Perhaps it’s just the kind of gamer I am, but the games that provide me with the most mileage are almost always games with the same fundamental features. For this article, I have decided to talk about these features in the context of a sort of old review for the current incarnation of my “Default Relaxation Game”. Previous games that have had that effect for me include: Driven To Destruction, most GTA games, Hitman: Blood Money, the Tenchu series, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater/Underground, Timesplitters, Worms 2, Vigilante 8, Sonic Adventure, Star Wars: Jedi Outcast 2, Batman: Arkham City, Burnout Paradise, Just Cause 2, Saint’s Row, Trials, Vanquish and, naturally, Minecraft.
You’ll notice a lot of them are sandboxes. Not all, but most. They do all share one fundamental feature, previously mentioned in my Top 10 Sandbox article: you can play about with them. There are few reasons for this, but it falls down to these features above all else: they have a level of straightforwardness that means replay is less tedious; enough freedom to develop skills or ways of playing that demonstrates progress; and they understand that sometimes you just want to have fun. These are all lessons that the gaming industry could most certainly do with embracing more often.
One thing I’ve always enjoyed about Skyrim is its straightforwardness. Yes, there is a lot in its world to interact with. But it doesn’t take too long to get the hang of things. You’ll quickly get to know what you’re likely to expect from most locations just by the symbol or name (the word “barrow” will almost always mean: nasty undead things in here). There’s just enough variety to prevent things from getting stale, but not too much that you don’t get a feel for how it all works. Not too much in Skyrim requires a guide if you’re happy with serendipity, and after a while, you’ll know where to go for items that support certain builds.
Some people have criticised Skyrim for its repetitive and simplistic combat mechanics, but I actually like them. Whilst I wouldn’t say they’re realistic, they’re certainly more believable than other games. Typically hack ‘n’ slash type games have elaborate moves, mashed out in over-long, fiddly but stylistic combos. By keeping things simple, Skyrim lets the player concentrate on everything other than what buttons they’re mashing; such as positioning, tactics, stealth, and tricking attackers into traps. The simpler the controls are, the more the player is free to play with them, providing they at least make flourish and skill possible. Whilst melee combat has enough to it, mention must be made of archery- I have so much fun with archer characters. Combined with stealth, it’s utterly satisfying. Whilst locations of a hit sadly don’t make any difference, it at least can become a personal challenge, given that arrow hits stay in the bodies of the target until being retrieved. Adding in Skyrim’s cinematic, slo-mo kill moves that occur periodically, coming up with stylised and effective combat methods is very satisfying.
Skyrim is one of those games where there is a story, but you’re not hand-held through it. Once you reach a certain point, you have a choice of what you do from then on and how you do it. Once you complete the tutorial, you’re pretty much free to go on your way. You’ll probably want to continue the story until you have the full Unrelenting Force shout, but it’s not needed. In fact, “No Shout Challenges” can be a fun new way to do a play-through. Given that it’s so easy to just go and have a singular adventure in any location, the game is easy to dip into and play casually. It’s even fun to go back to old bandit camps and clear them again. I have my favourites, such as Valtheim Towers between Whiterun and Darkwater Crossing. It’s especially fun with a stealth archer, as you can enjoy sniping bandits from the top of the first tower onto the bridge and across the river.
It does depend on how much of the same sort of thing you can put up with. I can be, oddly, satisfied by the same general gameplay, but varying my approach to it. I find that Skyrim offers replay value to those who like to set personal challenges, or create multiple different characters. Sometimes I’ve been somewhat disappointed: Bound Weapons for instance, should by their very nature be the ultimate assassin’s weapon, but for whatever reason, the bound daggers and bound swords don’t act as stealth weapons, so you can’t get stylish stealth kills with them. But on the other hand, there are fun ways to make characters, such as a Heavy Armoured, Enchanted Kahjiit warrior who can beat dragons to death with their fists.
There are of course some annoying aspects of the main plot, particularly regarding moral choices. Whilst I like that, regardless of which side you fight for in the Civil War quest-line, it leads to the removal of some good Jarls and clearing the way for some bad ones (meaning there is no “right” choice), I found organising a temporary truce to complete the storyline causes some major upheaval for minimal benefit. Also, I often felt the pang of the desire for a third option. One faction in the main quest-line won’t actually do anything for you unless you go and kill a character who has done nothing but help you, just because of who they are. It always leads me to dump them altogether, simply because a) I’m not prepared to do that and b) there’s no dialogue option for: “No way, do what I say, I’m the fucking Dragonborn!”
But I must confess, I’ve played through the story twice, and the Civil War quest-line once; you really don’t need to touch them. They’re definitely the least satisfying aspects of the game. It’s led me to wonder how successful a Bethesda game that had no main story arc would be. I would kind of like the idea of a game that had far more effort put into the “go where you want, do what you like” aesthetic. Whilst most Bethesda games have an element to that, there’s always that main plotline that hangs like a dead albatross. Nevertheless, it’s always something you can put off until later.
Soon I’ll also be running a PC, which offers up the additional allure of mods. Whilst I haven’t experienced those, it is a good point to conclude on, as many games can be played with even more options through the addition of mods, from the trivial such as making a dragon into Thomas the Tank Engine (no, really, there’s a mod for that) to enhancing gameplay by adding new radiant (random area) quests, new weapon types and abilities.
So when I look for games, I always look for ones that I’m not just going to get a decent amount of gaming time from, but that I can also be rewarded for playing around with. That’s why I’m still playing Skyrim, and indeed many of the other games mentioned earlier.