Pimpin Reviews: Skyrim Month
Part 1: Companions and Combat
*Warning, this review contains mild spoilers about the quest line of this part of the game.
It's fair to say that the fifth installment of The Elder Scrolls series is more than just a big game. TESV: Skyrim is a huge game. It's the type of game in which players get so lost they wake up with an Amber alert and their faces on every milk carton in a fifty-mile radius. Reviewing this game is a colossal task, with so much to do and so much to cover that a few thousand words simply won't cut it. That's why all this month and part of next, Pimpin Reviews will be reviewing the multiple faces of Skyrim, its essential plot lines, and how the game mechanics work within each segment. Attempting to give a fully comprehensive review of an endless game of epic proportions is not easy, to say the least. But if David could take down Goliath with just a stone, maybe a pen is enough for me to take on this year's gaming giant.
For the first part of this review series, we're gathering our axes, our broadswords, our shields and our brothers, because we're going to take a look at the glorious Companions Guild. This is Skyrim's native faction of fighters, mercenaries, and warriors. Along the way, we'll also brush up combat mechanics and take a detour to compare them to the game's predecessor, TESIV: Oblivion.
Whoosa good kitty!!
Based in the city of Whiterun, these men and women of might and honor operate out of the mead hall Jorrvaskr. The companions are a proud group of warriors with an incredibly long history. The name itself refers to the 500 companions of the first Nordic king Ysgramor. For those not too familiar with the universe's lore, Ysgramor is a fabled hero who first drove out the elves from Skyrim and established the first dynasty of human rulers. Loading screens, characters, and some of the many in-game novels are quick to remind you that all modern kings of Skyrim are said to be descendants of his historic ruler.
Jorrvaskr itself is a building enriched in lore. It is said that the city of Whiterun spawned around the headquarters of this ancient guild, an odd-looking fortress that sits on top a mountain and is actually an overturned Viking-style ship. Adjacent to the building is the ancient Skyforge, a mysterious forge of unknown origins built into the side of the mountain, run by the greatest blacksmith in Skyrim. Its heat is used to light the funeral pyres of fallen members, or "shield-brothers." They are given this nickname because The Companions haven't had any true leaders since Ysgramor himself. Instead they have a "Harbinger" who acts as council to all the members.
All this background information and lore may seem a little irrelevant, but it really adds depth to the game that was lacking from Oblivion. The Fighter's Guild, in comparison, was an unfeeling uncaring bureaucracy. The history of The Companions gives a lot of character and life to the guild and everyone in it. Except for Modryn Oreyn, the badass Dark Elf that was second in command, all the leaders of the Fighters Guild were all soulless and uninteresting. Especially Vilena Donton, the elderly matron of the guild, whose patronizing businesslike attitude added a feeling of soulless administration to the entire guild.
How you doin?
Instead, we're led by Kodlak Whitemane, the current Harbinger of The Companions and an old and grizzled Nordic warrior of great honor. We've also got Farkas and Vilkas, brothers that are the brains and the brawns of a great warrior split in two. And of course, we can't forget Aela, the sexy huntress. All these characters made The Companions feel more real than the Fighters Guild of Cyrodiil. They all had unique origin stories on top of their personalities; it's simple things like this that bring life to the world of Skyrim.
However, while Ysgramor had 500 Companions, this modern-day version of Jorrvaskr has a measly 13. This would have been excusable if the mead hall had just been a centralized meeting place of companion leadership, from which they planned and assigned tasks received. However, it turned out to be the sole location of any sort of gathering of Companions. While the Fighters Guild may have felt like a bureaucracy, it at least felt like a real and efficient organization from which to purchase the help of mercenaries. There was a location in every major city, and within those locations were a handful of characters like the "porters" that, while not interesting by themselves, served a realistic purpose within the guild.
Nom Nom Nom Nom
Joining The Companions is as simple as walking into Jorrvaskr and talking to Kodlak. From there, you'll prove yourself in a little brawl and be on your merry way to advancing through the ranks of the guild. The real quest line kicks in once you've been accepted into the super-secret faction of the group's leaders called The Circle. You'll also be blessed (or cursed, depending on your interpretation) with Hircine's Gift, the ability to transform into a Werewolf. This is a trait that all Companion leaders share. This means you'll also be going up against the Silver Bloods, a notorious group of werewolf hunters.The rest of the time-save for some twists and turns-you'll be hunting down the fragments of Wuuthrad, Ysgramor's fabled battleaxe.
