SKYRIM: DRAGONBORN DLC

Ever since Bethesda’s much anticipated release of Skyrim in 2011, one key question has been haunting our collective mind: “When are they going to let us fly a dragon?” Fast forward 2 years and it would appear that we have finally reached a compromise. Well, kind of…

The third DLC in the Skyrim roster, Dragonborn returns our chosen hero to the familiar, ash-soaked island of Solstheim – previously depicted in Morrowind‘s Bloodmoon expansion in 2003. On arrival it is discovered that the land has been plagued by a mysterious uprising of ash creatures and has fallen under the will of a second, ancient dragonborn: Miraak. Using a collection of new shouts and the arcane knowledge found within a set of powerful ‘Black Books’, Solstheim’s freedom and the fate of Tamriel lies in your hands.

If you’ve read my previous post on the Elder Scrolls, it’s pretty apparent that I am a big fan of the series and have a fair amount of background knowledge on each title – Morrowind in particular. Needless to say I was pretty excited with the announcement that Bethesda were set to recreate the architecture and atmosphere that I had previously grown so fond of, and they honestly did a very good job of it – ignoring their insistence on blanketing everything in a thick layer of snow, that is. Finally, all those classic armours, items and landscapes in vastly updated graphics – there was even the promise of no Cliff Racers to drool over! So what could possibly go wrong with a setup as flawless as that? Well, uh, quite a few things actually.

Voice acting. What is this weird joke Bethesda have been carrying on through their audio? If all their previous games have set the Dunmer with a deep, rough drawl, where has the inspiration suddenly emerged to equip all our blue-skinned friends with what I can only deduce as a dodgy attempt at a Yorkshire accent? Previous characters throughout Skyrim have certainly been victim to a serious lack of emotion, but Bethesda managed to cross the line into obscurity when they made this production choice final. Disregarding that, the island’s denizens are fairly well crafted, if a little two dimensional.

Ah, but now it is time to explore this Miraak character we have been hearing so much about; this demonic, overwhelming energy that has engulfed the land in darkness. Emerging from the void in a particularly engrossing cinematic, we are treated to a James Bond-esque monologue, detailing his evil plan and why you are too puny to step in his way, fully clothed in flowing, dark robes and one of Dragonborn‘s new Cthulu inspired masks. All in all, Miraak is pretty well placed as a villain, encompassing those dreaded feelings of ‘he’s actually quite intimidating’ and ‘I hope he doesn’t come for me’ in a nice little package. What Bethesda are really pushing for here is that knowledge is power and, as it turns out, Miraak is pretty knowledgeable – he’s even been cheating a little bit with the help of a devious God. This wisdom, though, can equally be acquired by yourself in travelling through the winding passages of the Black Books.

These sections right here are easily the most interesting and original out of the entirety of the DLC. Upon reading each book, the player is transported into the realm of Apochrypha, which is mainly composed of bubbling, tentacle-infested water and, well, books. Each section forms a labyrinthian maze of literature to explore, all the while fending off attacks from the shade-like Seekers and fish-headed Lurkers. Every aspect of this new feature screams Lovecraftian design and horror and no reference made is at all hard to miss. On completion of each Black Book, the player is allowed to acquire one of three unique perks or powers which are certainly very welcome, if a little overpowered. As of writing my current character is level 51, so in terms of necessity there is little – but thank you for the little escape!

If you’ve read this far just to hear my original claim about riding dragons, then I do believe you are in luck. Yes, in Dragonborn you can now, ahem, ‘fly’ one of those winged beasts – but, not exactly in the way that statement should imply. Using ‘Bend Will’, a new shout that allows you to turn enemies into allies, the player can mount and use a dragon in combat, however you are confined into a particularly disappointing sequence of circling the battle area, with commands limited to ‘attack that’, or ‘land here’. It was a bold concept for Bethesda to push out if they had no intention of fulfilling their word on the matter, however understandably so: with so much landscape and detail to render, there would’ve been doubtless performance issues had the player been allowed to roam freely.

