Yes, Skyrim! Universally heralded as a triumph of gaming. It has received perfect scores at numerous well-regarded review sites and from important critics up and down the world of game reviews. Well, I have an opinion about Skyrim, too. Or, probably a shade more accurately, I have an opinion about Bethesda Softworks, because they’re not getting one penny from me for their new “triumph”, and they’re not going to receive much in the way of praise in this review. So, if you’re an irredeemable fan of the studio, the comments section is open for you to yell at me below. Just understand that you’re coming from a different place than I am. I automatically mistrust any title that Bethesda puts out (and yes, I will be explaining in detail in this article) and I’m predisposed to dislike their games. I do not view them as having a history of putting out excellent games. I can’t name an excellent game they’ve developed. I’m more than happy to discuss within that framework; just let my point of view be understood.
I don’t think Bethesda makes good video games, and I never have.
That statement, by itself, startles people.
That statement, by itself, causes people to leap to Bethesda’s defense. No, I’m told, read this review! It will explain why their latest game is worth buying right away. No, I’m told, Bethesda’s latest title is a great game, you just aren’t giving it a chance.
Maybe. Maybe all of that is true. But in my mind, I have a laundry list of completely legitimate complaints, and they arose from trying pretty hard to appreciate the content that Bethesda was providing. For those who are interested in an alternate take on Bethesda, the sandbox “WRPG”, and their various “triumphs” in gaming… there may be some content of interest for you here.
My personal experience with Bethesda starts with their 2002 release of Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. I had absolutely innumerable problems with this game, ranging from the skill-raising / leveling system through the lack of a useful map feature. But in my personal experience, Morrowind was stable, it looked pretty, and it had good intentions. This was a modern-era “WRPG” (which for some reason has become synonymous for some people with “sandbox”. Let’s clear this up now: Bethesda makes “sandbox” games, but this is not a universal feature of the Western-developed RPG). It used modern technology to render its tiny group of facial models, and it told a suitably generic RPG story that was delightfully fleshed out by books, notes, and conversations all around the in-game world.
Oblivion continued the grand tradition established in Morrowind. I refused to pay for this game based on my experience with Morrowind, but I was willing to try it out. I borrowed the title from a friend a couple of years after the game had been released. I was alarmed to discover that the game still had unresolved bugs. I encountered graphical glitches and issues (most of them relatively minor, albeit annoying. Because of how modern playtesting works, it’s highly improbable that any game will ever be totally free of texture and graphics glitches), but also weird problems with the AI of both enemies and NPCs. I also encountered problems with enemies that I couldn’t see or locate by any means keeping me ‘in combat’, unable to fast travel or otherwise use the game’s features. None of these problems were, strictly speaking, game breakers. But this was years after launch, and these bugs reared their ugly heads much more often than I’d expect to see even at launch for any professional studio title. Arguments about the size and complexity of Oblivion don’t fly – if you can’t create a game that I can trust be stable and fun at Oblivion’s size, then the game needs to be smaller. You are, as always, entirely free to disagree on this point, but for me it’s no contest. My problems with Oblivion also included the absurd leveling system – I can’t imagine how that system was ever thought to be a good idea – a weak, lazy storyline, unbelievably long loading times, and strictly by-the-numbers gameplay. In short, everything in the game took a back seat to the size of the world. I just can’t imagine how anyone wanted to explore such a huge world limited by such a mediocre game.
All of that having been said, I didn’t hate Oblivion the way I hated Morrowind. It wasn’t until I played Fallout 3 that my opinion of Bethesda was cemented. Fallout 3 was essentially just a re-skin of Oblivion; it was meshed with reasonable effectiveness with basic elements of a first person shooter, but on the whole, the game did not break new ground in terms of the game engine. Gone was Oblivion’s crazy level up system in favour of a traditional character improvement system that was essential to recapture the essence of Fallout. So far, so good. Once again, we’re treated to a huge world, and Fallout 3 was visually impressive right from the start. But I played Fallout 3 on its day of launch, and I spent as much time resetting my XBox 360 console and retreading ground I’d already covered after frustrating crash bugs as I did doing anything else. It features all of the same bugs I remembered from Oblivion – occasional graphics glitches, occasionally melded with something more sinister where the game’s collision would allow the player to become inescapably trapped. Bizarre AI problems that cropped up occasionally and mostly fall under the category of ‘vexing, but not game-breaking’. Oh, and the crashes. It’s not a good thing when I have to spend time thinking about saving, and worrying when I can’t save, not because of the game’s difficulty curve or the possibility of screwing things up with a bad decision in the story, but because of bugs. Bugs which I can’t really avoid, because having the game freeze when you bring up the game’s inventory screen is… well, the game can’t be played without that feature. Not for any length of time.
Does Bethesda try and patch these bugs? Eventually, yes. But other game studios don’t have to release constant patches to address serious bugs. Other studios don’t launch games that have this many bugs. End users are always going to find glitches that the developer misses; modern playtesting relies heavily on automation, and simply can’t match the penchant for creative mischief that characterizes the gaming community. But the problems with every single one of Bethesda’s releases goes far beyond occasional glitches. As a gamer, I usually don’t spend much time trying to break games, or trying to figure out what weird things I can do with the environment of a game like Fallout 3. The fact that, despite my style, I can’t stop running into bugs, speaks to a deeper issue. Bethesda deserves their reputation for releasing buggy games. And let’s not even get into Fallout: New Vegas, which Bethesda published – doing themselves no credit in the process.
So, enough is enough. New releases on the XBox 360 are going to cost about $60 U.S. And I’m not going to pay to support a product that always feels like it was pushed out the door without attention to quality control. And that’s why I won’t be paying one red cent for Skyrim. Frankly, I don’t care how good the game is. I’ve heard almost universally positive things (clouded by the fact that a friend of mine ran into a crash bug in his first hour playing the game), I’ve heard the new engine is wonderful, and that it improves dramatically on the gameplay of Oblivion, that the leveling system is fun and intuitive, and that the game is a visual masterpiece set in an amazingly huge 3-D game world. In fact, I’m almost certain that I would enjoy Skyrim. But enjoying Skyrim would be giving tacit approval to a studio who I have lost all respect for, and who I feel is unworthy of the support of the gaming community. I, personally, feel that Bethesda makes mediocre games which enjoy the benefit of an insane amount of positive press. I’ve always felt that way, as you can see from the brief history I outlined above. But it’s not inconceivable that Bethesda could make a great game. I just can’t vote for them with my dollars. Not anymore.