Much like Jorrvaskr itself, the main plotline of this guild is just too small. It's suitably epic, but it's just far too short. It would have been great if Jorrvaskr had been an ending hub, and before the player character reached it he had to do some quests and odd jobs around the world, a la the Mages Guild from Oblivion. Simple things like this would have helped to establish the guild and your place within it. On top of that, it seemed odd to me that the main antagonists, The Silver Hand, predominantly hid in ruins and abandoned forts despite doing what seems like an honorable job. I mean, if you try to release any of the wolves they cage up, the beasts turn feral and attack all in sight. That sounds a lot more like what the good guys would do to me. Besides, to me it would have been much more badass if you could see the Silver Hand wandering the streets of Whiterun, questioning anyone if they had seen some suspicious activity during the night. It really would have added some scope and depth to the enemy. Better yet, it could have been much more interesting if it was served as an alternative enemy guild to join.
Playing as a Werewolf is an interesting feature, sure to be a major selling point for some fans. However, for me it soon became more of a spectacle than a real addition to the game. The added health and attack points were useful when my character was low level, but as I became increasingly able to handle tougher opponents, waiting for the arduous transformation sequence to play out before advancing became more of a hassle than anything else. But spectacle though it may be, it sure is an awesome one. Especially for some of those opponents that you just really want to unleash your wrath upon. In addition, fighting a dragon while in beast form is a can't-miss experience.
I'm going to wipe the ugly off your face
Stepping away from the guild itself, let's look over at combat in Skyrim as a whole. The skills are split into three tiers; offensive, defensive, and crafting. Your offensive skills are two-handed weapons, one-handed weapons, and archery. Defensive skills are Block and Heavy Armor. And lastly, smithing counts as the crafting skill. The combat is much more intuitive and fluid than in Oblivion, and much more responsive. The most impressive add-on is finishing moves. These slow-motion events are triggered when an attack does enough damage to kill an enemy, and are specific to the weapon, situation, and opponent you're facing.
Other alterations from Oblivion's combat include the merging of blade and blunt classes (the club kind, not the drug kind). Also, two-handed and one-handed can be specialized through the new skill trees and the perk system they've introduced. Now when you level up, you can pick to increase your health, magicka, or stamina as well as unlock a point that can be used to select one of the various perks that each individual skill comes with. You can also switch and swap classes based on Guardian Stones found around the world. The Warriors stone, for example, improves associated combat skills 20% faster.
Peekaboo in Skyrim is a life or death sorta thing
Many other skills from Oblivion have been removed from the sequel. The biggest exclusion is Armorer. In Skyrim, weapons don't realistically degrade due to use anymore like they did in the last game, so there's no use for repair hammers anymore. Instead, they're replaced by forges, anvils, workbenches, and grindstones that are all used for the new skill smithing. It's pretty cool to be able to create and improve weapons and armor, but I don't see why they couldn't have made it more useful by using it to repair weapons once in a while.
Hand-to-hand has also been removed, which is a little disappointing, but there are specific enchantments and gear that improve the power of your fists, and Khaijits (the cat people of this universe) can even use their claws as weapons. Your character can also be challenged or challenge others to brawls on the street. Other cool additions to skills include the new ability to bash people with your shields, which is really fun to do. Other good touches include the fact that arrow types now differ in damage quite dramatically.
I'm thinking this could be the next cover for Vogue Magazine
While some may worry about the combat being streamlined, the reality is that combat in Skyrim is a lot more fluid and a lot more fun that in Oblivion. It's much more responsive than ever before, and it makes it a lot more fun to play. The finishing moves, consisting of brutal decapitations and gut-wrenching stabbings, just add a layer of finesse to the entire game. A lot of players couldn't get into Oblivion because the combat was a underwhelming, but there's a lot more there to draw the player into it this time.
And it's not just improved combat that's going to draw the player into this game, so next week we'll uncover more in Part 2 of Skyrim Month: Thieves Guild, Related Skills, and the Creation Engine.
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