In terms of the plot, you would not be mistaken in feeling a little bit of deja vous. The side quests are fairly unique in part, but we’ve come here to fight that Miraak bloke, haven’t we? Already in place is the expectation of fighting your way into the big, final showdown against the nasty, old boss who’s been hounding your progress for ever so long. On playing, however, I was surprised to see that Bethesda chose to, essentially, take the Alduin route and just roll out another ‘you can only reach this place by dragon’, ‘you will not get the glory of winning it alone’ story. In a series that prides itself on intricate lore and detail, re-using tried and tested formats is fairly enjoyable, but certainly not at the peak it could have been.

I’m aware that this review has maybe appeared a little bleak, but that shouldn’t be seen as a deterrent – Dragonborn is unquestionably a worthy DLC and certainly worth shelling out for if you are a fan of Skyrim and its universe. But, as is with all things Bethesda, it has its numerous bugs and defects that should not go undetected. If, like myself, you play this title on a computer, then I strongly recommend checking out the huge number of community-created mods that patch up all the leaks Bethesda left behind. These can be found through the Steam Workshop, or, for a lot more power and depth, it is advised to use the Skyrim Nexus, which can be found with full instructions here. Solstheim itself forms a decently sized addition of explorable land to the vanilla game and introduces a good number of new enemies and items to tinker with, so should not be passed up just because of a few minor shortcomings – for those familiar with Morrowind‘s Bloodmoon, I’m sure you’ll appreciate the much-needed makeover given to those horrid little Rieklings. Overall, let it be said that I fully endorse this DLC, if just to snatch a glimpse of the ashlands once again – a safe and enjoyable purchase.

Dragonborn is available on Steam, Xbox 360 and Playstation

Buy it on Steam here

Visit the offical website here

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QUAKECON, CARMACK AND CONSOLES

Whilst everybody was out drinking, making friends and having fun last night, I was watching the QuakeCon livestream with full concentration, eager to hear from the divine wisdom that is John Carmack – legendary developer and head honcho at id Software. With news on such projects as Doom 3 BFG Edition, the highly anticipated Doom 4 and Carmack’s own thoughts on future console OUYA, this keynote certainly had my utmost attention and in no way repentant for being the antisocial bastard that I am.

Firstly, id has announced that it will be putting a halt to its mobile development. Carmack was regretful to state that, due to other projects demanding attention and Bethesda’s own ambitions, it was becoming too difficult to manage further updates on iOS titles, however was interested in returning to the platform sometime in the future. In the same vein, Quake Live, the popular, free-to-play Quake 3 clone, has also had to shed its development team in the light of recent changes in id’s current priorities. Saddening as it is, hopefully this will guarantee much more detail and time invested into upcoming desktop and console releases.

Doom 3 BFG Edition, scheduled for release October 16 on Xbox 360, PC and PS3, has been crowned with a new trailer, showing off its new HD visuals and ‘Lost Mission’ expansion. Included in the pack will be the Doom back catalogue, which will hopefully give the series a full resurrection into modern gaming – having had no new titles since 2008.

Known mainly for its dark atmosphere and jump scares, it seems that Carmack has instead decided to steer BFG in a different direction from its original release – perhaps to cater to a modern market that is not quite so supported by the ‘hardcore’ gamers of old. Doom 3 will now include a lot more health, ammo and (most significantly) a toggled flashlight – a courtesy that was not rewarded so liberally in the past. Personally, I’m not too happy with these changes, as they are essentially transforming a game that was, at one point, considered genuinely frightening into an action fps. Do what you have to, id, but God help you if you’ve removed Nightmare difficulty.

In his keynote speech, Carmack went on to address the new, Android-based console, OUYA, as a ‘longshot’ for developers – unsure of its potential in value: “It’s neat that they want to cater to indie developers, but I don’t think that’s something a business can run on” (ShackNews). Focusing mainly on offering a fresher, cheaper service, it is obvious as to why id would have little interest in this future release, as it gives off more of a sense of being a hardware version of Steam Greenlight, rather than a fully fledged competitor in the modern console market. Nonetheless, I am still very excited about the OUYA project, which you can read about in more detail here.

