Skyrim is to Oblivion as Windows 7 was to Vista, the basic guts are the same, but the surface has been polished, it runs trimly and there are so many pretty things that you overlook the old problems.
Oblivion’s biggest problem was that it lacked a reason for being. It was just another generic fantasy world where bad guys were trying to do senseless things and you were supposed to run around stopping them because there wasn’t much else to do. That isn’t true of Skyrim which gloriously brings a Nordic fantasy world to life with hot springs, waterfalls and angry people who sound like a certain former governor of California.
But there’s more to it than that. In Oblivion nothing really mattered, Skyrim puts you at the center of a conflict from its opening cinematic and asks you how you feel about it. Do you sympathize with the Stormcloaks who are resisting a brutal empire or the empire which maintains a certain order in a land where the native population might easily turn on the elves and other minority races. It’s not the deepest question in the world, but it adds layers to the landscape and the landscape adds layers to the people.
The engine still has many of the faults of the old, and the faces still need work, and up close the landscape doesn’t always look as good, but details are for nitpickers. It’s the bigger problems that are the problem.
You can spend hours running past streams that flow with the perfect ripple of glacial water, but your tasks mostly involve stumbling into the same old caves and fortresses and clearing them slowly of generic bandits who distribute themselves at one or two to a room in massive complexes of caves. The only way to make this any less fun would be for combat to still be the same pointless bash and blast, which it is.
Dual wielding makes combat more fun, but it doesn’t make it any less pointless. Set on Adept, the combat is almost too easy. The designers want you involved and killing things, which helps delay the moment when you notice that the combat isn’t really any fun and the missions are boring.
Then there’s the interface, designed more for consoles than PC’s, forget conventional inventories, you get to fumble with keyboard and mouse to scroll past lists and then try to figure out if you’re wearing them or using them. Right mouse button equips weapons or magic to the left hand and the left mouse button to the right hand. Use whatever is in your right hand with the left mouse button. This isn’t just counterintutive, it’s irritating to the point of breaking the immersion.
The consolization of Skyrim shows up in other ways. The RPG element is almost gone without anyone noticing. You can still build up skills and pick up perks and some of the numbers are still under the hood, but like Dragon Age II, it’s blended and simplified so that it hardly matters.
The water flows that have been lavished everywhere, even in some dungeons, are amazing, but the character animations and faces are weaker. Lydia, the first NPC, you’re likely to spend any time with is infuriatingly generic as a character and compares poorly to any of New Vegas’ companions. The voice acting hasn’t gotten all that much better. The guards still insist on saying stupid things over and over again. Some of the voices sound a little too much like Arnold Schwarzenegger, whether intentionally or not.
So what’s my initial feeling on Skyrim? So far it’s still amazing as an open world game. As an RPG though it’s far weaker. Still there’s no denying its spectacular vistas or the romance and legend that its designers have managed to infuse into that landscape. And if it’s not quite Morrowind, it’s much closer to it than it is to Oblivion.