I had kind of "parked" the main quest partway through the process of training under the Greybeards. After I was done with the Thieves Guild, Dark Brotherhood, and Dawnguard quests, I returned to the mountain and saw what there was to see.
The first surprise: Blades! Blades have been an important faction in all of the other Elder Scrolls games that I've played; they're kind of an elite Imperial force that handles sensitive jobs, a bit like a fantasy mixture between the Secret Service and Navy SEALs. Based on the information within the game thus far, I'd thought that the Blades had all been wiped out during the war against the Dominion. Well, most were, but a couple remain, and they are pursuing one of the ancient duties of the Blades: defending against dragons.
Responding to a note left at the end of my quest to retrieve the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller, I met with Delphine in Riverwood. Riverwood was the first village I ever visited in this game, and Delphine was one of the first NPCs I'd met, so it felt interesting and a little odd to be revisiting so late in the game. Delphine revealed herself and her mission: she had learned that dragons were being awakened, returning from the graves where they had been interred. She was getting good at predicting the order in which they would arrive. We investigated some ourselves.
Delphine had thought that she was the only surviving Blade, but we learned of another, Esbern, who was hiding in the Ratway in Riften, and happened to be the most acclaimed scholar of dragon lore in Tamriel. We rescued him; he was initially filled with despair, convinced that the world would shortly end, but was enheartened once he learned that I was a Dragonborn.
We visited some ancient sites to learn more about the first wave of dragons far in the past. Their leader, Alduin, is prophesied to destroy the world. The ancient Nords were thought to have killed him, but in actuality, they used a spell that removed him from their time and cast him far into the future... which is now our present. Alduin had never died, he was simply gone for a time. Now he's back, and may destroy the world.
In order to defeat Alduin, I learned that I would need to master a new Shout. The Blades reluctantly asked me to consult "that cult," the Graybeards, and get the knowledge I'd need. Well, the Graybeards were none too happy, for reasons that still seem obscure. They don't deny that the world may be destroyed by Alduin, but don't want to struggle against it. Anyways. They eventually allow me to see their leader, who is - surprise reveal! - a giant and ancient dragon named Paarthurnax, who lives on top of the mountain and is the one who taught Men to Shout. He admits that he once served Alduin, but eventually betrayed him by teaching the ancient heroes their Shout as a weapon against the other dragon. He'll do the same for me.
The fight against Alduin is a little confusing, but not too hard. He and Paarthurnax are both fighting aerially, and it was hard for me to visually differentiate the two, so I would need to track the red dot on my compass to figure out which one was him. For this fight, I learned a Shout that is exactly what I've wanted for all of my dragon fights: it forces the dragon to land, where it will be vulnerable to my melee attacks. At least, it's supposed to - in practice, he seemed to ignore it much of the time. Once he did land, though, I just needed to slap on some Lingering Damage Health poison (-24 health per second) and whack him a few times.
Alduin was defeated, but not really dead... he had retreated to a place to recover his strength. This was a perfect opportunity to destroy him once and for all. One catch: I wasn't sure where he had gone or how to follow him. This led to a fairly convoluted but interesting set of goals:
- Get one of Alduin's dragon thralls to show me the way to his hideout.
- To make the dragon talk, I'd need to capture him/it.
- Dragonsreach in Whiterun was built as a trap for dragons. Huh, interesting factoid!
- I'll need Jarl Balgruuf of Whiterun's cooperation to lure a dragon inside his castle.
- The Jarl is sympathetic to my mission, but doesn't want to risk the damage a dragon can cause while the civil war is raging between Stormcloaks and the Legion (remember those guys?)
- So, I'll need to negotiate a temporary truce between the factions.
- The Graybeards reluctantly agree to host the summit. (Heh, get it? Summit?)
- Ulfric of the Stormcloaks agrees to attend.
- I'm supposed to get General Tullius to attend, but this quest gets semi-broken since I've already accepted and not completed the quest to join the Imperial Legion. So, he just snarls at me to talk to Legate Rikke.
- Meh. I was hoping to put off declaring my allegiance for as long as possible, but by this point I've made the difficult-but-firm decision to side with the Empire. (My previous post has my rationale; I'm very sympathetic to the Stormcloaks' grievances and desire for freedom, but ultimately more attracted by the Empire's diverse society and better long-term prospects as a counterweight to the Dominion. The Thalmor dossiers I'd acquired made it clear that they saw Ulfric's rebellion as beneficial to their cause.)
- Fine. I clear out the fort she wants me to, join the legion, and then Tullius deigns to speak to me, and agrees to come to the summit as well.
- Hey, Tullius's voice sounds really familiar. Is he the same guy who plays Saul Tigh on Battlestar Galactica? I check the credits online. He is!
