer.

The Nightingale Armour looks the business but its bonuses are disappointing.

The Nightingale Armour looks the business but its bonuses are disappointing.

Lockpicking

Novice Locks

Effect: Novice locks are much easier to pick.

Comment: Entirely useless. Successfully picking a lock in Skyrim is based on your own coordination during a mini game much more than the silly skill percentage. These perks are so unnecessary that it’s possible to regularly pick master level locks without a single one of them! Rubbish.

Apprentice Locks

Effect: Apprentice locks are much easier to pick.

Comment: Entirely useless. Successfully picking a lock in Skyrim is based on your own coordination during a mini game much more than the silly skill percentage. Even a monkey could pick Skyrim locks without any of these stupid perks. Worthless!

Quick Hands

Effect: Able to pick locks without being noticed.

Comment: … This is actually starting to get frustrating now. Why would I want to pick a lock in full view of other people!? If I’m about to break into a restricted area or steal something from a locked jewellery case then I need to be hidden to do that!! This perk actually makes me want to cry it’s so bad.

Adept Locks

Effect: Apprentice locks are much easier to pick.

Comment: I think I said this before but Bethesda were really bad at finding interesting names for the perks in this game. Fallout 3 was okay in this regard, what happened!?

Wax Key

Effect: Automatically gives you a copy of a picked lock’s key if it has one.

Comment: Ladies and gentlemen, stare in awe at what is undoubtedly the worst perk in the entire game. Honestly, there are so many ways in which this is useless it is easier to just list them:

  1. This perk actually restricts the development of your lockpicking skill by automatically unlocking additional chests and doors that you would rather have picked open!
  2. Locks are very easy to pick open anyway so why waste the perk in the first place? This entire skill tree is designed to help a player pick locks – not open them with a magic key that has materialized out of nowhere.
  3. It’s uncommon to come across a network of several identical doors and chests that you need to bypass in order to progress.
  4. It’s argued that this perk allows you to regain access to houses and stores that you’ve entered previously even after they’ve been relocked by their owner. But surely you’ll have already ransacked their place (that is why you broke in isn’t it?) making a return visit rather pointless and a more than a little bit creepy.
  5. “LOOK AT ALL THESE ****** KEYS IN MY INVENTORY!!!”

Golden Touch

Effect: Find more gold in chests.

Comment: Phew, that was close! For a minute there I thought my character’s purse may dip below 30,000 gold.

Treasure Hunter

Effect: 50% greater chance of finding special treasure.

Comment: The irony of perks like this is that all the best weapons and items are made using the smithing skill tree.

Expert Locks

Effect: Expert locks are much easier to pick.

Comment: Are they now? Wow, that’s rather unhelpful. I’m seeing a pattern here…

Locksmith

Effect: Pick starts close to the lock opening position.

Comment: YOU CAN LEARN THIS INFORMATION WITHIN 10 SECONDS OF ACTUALLY TRYING TO UNLOCK THE DAMN THING.

Master Locks

Effect: Master locks are much easier to pick.

Comment: Go to hell, Skyrim.

Unbreakable

Effect: Lockpicks never break.

Comment: The final perk is always the best one isn’t it? Isn’t it!? Well… What this perk essentially means is that you’ll only need to carry around one lockpick and that you can sell any excess lockpicks that you happen to find. Now, there are two immediate problems with this premise:

  1. Lockpicks have a weight of 0 (there is no penalty at all for carrying them).
  2. Lockpicks have a value of 2 (they are not worth selling).

It’s safer just to say this perk is useless. In fact, it’s also safe to say that this entire skill tree is useless especially since progressing through the Thieves Guild questline eventually grants you access to the Skeleton Key; a lockpick artefact that never breaks and therefore invalidates this entire list if the player so desires.

It’s telling that my thief character completed every Thieves Guild quest in Skyrim without a single perk spent in this worthless skill tree.

 

Light Armour

There really is no point in me assessing an amour skill tree. In short; it’s a generic tree full of dull passives that will allow you to take more hits and move a bit faster. Certainly not useless, but not very interesting either.

Admittedly, the scenery in Skyrim looks rather lovely.

Admittedly, the scenery in Skyrim looks rather lovely.

Alchemy

Alchemist

Effect: Potions and poisons you make are 20% stronger for each rank in this perk (max: 5)

Comment: A good perk which will make all of your potions stronger and more valuable as a result.

Physician

Effect: Potions you mix that restore Health, Magicka or Stamina are 25% more powerful.

Comment: A good perk which will make all of your potions stronger and more valuable as a result.

Benefactor

Effect: Potions you mix with beneficial effects have an additional 25% greater magnitude.

Comment: Not much I can say that hasn’t been said already. A decent perk.

Poisoner

Effect: Poisons you mix are 25% more effective.

Comment: I haven’t noticed poisons to be all that effective and they’re fiddly to use in combat. Still, this perk will help you get some mileage out of the concept.

Experimenter

Effect: Eating an ingredient reveals additional effects for each rank in this skill (max: 3)

Comment: Useless. By the time your character is eligible for this perk you’ll have already discovered hundreds of effects from the ingredients you’ve picked up. This is made even more unnecessary by the fact that you could just read a guide to find out what the effects are anyway!

Green Thumb

Effect: Two ingredients are gathered from plants

Comment: Useless. By the time your character is eligible for this perk you’ll have already have picked up hundreds of ingredients from plants anyway.

