As I was standing the other day, waist deep in a horse, nauseatingly galloping over the rolling heath-land of Skyrim I realised two things: Firstly that I had no idea how to “get out” of the horse and secondly that I had no idea what as going on
I’d never played Skyrim. Kind of a unique confession for a gamer given how many different systems and versions this game has seen and also how many friends rate the experience so highly. I guess I’ve just never been drawn to that traditional fantasy setting preferring instead the post-apocalyptic Bethesda romps. At the same time I’ve also been caught in a bit of a VR conundrum recently; the Vive is pretty excellent, but in truth there just aren’t that many “full length” titles available. Sure, some of this is due to practicality; my back aches from standing in the virtual world for more than a few hours and having a special VR hat strapped to your face for that length of time can get hot and uncomfortable. None of that seems to be putting me off however and I’ve been keeping a look out for the more substantial VR offerings to feel that sense of immersion in a more expansive world.
Bethesda are one of the few bigger publishers who have embraced this technology releasing both Skyrim VR and Fallout 4 VR; both virtual re-jiggings of the entire 2D experience. I guess that Fallout 4 was the more obvious choice to satisfy this hankering, but I just couldn’t bring myself to fork out more money (even with a heavy sale discount) for that joyless wasteland romp; it didn’t captivate me in 2D and I doubted that VR would change that.
Instead I opted to pick up Skyrim VR; almost everyone raves about Skyrim so this open world classic in VR was surely a winner and gave me the opportunity to try something new despite being a little far removed from the type of setting I’d normally pick so I jumped in.
… I don’t really know where I’m going with this, so I’m just going to ramble about the first few hours of the experience now that I’ve spent a couple of evenings playing…
I gained consciousness trundling down a track, waist deep in a cart, alongside some fellow prisoners. I listened intently to their ramblings for at least five seconds before losing interest and looking around at the passing scenery of the world that I had been thrown in to. It certainly was spectacular; possibly too much so. The Vive is an impressive piece of kit, but the resolution of the VR world is still on the grainy side of things. This is fine for stark cartoonish graphics, but anything taking a more real world approach to visuals tends to lose some of its lustre in the translation to that headset and much of the distance melted in to a mess of greens and browns. Nevertheless I was immersed in that wild fantasy landscape that I’d heard so much about and my attention flicked back to where we were going and what as going on; two things I might have picked up on had I listened more closely.
We entered a village and were unceremoniously dumped in front of some soldiers who I’m going to refer to as the bad guys. (Side Note: I don’t seem to be able to remember anyone’s name, clan, family, or any locations in this game; the closest I get is to confuse them with something from Lord of the Rings). The bad guys looked me up and down and tried to work out who I was, then I was given the choice to decide who I was (Erm, female warrior cat person… who else?). I meticulously tweaked the appearance of my ingame character and clicked accept, presumably never to see them again given the VR-ness of the presentation and lack of medieval mirrors. Anyway, Thorin Oakenshield was decapitated and I was next for the block before a dragon showed up and interrupted what would have been a distinctly short playtime for an open world experience. The dragons in the game are pretty darn cool; VR imparts a much better sense of scale than is achievable on the 2D screen so this monster swooping and diving, breathing fire and terrorising locals was a fantastic opening set piece to showcase the experience.
Once the dust had settled I found myself armed and out in the countryside following fellow inmate, Jeff. Alongside Jeff, I’d learnt a few things about this game as we made our bid for freedom. Firstly using melee weapons is tragically immersion breaking; most of my swordplay experiences must’ve looked like I was trying to fend off a spider with a fly swat and the accompanying visuals of a mighty broadsword flailing around implausibly wildly in the direction of an enemy did little to fix this. I made a decision then and there to switch to a bow which, as many VR titles have discovered, works really really well in VR and involves fewer instances of me whacking the wall just outside my VR zone. The second thing I learnt was that the menu system is tedious. To do anything the player has to bring up a ‘general’ menu then swipe to enter your inventory (or spells, ability tree or whatever), then scroll to the correct sub-category, then swipe to select, scroll then find the item and use/apply it. All of this is done awkwardly on touchpad (rather than gesture based) and, aside from a shortcut to favourite weapons, there don’t seem to be any quicker routes to doing things like drinking potions or changing out armour. To add to this, current player equipment/stats are present but not obvious and taking items from bodies/boxes uses the trigger (kind of the default button) to wear/use an item rather than just pick it up. The menus are not my favourite part of this game and the player is forced in to them frequently to use, equip, trade, and most of all drop items when your character grinds to a halt due to overloading.
