Skyrim design review

This is a review with emphasis on the graphics of the game I’ve been waiting for for 5.6 years: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

I’m not a gamer, but I try out a game if it’s said to have ground-breaking graphics. This was the case in 2007 with The Elder Scrolld IV: Oblivion, back then I got hooked and completed the main quest and all guilds. Skyrim uses the same graphics engine, although they taught it a few new tricks, but it’s no revolution.

As an optimist, I’ll start with the praise and save the rant for later. In 38 hours, I’ve completed the main quest, the mages guild quest (becoming the arch mage of the college of Winterhold), lots of side quests all over the map, and got my mage character up to level 23. And I enjoyed almost every minute of it.

The landscapes are nothing short of art, the story is great, even most of the side quests are entertaining compared to the goto-X-get-Y-return of other RPGs. The sound effects, voice acting and the sound track add to the atmosphere, the game really pulls you into the world of Skyrim if you allow it to.

Where else can you enter a cave, find a dead body with a scientific notebook, read the story of the poor dead lad and find e.g. the artifact he was looking for or complete his experiment. In what other game can you hear people in the street chatting about a haunted house in a remote area and go there yourself to check it out and maybe help the ghost or clear the house of ghosts? I’m talking about the freedom to explore all those little details and side quests, which I had a hard time ignoring when I rode my horse from A to B to get on with the main quest. I always got distracted by the diversity of everything in Skyrim, which is a good thing!

Let’s compare some screenshots. Here’s Riften in the morning and at night:

Staggering. Indoor scenery looks awesome too:

as do the light effects (this isn’t the ordinary sky, it’s in Skyrim’s kind-of nirvana):

But here comes the turning point. See those edgy mountains on the right? That’s just one of many things that spoil the realism. Let’s take a look at water in Skyrim. It can look gorgeous:

or quite last-gen:

Oh, wait, what’s that blurry thing on the right? That would be stone stairs where the artists forgot to add high-resolution textures. My biggest complaint is that there are so many low-resolution textures all over the game world. For example, take a look at this nice alchemist’s room:

What spoils the fun and hurts the eyeball? The bad textures of the chest and the wooden table (apart from the not-so-round mushroom that could use a little more polygons). The mage herself looks okay…

…which cannot be said of Olfrid’s hair and fur cloak. In fact, there is no hair in Skyrim, it’s all static polygons, not blowing in the wind:

Skyrim is all about dragons, so here’s a great-looking specimen:

But this one is, although it’s an important character with lots of dialog in the main quest, just blurry and ulgy (in this picture it’s caught in a trap):

So here is my 6-point Skyrim rant list:

  • Blurry textures all over Skyrim. This may be acceptable on consoles, but PC gamers playing on ultra high settings expect things to be sharp. Oblivion had the same issue and some genius created a 2GB texture pack that vastly improved it. Maybe someone is already working on a texture pack for Skyrim as we speak-ehm-write.
  • The animations are last-gen. Apart from the killing animations (which imho are unnecessary in an RPG) they look like they were stitched together. In a 2011 game, we expect fluent transitions between standing/walking/running/jumping of NPCs and animals.
  • There is no hair. NPC hair, animal fur, fur clothes etc. need to be made of small strings that blow in the wind. Skyrim only uses static polygons, hair looks like it’s made of stone.
  • Puzzles are too easy. In all the main and the college of Winterhold quests, I didn’t encounter a single challenging puzzle. Reading 3 symbols from a wall in the same room where they need to be input, or from a crawl shaped artifact, is not hard. Trying all possible combinations of 4 switches (that’s 2^4 = 16) isn’t challenging either.
  • Dumb dialogs. Don’t get me wrong, 90% of the dialogs are great, but the other 10% spoil the realism. I’ve visited a trader in an alchemist shop after every other quest, and he always greeted me with the words “So, you’re an alchemist, then?” – even when I was already arch mage, proudly wearing the arch mage cloak, Whiterun’s mage told me to “join the college of Winterhold if you’re interested in magic”. Gee, thanks!
    To be fair, I’ll mention some good dialog too: After you made the two Jarls agree to the peace conference, people on the streets are chatting about it. And when you killed a dragon, people gather around and authenticly act amazed.
  • Dragons still attack after you’ve killed Alduin. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought that the other dragons would come to their senses after I pierced a sword into their leader’s brains.

Thoughts about the future

Having played Battlefield 3 for it’s state-of-the-art graphics, Skyrim looks quite last-gen. I’d just like to mention here that I hate Battlefield 3 for being a narrow, scripted and brutal war game, but its graphics are over the top. I wish for an RPG like Skyrim with BF3-quality graphics and animations. Bethesda, can you hear me? Please take your time to develop a new 21st century graphics engine for The Elder Scrolls VI. But I guess we’ll have to wait another 5 years for it, so I’ll be on the lookout for another RPG that fulfills my requirements in the meantime.