Concentrated Poison

Effect: Poisons applied to weapons last for twice as many hits.

Comment: A thematic perk for those who like to use poisons but it still doesn’t feel that useful overall.

Snakeblood

Effect: 50% resistance to all poisons.

Comment: Useless. I have not yet seen an enemy in Skyrim that deals poison damage. Even then; just make a potion which gives you poison resistance beforehand!

Purity

Effect: All negative effects are removed from created potions, and all positive effects are removed from created poisons.

Comment: A pretty lackluster final perk in my opinion. The negative effects on potions hardly tend to be that devastating and you could just mix a combination that doesn’t have them in the first place. Taking this perk also rather stupidly lowers the gold value of your potions because they will possess less overall effects in spite of the potion being pure.

"So, you need some magic?"

“So, you need some magic?”

Speech

Haggling

Effect: Buying and selling prices are better with each rank in this perk (max: 5)

Comment: This perk will make you moderately richer but really, who cares? Gold is so easy to acquire in this game that spending perks on improving your wealth is a complete waste of time in my opinion. Another problem is that the merchants will quickly run out of money to offer you so you’ll just end up lugging your wares all over Skyrim.

Allure

Effect: 10% better prices with the opposite sex.

Comment: Stupid perk.

Merchant

Effect: Can sell any type of item to any kind of merchant

Comment: A perk which makes the game less annoying at least.

Bribery

Effect: Can bribe guards to ignore crimes.

Comment: Useless and another contender for worst perk ever. One of the problems with Skyrim is that save-scumming (saving a game in progress and then reloading following an unfavourable outcome) really invalidates all its systems associated with crime but even then, there is very little benefit to committing them in the first place. Just don’t bother and you’ll never need this.

Investor

Effect: Can invest 500 gold with a shopkeeper to increase his available gold permanently

Comment: Pity there’s no economic victory in this game; I’m sure this perk would be worth more in that case.

Persuasion

Effect: Persuasion attempts are 30% easier.

Comment: Many times when interacting with NPCs you will have the opportunity to persuade them on a certain topic. This is usually pointless however as you can normally just bribe/kill/bypass them instead. Not worth it.

Intimidation

Effect: Intimidation is twice as likely to be successful.

Comment: Useless. See above.

Fence

Effect: Can barter stolen goods with any merchant you have invested in.

Comment: Useless. Thieves Guild will sort you out with stolen goods; you simply have no need for this perk.

Master Trader

Effect: Every merchant in the world gains 1000 gold for bartering.

Comment: “Soon I will possess all of the gold in Skyrim and then I will be INVINCIBLE!”

As exaggerated as that list may seem it should be clear how questionable the stealth skills can be.

“You can probably get a mod that fixes that” I hear. Well, first of all that answer is not going to help a console player but more importantly; why the hell should you need to?

Searching for a file that might actually improve your gaming experience is being very hopeful in any case considering most mods for Skyrim will likely be designed to do one of the following things:

  1. Add manga or anime inspired characters into the game (not even Elder Scrolls is safe from this crap).
  2. Make the female characters in the game look like tarts.
  3. Make the female characters in the game wear skimpy clothing.
  4. Make the female characters in the game outright naked.
  5. A combination of all of the above.

And the list with this game just goes on and I find myself desperately seeking for something truly positive I can say about the whole thing. The world is certainly not at fault I guess. Skyrim is a place that has been sculpted in great detail; there are many breathtaking views to be had walking across its snow covered mountains and weathered hamlets.

Everything that's wrong with the Skyrim modding scene is summed up in this image.

Everything that’s wrong with the Skyrim modding scene is summed up in this image.

But the problem that keeps presenting is that what you do in this game just isn’t interesting and ultimately the decisions you make have very little effect on anything. You can strike down important quest characters only to have them get back up off the floor minutes later with no apparent memory of what you just did to them. You can steal money and items from people you previously helped and they will still be thankful for your original kind deed.

It all requires a suspension of disbelief and that’s perfectly understandable but it’s not realism I’m after it’s just some feeling; anything that makes me want to keep playing and Skyrim fails to do that for me. There’s no reward that isn’t a shinier weapon, no story that doesn’t end with you needing to murder somebody and no twist that you won’t see coming a mile away. Morrowind and Oblivion built this framework of course but it was Skyrim’s job to evolve it, something which I think it has failed to do. The game plays it remarkably safe and ends up being far too similar to its predecessors, rough edges included.

Skyrim remains a very popular game of course; loved for its breadth and fantasy setting but I think it goes deeper than that. This is an empowerment game. A game that seeks to make you, the player feel like you are the best at everything. All the weapons, all the gold and all of the endless streams of dialogue that call you “Dragonborn”; it’s all done to make you feel important. But the game will never really challenge you and never really excite you; you’ll just carry on plundering and murdering until you finally grow bored of it all. At least that’s what happened with me.

I could go on about the imbalance of the game’s selectable races (Khajiits suck!) or the never-ending stream of hilarious bugs you’ll encounter (broken physics where dishes and chairs fly around the room, anyone?), the pathetically weak dragons (who are supposed to be the big enemies) or the silly line-of-sight mechanics that let you steal belongings from any NPC that has a bucket on their head. But then I don’t think I need to say much more, do I?

At least now after three long years I’ve finally learned something; Skyrim is a beautiful world, no doubt. It’s just a not a good video game.