Pimpin Reviews: Skyrim Month
Part 2: Thieves Guild, Related Skills, and the Creation Engine
Previously: Part 1: Companions and Combat
*Warning, this review contains mild spoilers about the quest line of this part of the game.
I've never really held much respect for thieves. Lurking in the shadows, making their moves in the dead of night, earning a living by breaking into places and taking things...it's not the life for me. (I prefer the much more honorable life of the assassin. You know, lurking in the shadows, making my move in the dead of night, earning my living by breaking into places and taking lives.) Regardless, in the world of Skyrim it pays to be a thief. That's why in Part 2 of Skyrim Month we're taking our talents to the ratways of the crime infested city of Riften, to take an in depth look at The Thieves Guild of Skyrim as well as the fundamental gameplay mechanics and changes to the series that have improved or harmed the experience.
Its been 200 years since the events of the previous game, The Elder Scrolls V: Oblivion, and the Thieves Guild of Skyrim is drastically different than that of Cyrodiil. The old guild was a loosely associated organization of every kind of criminals from robbers, smugglers, pickpockets, and petty criminals. Lead by the legendary Gray Fox, an untouchable criminal mastermind, the group was less of a hardcore gang of felons and more of a Robin-Hood-esque crew of good guys stealing from the rich and giving back to the poor. In the newest installment, the Thieves Guild is based in the sewers of the crime -infested city of Riften. The city's Jarl is in the pocket of the guild's matron, a large-scale meadery owner. And lastly, members are no longer held to a code of honor or sense of duty to the poor. The player is dealing with merciless thugs and cutthroats, and a much darker guild than ever before.
It's highly appreciated, though. It's nice to finally play with thieves who do legitimate crime. Joining the guild is as simple as walking into the bustling Riften market square, where a charismatic Scot will approach you with a simple task that will prove your worth as well as initiate you into the guild. I recommend you join, because membership comes with a bunch of perks. For one, guild fences are the only people who will buy stolen goods. The rest of the world still becomes sentient to any ill-gotten gains the moment they get into your possession, a trait carried over from the last game. Even more useful is the ability to bribe guards on the spot, which can get the player out of trouble no matter what kind of bind they're in. But the largest perk, of course, are the many opportunities to score some gold.
The primary way to earn gold is through the main quest line of the guild, which can be a little hit-or-miss. The premise is that the guild has fallen on some tough times since the murder of the previous guild master by a member within the guild. The player character is, of course, tasked with bringing glory and power back to the guild while hunting down and revealing the traitor that doomed the entire enterprise. There's a lot of cool occult stuff, interesting quests, and useful rewards but the biggest flaw in the main quest has to be that there is definitely not enough thieving. Unlike the main quest line from the Oblivion guild, there are no central mission quests that deal directly with stealing goods and selling them to fences. Even the final quest isn't a grand heist like it was in the last game, where you stole one of the freaking Elder Scrolls themselves from under the noses of the Imperial Guard. It's a bit of a let down.
If you are looking for some thieving, you're better off trying the endless odd jobs that a handful of special members offer. They come in a decent variety too, and are of some real importance. Jobs involve everything: planting evidence; robbing specific houses, items, or cars; forging business ledgers to create disruptions in profits. Doing a couple of these jobs in some of the specific holds unlocks larger jobs, which once completed advance the entire guild alongside your own finances. This brings in new merchants, more gold, and various changes to the look and feel of the guild as it gets richer. Simple additions like this make the repetitive quests worth doing, as the player will actually see the guild evolve as a direct consequence of their actions.
The best arsenal for a thief is less in his tools and more in his skills. In Skyrim, these skills include lockpicking, pickpocketing, light armor, sneak, speech, and somewhat inexplicably, alchemy. When trying to stay in the shadows, toggling the crouch key brings back a the familiar see-through Eye Icon from the last game. When it is closed, it means that Non-Player Characters are completely unaware of the player's presence. As it opens up, enemies in the area will start searching for the player character, and when its completely open, they're looking at you. A bunch of factors influence the effectiveness of your sneak such as the weight of your clothing, the type of your armor, and even the speed of your movements.