- I attend the summit, and basically lead it, making crucial decisions about the course of the war. I really like this part. It isn't as cool as the kingsmoot in Dragon Age: Origins, but it's a somewhat similar situation where passionately opposed forces are brought together at a high-tension conference. Ulfric is being a big jerk, demanding large concessions from the Empire in exchange for a cease-fire. I try to negotiate as fairly as I can: he wants Markarth, which is a major and wealthy city, so I order him to surrender Riften, a similarly sized city, in return. He also wants Falkreath, apparently just because he wants it; I say no. At several points he seems like he'll walk out, and he accuses me of harboring well-known Imperial sympathies. (Sigh... I wish I could have waited to join the Legion.) He ultimately agrees to the terms and storms (hah! get it?) out. The Imperial side is subdued, and I can sense some interesting tensions - Tullius is no fan of the Thalmor, who have sent an emissary; Jarl Elisif is understandably furious at Ulfric, while Tullius seems more measured.
- I lure a dragon into the Dragonsreach balcony, defeat him, and capture him. He swiftly agrees to betray Alduin: he won't just tell me where Alduin is hiding, but will take me there himself.
- I get to ride a dragon! This cut scene just lasts for about five seconds, but still, it's pretty cool.
- A portal takes me to Sovngarde, a pretty clear parallel to Valhalla, where warriors who die in battle are eternally rewarded with feasts and other good stuff.
- Oh, no! Alduin is busily corrupting Sovngarde, laying down mists and false paths that cause warriors to lose their way and not reach their reward.
- I'm awesome, though, and make it through easily.
- Inside, I meet the three ancient heroes I'd seen before: they're the ones who originally "defeated" alduin. They're actually really cool, especially the valkyrie-ish woman; I'd have enjoyed doing more with them. We unite our voices together, Shout away the fog, and force Alduin to fight us.
- This time, the "hey you, stop flying around and land down here on the ground where I can whack you!" Shout seems to work much better. It's an intense fight, but a pretty fast and fun one. Soon, Alduin is dead! Sovngarde is restored to its original state, and all the spirits of dead warriors talk about how awesome I am.
There's still the little matter of the civil war left, though. I started to wonder if THAT was the main quest; after all, I hadn't needed to resolve it before defeating Alduin, so maybe my stature as not just Dragon-born but Dragon-bane would be necessary for wrapping up the conflict?
I reported back to Castle Dour to take my instructions. One mission fairly early on was to convince Jarl Balgruuf of Whiterun to side with the Empire; up until now he had tried to remain independent, but Tullius had learned that Ulfric was planning to make a move. I asked Balgruuf to accept the Legion's help; he sent me to Windhelm to gauge Ulfric's intentions. Ulfric may be a jerk, but he's an honest and honorable one, so he made clear that he intended to start a war. Back in Whiterun, I helped defend the city from an invasion. This was a REALLY fun sequence, one of my favorites in the game: you initially defend the barricades, then eventually fight a running battle, trying to keep the Stormcloaks from reaching the drawbridge. We eventually slew all the attackers and carried the day.
There are quite a few missions on this quest line that involve you fighting alongside the Legion in defeating the Stormcloaks, and while I generally liked them, one thing really bothered me: I had an extremely hard time telling the two sides apart. I'm pretty sure that they have different uniforms, but they're all basically the same color and the same size, so unless I'm paying close attention to the compass radar or the target indicator, I can easily end up hitting an Imperial; and since I tend to one-shot enemies, I often felt bad realizing that I'd struck down a comrade. There was one mission where each enemy had a little quest arrow over their heads; that made it MUCH better, and I wish all of the civil war fights had used this.
Oh, that brings up another point: these fights seemed to be greatly under-leveled. Granted, I would be fighting up to fifty enemies at a time, so it's good that they aren't each as strong as a Draugr Overlord or something, but still... I was fighting in melee, and can't use stealth, so everyone had ample time to hit me, and still, my natural health regeneration always kept my health above 95% throughout the entire fight. A dual-wielded power attack would invariably kill anyone, even through a block, and when my Stamina ran out, it would just take three normal hits to kill an enemy. I tore through them like nothing. Which, granted, is fun, but still, a little more challenge would have been nice. The quest rewards also didn't seem to be leveled: the very first reward I got from Tullius was something like a Daedric Sword with a powerful enchantment, but each of the later rewards were more like, well, Plate Armor (?!) or an Orcish Mace (?!!!!!).
Other than defending Whiterun, most of the Legion quests involved meeting up with a group of Legionnaires, then assaulting a Stormcloak fort and killing everyone outside. In this way, we gradually extended Imperial control over the various regions of Skryim: the Pale in the north, the Reach in the west, and the Eastmarch on Ulfric's doorstep. This leads the way to the finale: a thrilling assault on the city of Windhelm itself. You travel over familiar streets, which are now filled with unfamiliar flames and towering barricades, as catapults rain fiery death down on the city. I summoned my Spectral Assassin and we ran through the city, leaving the Legion in our wake as we rushed to the Hall of Kings.