Menu gripes aside, the world did start to welcome me with open arms, especially after I’d given up trying to work through the conversation trees of everyone and just ran off to do my first side quest. Exploring, fighting, and just doing what the game is supposed to be about is where the fun lies as long as you don’t get too hung up on what you’re picking up and leaving behind.
Feeling reinvigorated from some questing I decided to push on to the next big city (Whitehaven? Towerhaven? Towerguard? Dragonsville?) so pulled up the map to see… WOOAH! I’m a long way up… top tip: anyone with a fear of heights, avoid the map screen… where I needed to go and strolled off down the road. Or more honestly warped off down the road. Warping movement is a kind of necessary evil in VR; I can cope with ‘free-movement’ in smallish doses (which is kind of like magic carpet floating everywhere) but with the shear scale of the world map I find warping to be a bit more comfortable. The city was a jumbled mess of yet more names, clans, some kind of feud that I cared very little about yet seemed to need to pick a side IMMEDIATELY, and a “king” (yes, I know he’s not the king, but it’s the only way I can keep track of everything). The king welcomed me in to the fold with the carefree abandon of someone who has no sense of stranger danger and further offered me a title of the realm (apparently the greatest he could bestow) after I ran a pretty minor errand for him. He even went as far as to assign me my own personal warrior companion.
My warrior friend immediately caused a problem in the next side quest I embarked upon. Some leather clad warriors had started their own fight club in one of the halls and as I couldn’t get a straight answer about exactly what it was all about I decided to sign up. Tyler Durden sent me out in to the yard with Terry for fisticuffs to see if I was up for the challenge so we had a bit of a scrap. Terry yielded and calmly remarked that I had demonstrated some skill in our friendly sparring session (which had involved me Legolassing three arrows into his face), unfortunately the respectful sentiment was undermined by Terry’s friend who continued to wail on me throughout the exchange. It took me a while to realise that my assigned warrior had immediately run in, sword aloft, as soon as Terry had started our brawl. One quickload later and I told her to wait a safe distance away… which she did… but still proceeded to send a volley of arrows our way; ultimately I’ve abandoned that quest.
Feeling fatigued I decided to check out the local tavern, have a drink, maybe get some rest. Sadly the landlady droned on and on about something and I impatiently clicked the right grip to exit the dialogue however outside the dialogue menu the right grip activates my shouting blast. This innocent exchange in the tavern became the first of many instances where I’ve accidentally upset someone by abruptly finishing my conversation with them and instantly blasting them across the room with an iridescent blue flash. This isn’t the only time that motion controls have begun a fight; more than once I accidentally had my fists clenched whilst making some small gesture which registered as a swift uppercut to the crotch of a bystanding mercenary.
Not convinced that I was cut out for the subtleties of indoor interactions with NPC’s, I set my marker for a distant quest objective and stopped in to the stable to pick up a horse. Getting on the horse was straightforward enough, but getting off the horse didn’t come with any instructions; in the process of figuring it out I just stood for some time in a field just making it rear up over and over again. Riding itself involves mystically holding your arm out in the direction that you would like the horse to go and touching forward on the touchpad. Pressing takes that gentle trot into a gallop accompanied by a helpful narrowing of the field of view (peripheral movement tends to cause motion sickness so many games do this) all this is fine, but doesn’t hide the feeling that you’re somehow wading in the horse.
So where am I now? Well, kind of lost. I dropped in to a wizard’s house unannounced to say hi and a battle ensued so I leapt for the door and scarpered over some mountains. The last interaction I had was trying to get a wandering bard to be quiet about his life story.
He seemed unaware that a dragon had engulfed us both in flames mid-conversation.