Nitpicking Skyrim: Combat

Before I get going on this, I would like to say something. I love Skyrim. I have already spent more hours on it than I want to admit to. I love wandering around the countryside catching butterflies, and I love sneaking up behind people to slit their throats. The addiction, she is strong. But I had to take the blinders off and admit its not a flawless work of art, and the combat is a big contributor to that.

The Elder Scrolls series has always been criticized for its combat. People say its clunky, and I'd have to agree. Switching between fighting styles in Skyrim is not the easiest thing, and even though you have multiple options for how to fight it mostly breaks down to either holding down the mouse buttons or tapping on them furiously. I would kind of like a mechanic that requires you to time your furious mouse tapping to execute special moves, but I'm not as bothered by that as some folks. What I want to focus on is switching styles and how excruciating it is.

If I were to make a wild guess I would say that at least 60% of the people playing Skyrim have at least two different combat modes they use, melee and ranged. If you're a mage you have spells, but also probably a conventional weapon for when you run out of magika. A warrior has his axe, but also a bow and arrows for those pesky dragons. Unless you only use one style and keep companions around to help you with the other stuff, you will be pausing the game to switch a lot. And that's not the problem, its what you're given to work with in that paused gametime.

To take myself as an example, I'm playing a hybrid of a thief and a mage so I am constantly switching between dual wielded blades, blade and spell, and sometimes even a dual wielded spell. And there are quite a few spells I use. At first I was retreating back into the menu every time to shuffle through my inventory until I discovered the favorites menu. I thought that would improve things, but the improvement was marginal. It was still an irritating process of pausing, scrolling through my favorites to find what I was looking for, equipping it, and going back to the game. One could argue that I shouldn't clutter up the favorites menu, but one of the awesome things about the Elder Scrolls series is the ability to explore different styles of play.

So, as annoying as the combat menu is, does it really reduce Skyrim's potential to be great art? Aren't the beautiful landscapes, interactive environments, and compelling quest lines enough? Not really, because the clunky favorites system does one thing that can keep good art from being great; it interrupts the flow. Art is about immersion, and flow is a big part of that. Key changes in a symphony and choreography in a ballet are good examples. The endless pausing and scrolling keeps me from being completely immersed in the game, which is not something I wanted to admit.

But this isn't all about complaining, but also trying to find solutions to the problem. Of course that's not going to fix Skyrim's problems, but the more ideas there are the possibility increases that the next Elder Scrolls game will be even better. And I don't think the pause-and-play approach is to blame, its been used very effectively in games like Mass Effect. In fact, I think the solution lies in the way Mass Effect approached the pause-and-play element of an action RPG. Each teammate has their own section on the screen with all their powers and weapons easily visible. Now, I imagine most people are playing Skyrim at a fairly high resolution - I'm running it at the lowest graphics setting and the resolution is still pretty impressive. That translates to lots of screen space, and yet there's only one favorites menu taking up a tiny portion of the screen. If my favorites were split onto several sections of the screen, like magic, melee weapons, potions, and ranged weapons the combat would run much more smoothly. Now, I'm not saying Bethesda should copy-paste another studio's ideas into their games, but there can be learning there. Scientific theories are built upon the works of their predecessors, and games should be the same way.

But for all I know, someone on the development team already thought of that and there wasn't time or room in the budget. I'm not naive enough to think that any shipped product is the exact vision the studio had for the game. Patches and DLC are evidence that no game is every really finished. This isn't unique to this medium - I've heard lots of writers state that they don't ever consider a book finished, just published. And I imagine film directors have that urge to keep their work to themselves and polish it until it is "perfect". The patches and DLC are unique to gaming, though. You can't patch a novel. That might be worth consideration sometime. Although you could consider sequels to be similar to DLC... I'm over-thinking it. But in bringing this up, I just wanted to emphasize that it is important. Delayed release dates are annoying, but I am willing to wait for a game if there's a genuine need to fix a a feature that would otherwise detract from the game's immersion. I believe this was one of those needs, and I think its important that we let developers and publishers know that delayed releases are ok under the right conditions. Remember Spiderman 1? Norman Osborn refused to go back to formula to meet a deadline, and look how that turned out for him. Impaled on his own glider. I'm just saying.

There's one more thing I'd like to bring up. Gamers are a sensitive bunch, and sometimes refuse to see faults in their favorite games. Sometimes they get Caps-Lock shouty with people who dare to suggest that there are faults. I know I've been guilty of this. Well, not the shouty part, but I've definitely stuck my head in the sand and refused to acknowledge the flaws in games that I love. But we as a culture have to eradicate this habit. Pointing out flaws and finding solutions are how a medium gets better. And with that, I'm going back to Skyrim.

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