One day in 2012 I’ll get back to Skyrim, join the murder’s guild, collecting blood samples from all species for an interesting side quest, then learn the invisibility spell to play through the thief’s guild and do a few side-quests in the cities. The replay-value seems to be endless!

Some more screenshots…

The awesome ice cave north of Winterhold:

My horse just outside this cave:
Morning / day / evening / night comparison:

A Jarl, dining:
Autumnal Solitude:

The city of Whiterun (with blurry textures on the right):

(All the screenshots were taken with a PC running Skyrim at 1680×1050 and ultra high settings.)

Watercooling

As an amateur pianist and audio engineer, I’m very sensitive to noise. In particular, PC fan noise. I’m not a PC guy, I wish my MacBook Pro was absolutely silent, but it isn’t, and neither is a high-end gaming PC of the kind I’d want to play Skyrim on. Unless you put 6 hours of work and 13 watercooling components into it:

Excerpt of a water molecule’s journey through the system:

Expelled from the USB controlled water pump, I was happy to find myself inside a large 10/13 tube, far away from the tube’s outlandish polypropylen molecules. The first stage was the graphics card, a stock watercooled GeForce GTX 590. It’s metal was hot, shaking like hell, but I passed by and held it at a constant temperature of 35°C (95°F). After exiting this stage, a few inches later came the CPU and it shook me up again, but salvation was near! Stage 3, the radiator made me go down a long way and up again, calming me down with its 3 silent fans and the giant heat sink. I completely lost track of time being pumped into the reservoir, where the bad air molecules suddenly flew upwards, making way for my fellow water buddies. Back into the pump and the cycle was complete, I reincarnated as another water molecule and all was well.

Mounting the radiator (the giant heat sink) outside and perpendicular to the tower increased the amount of air flowing through it. The result: even after hours of playing state-of-the-art games at full graphic settings and HD resolution, the temperature stayed below 35°C (95°F). That’s amazing compared to 70°C with loud fans in a non-watercooled system! Without the 3 fans on the radiator, temperatures are about 10°C higher. The 6 fans (3 on the radiator + 2 in the case + 1 in the ultra-silent PSU) run at such low speeds that they are barely noticable. The loudest part of the system is the water pump, which I buffered with a vibration dampening spongy orange sandwich beneath.

10 tips if you are planning to build a watercooled PC:

  1. Don’t buy a set. Afaik, sets don’t cool the graphics card so all your effort will be for nothing when the GPU fan starts spinning up.
  2. Get a big tower. No, not like that, even bigger. You will always run out of space. The pump and the reservoir would have had plenty of space next to the PSU, but with the tubes connected there wasn’t enough space anymore. For this reason, also…
  3. Get connectors and couplings of different angles (straigt, 45° and 90°) in order to be flexible and not run out of space like I did.
    Confession of the day: I had to brutally remove the hard disk cage in order to make space for the pump and the tubes, so I put the 2,5″ SSD in the upper story beneath the Bluray drive.
  4. Don’t forget to order adapters for your pump and reservoir. In my case, they were not included with the Aquastream XT.
  5. Don’t waste your money on a USB controlled pump. I never changed any of the settings, and although it’s nice to watch the water pressure, temperatures and voltages live, it’s not necessary.
  6. Spend your money on big, silent fans. The Noiseblocker NB-BlackSilent PRO -PK2 I used are way more silent than the ones that came with the case.
  7. When filling the system with a special low-electric-conductivity fluid, be quick. The pump processed the water faster than I could pour fluid into the reservoir.
  8. Hide your PC, aliens might come and steal it in order to assimilate the technology!
  9. Clean your ears thoroughly to check for any remaining noises.
  10. Stop reading this post and start browsing the web for watercooling components now!

This is the quantified result:

To conclude this geeky post, here’s a list of the components required for watercooling:

  • Pump (e.g. Aquastream XT) with some kind of vibration dampening buffer underneath.
  • Optional: a reservoir (in my case the Aquainlet) to reduce the number of air bubbles and make the filling process easier.
  • Radiator: the bigger, the better, with silent fans. Small radiators can be placed inside a big case, bigger ones can be mounted on top or on the side of the case.
  • CPU (and optional GPU) watercoolers
  • Fittings, couplings and hoses that fit together. I used 2 meters of 13/10mm hose, connected to every component with 8 couplings (G 1/4″ on one side and 13/10mm on the other).
    Important: in my case, the pump had special plugs and I needed to get an extra 1/4″ connector set for this particular pump model, on top of which I screwed the G1/4″ 10/13mm couplings.
  • Water additive or 1 liter of special fluid for watercooling.