Once inside, the final fight was very anti-climactic; for some reason, I summoned Durnehviir, who was too big to fit inside and was generally clipped out of the drawing plane. Ulfric and his right-hand man Galmar were pushovers, without any special abilities, and were defeated in something like six seconds. It might have been an interesting fight with just me, but with my summons and Tullius and Rikke, it was just too easy.
The finale is pretty interesting, though. Tullius offered me the privilege of a summary execution of Ulfric; I demurred, and Tullius did it himself. He then emerged and, despite claiming to hate speeches, delivered a rousing barnstormer to the Legion, praising them for what they've done and doubling their pay. (The soldiers audibly cheer more loudly at the financial rewards than at the abstract geopolitical gains they have accomplished. I suspect this to be historically accurate.) Tullius strides off. I chatted with Rikke, who confessed that she isn't comfortable in a political role, but will be assuming more administrative duties as the Empire consolidates its strength in Skyrim.
And... that's it! I traveled to the Blue Palace in Solitude to see if Elisif would be crowned Queen (perhaps with that nice Jagged Crown I had recovered), but she didn't acknowledge the defeat of Ulfric. As far as I can tell, that's the end of the line. I think there will still be at least one more expansion, so perhaps there will be some final action on the civil war plot, but otherwise, that seems to end it.
Phew! What a fun game! The blessing and curse of open-world western RPGs like Skyrim is that there's always more than enough available to do. Sometimes this can make them drag a little, since you don't have urgent narrative momentum like what's offered in games like Mass Effect 2; but on the plus side, if you're ever bored by your current plot or mission, you can just switch over to doing something else.
Now that I'm at a good place to evaluate the game as a whole: Skyrim is good! It scratches my itch for open-ended gameplay, while stoking my appetite for more focused narrative.
Improvements over previous Elder Scrolls games:
- Voice acting in general is much better. In particular, you no longer get the extremely disconcerting accent shifts when one character uses recycled dialog for some conversation options and bespoke dialog for others.
- The economy is much better. In particular, once you finish the Thieves Guild quests, you'll have a good chunk of merchants who can afford to buy the most expensive items in the game.
- Skills. As previously noted, stuff like Smithing is now a more fun, positive skill that lets you do and make new stuff, instead of a rote maintenance chore.
- Stealth. As previously noted, this is the first Elder Scrolls game where I've felt like I'm able to play a pure-stealth character without being crazily handicapped. (If you're a power-gamer, you'll still want to mix in magic and other skills, but if you're playing for fun, this is a nice way to go.)
- Graphics are better. They were good in Oblivion too - anything to get away from Morrowind's ugly palette - but characters now look better as well. I particularly enjoyed the idle animations: smiths pounding away at their forges or tempering and sharpening their weapons; alchemists mixing potions; shoppers strolling around; even guards shifting their weight from foot to foot looked pretty good and natural. I should mention that I did install the "no more blocky faces" mod which may have helped this category.
- Followers. Dawnguard, at least, had one great companion. I didn't have too much experience with the others, but on the rare occasions where I needed to bring someone else for a plot purpose, they... they weren't GREAT, but comported themselves reasonably well, and certainly did far better than those in earlier Elder Scrolls games.
- Horses. They can be slain, which sucks, but they're much more reliable than Oblivion's. My first horse, Frost, lasted me about halfway through the game before he was unfairly killed; my second, Shadowmere, is still alive, and even participated directly in a bunch of fights, including some against dragons and against entire armies. And they're still very useful for getting around, especially when trying to reach new locations.
- Personalities. Oddly, I can recall the characters in Morrowind much better than I remember those in Oblivion, even though I played that game longer ago. I still remember Vivec, and the various House Hlaalu folks, and most faction heads. In contrast, for Oblivion I can barely remember Martin (though I do recall Sheogorath quite well... though it would be hard to forget him after a whole expansion where he's practically in your face the entire time). We'll see in a few years how well Skyrim's personalities retain an impression, but at the moment I feel like Elisif, Ulfric, Rikke, Tullius, Alduin, Delphine, Maven Blackbriar, Karliah, Delvin, Vex, Astrid, Babette, Isran, Harkon, and Serana are all interesting, memorable characters. (Granted, still not memorable to the same degree as characters like Minsc, Morrigan, or Moridin, but for Bethesda they're quite good.)
- Combat feels a bit better than Oblivion, and much better than Morrowind. I suspect it would have been even more dynamic if I played as more of a warrior character and used blocks and bashes. Still, as a melee stealth fighter, I had a lot of fun and a bit of challenge.