Image obtained from PixlGeek.com

QuakeCon has left Doom 4 as secretive as ever this year, with little to no information regarding the project being leaked, or any hint at a release date as of yet. The other development teams being pulled into the project is a good sign, however, and may secure a lot more progress for a possible 2013 preview – Carmack’s eternal insistence of ‘we can’t talk about it’ will always cast a shadow of obscurity for the time being.

Overall, QuakeCon appears to be extremely promising this year, with a definite interest in developing for the Oculus Rift – the ‘first truly immersive virtual reality headset for video games’. This isn’t something I really care about, as such, but it will certainly be worth keeping an eye out to see the results of these new technologies and if they can really ‘revolutionise’ the current formats of gaming. Honestly, as long as there are controllers and keyboards, this will never be, as PixlBit stated, more than ‘a hobbyist’s product’.

Just keep bringing the zombies and shotguns, Carmack, and you will never go wrong.

FALLOUT 3

Bethesda, a subsidiary of ZeniMax Media, is widely known for their ability to create stunning role playing games. They have created fan favorite games such as The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind and its sequels: Oblivion and Skyrim. But in 2008, they amazed the whole of the gamer community by releasing a game that to this day, is considered one of the best there is.

The Fallout series is set in the future, in a world that instead of focusing on improving its society, focused on technology. This fast advance in technology caused weapons to improve, and weapons mean war. A war between the United States ended in a nuclear conflict and left the world ravaged by nuclear power (hence the title). Set in the capital of the US, Washington D.C., you start off the game as a dweller of a vault, a bunker built for withstanding the bombs.

Fallout 3 is a spectacular game. Not only because of its story, but due to the hundreds of features the developers decided to include. I’ve always been a fan of the Fallout series, and let me be honest: I was nervous when I heard Interplay wasn’t making the next game in the series. But when I finally had the controller in hand, venturing into the wasteland for the first time, I fell in love with this game.

It is rare when you get to experience a story such as Fallout’s. The creators manage to get you attached to certain characters through dialogue and without any cut scenes at all. With a stellar cast in voice acting (Liam Neeson, Ron Perlman and Malcolm McDowell) the game transmits feeling like no other game. And let me tell you, when you hear Liam Neeson’s impressive voice acting in a specific cut scene (no spoilers here) it will surely bring a tear to your eye. And even the secondary characters, such as your companions (I’m pointing at you Fawkes) are written so well, that you will start being cautious about what you do as to not upset them.

Being a first person shooter (although you have the option to change to third person, more on that later though) Bethesda decided that they needed to introduce something innovative. And so, V.A.T.S. was created. The Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System will help all players getting through the game, as well as making them chuckle when they see their enemy’s head popping in slow mo (or is that just me?).

Although the graphics are not top notch, they do hold up, and in 2008 they were pretty impressive. Again, they provide a fun perspective when you kill an enemy. But the soundtrack does make up for it. When you are exploring a cave or the run-down subway, a    creepy track will play, and will tense you up. Or when you’re wandering the wastes, and all of a sudden the music turns from peaceful to threatening. This is what makes the soundtrack great.

The game also has a bit of comedy, which is perfect to break up the tension. I remember chuckling often, as a companion made a remark about the surroundings. Or when listening to the radio, as Three Dog made his PSA’s. The franchise’s fantastic mascot gives a light feeling to dark things, such as blowing people up.

So far I have only talked about the positive things. But lets take a look at the negative, shall we?

Big terrains can be a good and a bad thing. Although it gives the player much more to explore and scavenge, it also creates a few problems. Let’s face it, you get bored when you have to walk too much (although the quick travel feature really does help) and usually that means that you start fidgeting around. Many people tend to start jumping, for example,  and sometimes, if you’re unlucky enough, you might get stuck between two rocks. And since Fallout is such an immersive game, the player forgets to save. Thats not good at all.