I think my Sim needs to go to the bathroom
Sneaking is some of the most fun to be had in the game. Slow-motion cutscenes are triggered as you sneak up and literally back-stab an opponent, or slit the throat of an unwitting civilian. My personal guilty pleasure is creeping around with a poisoned arrow, finding good leverage, and shooting an enemy dead before disappearing into the darkness of the night. There's a bunch of other cool tricks that can be done with a bow and an arrow. Firing an arrow randomly will draw an enemy's attention to the area it landed, allowing you to get a better view. Shooting at a soft substance like wood will only be noticed by a few enemies as opposed to if you hit harder substances like rock or steel, from which the increased volume of the impact will draw the attention of a greater radius of baddies. Not to mention certain perks that allow you to zoom in, basically snipe, with the bow and even slow down time while doing it.
Lockpicking (formerly named security) takes more after the newest Fallout games this time around. Instead of the annoying old tumblers, that were nearly impossible to predict, you pick a position and rotate the bolt and pick independently until it twists open. Its also a lot more useful in Skyrim, as chests and locked doors are a lot more prevalent around the world. Pickpocketing as a skill returns but I can't say much because honestly despite hundred of attempts, I still have not performed a single goddamn successful thievery.
All of this new stuff is allowed by the abandonment of the old Gamebyro engine, which had been featured in every Bethesda game from Morrowind to New Vegas. Skyrim introduces the internally developed Creation Engine, which allows for a much-needed improvement to the technology that creates such a real world. Gone are the static shots that cut through time when you start a conversation with an NPC, which is now fluidly done in real time. Other characters can be seen in the background, performing their daily tasks and interacting with one another. Not even the person you're talking to is standing still all the time, and are frequently seen resuming their tasks like cooking, cleaning, and blacksmithing while conversing with the player character.
Good Kitty / Bad kitty
It's the improvement of the Radiant AI system that breathes life into these characters. Though many have assigned schedules, most work 12 hour shifts from 8am to 8pm and hit the local tavern for a drink before going to bed for the night. But this changes to account for the children, the elderly, and even the poor. Unlike in Oblivion, character models have realistic variation, the most obvious being children interacting like they did in Fallout: New Vegas (being whiny-voiced annoyances that sadly cannot be murdered).
That's not to say that all the issues with the AI have been fixed, because they do act remarkably stupid some of the time. Most of these include times of combat, where a stealth character will rush in yelling chants filled with bravado, or mages attack with daggers rather than their large arsenal of supposedly deadly spells. If the player decides to bring a companion along on their mighty quests, they'd best be prepared for their allies to perpetually block doorways, crowd pathways, and even obscure quest markers, though the more detailed way to give them instructions makes them much more manageable than ever before.
The bulk of AI stupidity is seen when sneaking around large groups of enemies. A comrade that was alive and kicking just a moment before can suddenly be found laying face first in a pool of their own blood and the only reaction of his bandit friends would be, "I will avenge you," before casually walking away to resume their dinner. The player can even shoot an enemy directly in the chest with an arrow and, as long as they've remained hidden, the NPCs will brush it off and blame it on the wind or something. It's worrisome that not even a simple fix was included. Something as simple as leaving an entire room on high alert after such an event, even if they don't find the player character right away, they should still be searching.
That awkward feeling when you know an entire city's GDP is about to take a dip
Luckily, interaction with NPCS has improved with the new Speech skill, an amalgamation of Speechcraft and Merchantile. First of all, Skyrim has abandoned the old speech wheel mini-game from Oblivion. Instead, options like Persuade, Intimidate, Bribe, and even Brawl open up as you level it up. Speaking with the many inhabitants of Skyrim open up many diverse and interesting options , even the characters that aren't significant in any way. I was particularly fond of one particular thief, a girl named Sapphire, with a particularly dark past. Speech perks even allow you to invest gold in businesses that will influence what they carry, how much they carry, and how much gold they have to buy any goods you're selling.
Previously a school of magic, Alchemy now counts as a stealth skill even though it doesn't make sense. But despite this awkward inconsistency, alchemy is greatly improved from how it was handled in Oblivion. In Skyrim, Alchemy is done in labs scattered throughout the world rather than by carrying around heavy mortars and pestles. Even if it isn't as on-the-go as before, its a much more realistic and appealing approach to the skill. Speaking of realism, ingredients you pick up are initially unknown as they would be if you picked up a random ingredient in real life. Players discover ingredient effects by tasting food and through trial and error on the Alchemy table. The skill is way overpowered, however, seeing as how the strongest potions and poisons can make you invincible and kill enemies in a single hit.
This incredible ability to kill is only matched by the Dark Brotherhood itself. That's why in Part 3 of Skyrim Month, we're going to cover the deadly gang of Assassins known as the Dark Brotherhood and take a look at the environment and tone of the world at whole.
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