- Factions. The more I think about it, this may be the single best innovation of the series. It's just so much fun to be able to choose an affiliation, climb up through the ranks, and improve not just your own standing but also the stature of the group.
- Environments. A bit better than Oblivion, but both were wonderful. Mountains, streams, forests, rolling hills, ancient ruined forts, snowy fields... every once in a while I just had to stop and stare at all the beauty around me.
- Lore. This game has just as many books as earlier ones. I wasn't as thorough this time around in reading entire libraries, but whenever I decided to pick up a book, I was rewarded with a well-written peek into Tamriel's history, culture, or mythos.
- Stability. Quests can occasionally get broken, but it's rare, and at least on PC can quickly and easily be fixed with a Google search and a couple of console commands. I had almost no crashes throughout the entire game.
- Equipment. There's a huge range of craftable materials to make your own, and an endless variety of enchanted gear lying around. (Two requests: I'd love to have a "hide helmet" option similar to that in Mass Effect so I can see my character's head if she's in a powerful-but-ugly helm, and I'd like to have a match-hue option so you can mix-and-match bonuses from different sets but still look visually coordinated.)
- Music and sound. It's not incredible, but the music feels thematically appropriate; best of all, it's subtle enough to not get repetitive and annoying over the hundreds of hours you may play. The foley is quite good.
- Total freedom. This also has its downsides - I'm sure many newcomers to these games are permanently frightened away the first time that they walk into town, innocently pick up a basket, then quickly find themselves hacked to death by a squadron of guards. Still, I love the fact that this game lets you do anything you want to. Murder people in their sleep? Fill a room with sweetrolls? Swim around the entire continent? Get naked and sit on the High King's throne? You don't need to do any of these things; just knowing that you can makes it awesome.
I enjoy complaining about:
- While the voicing is better, they still recycle scripts between characters. Throughout the world, you will hear many different people say "Ah, so you're an alchemist, then?" and "Got a pretty full stock of potions and alchemy reagents" and "Just what you see here."
- And, they could still use some better quality control on the voice acting. My teeth grate whenever I hear the assistant at the White Phial in Windhelm say "Got a pretty full stock of potions and alchemy regents." Oh, really? You have a full stock of kings and queens that you've chopped up into pieces, burned down into salts, ground up in a mortar and pestle, and are now selling in your store? Or did someone just forget to tell you how to pronounce "reagent"?
- Money is still pretty useless. There's just so much stuff out there to pick up that you'll almost never need to buy anything, except for raw materials if you're leveling up a skill like alchemy or smithing. Houses are a pretty good money sink, but still not enough to dent the cash you'll have by the end of the game (in my case, just a little under a million gold pieces).
- While humans looked pretty good, the dogs were terrifying. This might be the most uncanny-valley-ish thing I've ever encountered. They're supposed to be furry and friendly, but they just look like demonically possessed hellbeasts, with weird heads that move wrong, and eyes that blink unnaturally, and a tail that seems to move independently of their bodies. The dogs were so disturbing, they made me retroactively realize that Bioware may have been brilliant in designing the Mabari like they did. At the time, I'd been bummed that Mabari look sort of ugly; but by making them something dog-like-yet-not-dogs, they may have avoided the creepiness of making a wrong dog.
- The default interface. It's awesome that the game can be modded to fix it, but it's a little absurd that PC gamers need to rely on volunteers to fix problems from a major game studio.
- Lack of agency in the plot. I complained about this at great length in an earlier post. Basically, you very rarely get to make any meaningful decisions (the major exception being the one in this post, the side of the civil war you choose to back). Most "conversations" just consist of you selecting a single "choice" in a dialog.
- The world of Skyrim actually felt a bit more static to me than the earlier games. In Morrowind, you could buy your own land and gradually transform it into a grand estate. In Oblivion, an early incident permanently changes the topology of Cyrodil. In Skyrim, certain interiors are changed - you can upgrade your house and faction headquarters - but it would have been really cool if, say, a village would burn to the ground, or someone built a new watchtower, or some other lasting change occurred to the landscape.
There's still a ton left in Skyrim, but I think I've finished the major story quests, so I'll probably leave it here for at least a while. The remaining quests that interest me most are probably the Bards College quests; I do love that the Bards are a joinable faction, and I have a well-documented affinity for playing as a Bard, but at this point all they're offering is a bunch of fetch quests, and I've had my fill of those for a while.
I'll probably peek online just to make sure that I'm not missing anything major, then set this aside for now. I'll likely eventually return and play through Dragonborn, the latest expansion. I hear that you get to ride a dragon! That sounds really cool.
EDIT 1/1/13: I've uploaded an album of screenshots from the game. As is becoming usual for me, the images start from about 2/3 of my way through the game, though they encompass the bulk of the main quest as well as most of the Dawnguard expansion. Consider these images to be mega spoilers.