Being such a big game, it takes a toll on the console’s systems and will often freeze. Adding on to that, if you disabled Autosave or perhaps you haven’t gone through a door yet (autosaves when you do so), it can be quite frustrating. Also, to be honest, the third person system just doesn’t feel right. Perhaps it’s because your bulky body will often block your view, giving the enemy the perfect chance to kill you.

It is a shame that the developers did not put as much effort as they did with the music, dialogue, writing and combat in the animation. The way that the people walk can sometimes be quite ridiculous, but well, thats just about any game.

But overall, Fallout’s positive aspects outgrow the negative by far, and this makes it a great game. Even though it is nearly 4 years old at this point, if you haven’t, you should definitely give it a try.

ELDER SCROLLS ONLINE, AND WHY IT’S JUST NOT ENOUGH

Ever since the release of Morrowind in 2002, I’ve been a truly devout follower of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series, completely immersed within its intricate detail and complex story lines in which every small book, item, town or character can have a significant effect upon the way in which the game can be played. Each installment has revealed its own carefully crafted world, ripe with culture, politics, adventure and sweet rolls – Skyrim even introduced dragons, fully displaying the extent of Bethesda’s abilities and catapulting itself into the mainstream. However, with the announcement of a planned MMO for 2013 from Zenimax Online Studios, has the legend finally come to an end?

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

For me, The Elder Scrolls has always been about escapism: with each new character you are given absolute freedom to shape the future of Tamriel in whichever way you please, interacting however you feel fit and ultimately forming a bond with the many races that inhabit it, using a combination of different skills – which range from sneaking to destruction magic – to aid you. The addition of other players scares me, to say the least – no longer will this be my journey, but merely a fragment of something larger, louder and much more obnoxious, as Blizzard so perfectly demonstrated with its wide-spread release of World of Warcraft in 2004. Prepare yourself for an onslaught of ebay traders and exploiters, as any form of chat box will become swamped in spam and hopefuls looking for free handouts.

The sad reality is that, whilst The Elder Scrolls has been solely confined to single player in the past, this has also acted as a barrier against all the things which could potentially ruin the experience. The second everybody else has access into the game, all that atmosphere and immersion that has been so carefully put together will be lost.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

At the heart of the series, however, are its fans. Housing an extremely dedicated modding community, there are thousands of additions, fixes and complete recreations available for each game, at absolute zero cost. However, there won’t be any kind of opening or freedom of this kind with an MMO and a divide will quickly form: those willing to join up, and those opposed to this new restriction and breakaway from the style and formula that has shaped The Elder Scrolls since its conception. Some have even been working on their own multiplayer versions of Skyrim, with mods such as Skyrim Online already emerging for public use.

But, it’s not the lack of mods or the decline in quality that I fear the most – it’s the use of the map.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

With every new game, we have been granted a window into each diverse section of its world. From the grotty dungeons of 1994’s Arena, to the wind-swept mountains of Skyrim, Bethesda have gifted us with a stunning selection of vibrant, awe-inspiring landscapes and cities, tailored to each race and culture that inhabits them. Could so much detail and time be spent creating these areas in an MMO? Of course not. The very structure demands for repetition, respawned enemies and recyclable quests – otherwise no player could have an equal chance. To deny us that intricacy we have come to love and swear by would be a serious dismissal to those who have invested so much time and support into the series, immersed in each new scenario. I still want to see the barren stretches of Elsweyr, or the swamps of Black Marsh – these lands that we have so often read about in many a book, yet have always been so shrouded in mystery…

I know that Bethesda’s decision to condone and support the making of Elder Scrolls Online is in answer to years of requests from its fanbase, and it could quite possibly be a great success on release, but, for me, it will never truly fit into place as the logical next step for the series, nor will I consider it as such.

Whatever happens, just please let there be an Elder Scrolls VI – you owe that much to the people.

Some preview shots of Elder Scrolls Online:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Buy ES III Morrowind on Steam here

Buy ES IV Oblivion on Steam here

Buy ES V Skyrim on Steam here

Visit The Elder Scrolls website here