I'm starting to remember just why this game always dies the death before I manage to complete everything I want to complete. It's not any huge wound that kills my enthusiasm, but instead an accumulation of tiny cuts.
My Argonian "Infiltrator" has reached level 10, using one of the most reasonable builds I've ever used in any Elder Scrolls game, with major skills being mostly related to thieving and alchemy, with only blunt weapon as a weapon skill, and magical and social skills as my minors. Restoration, athletics/icism, and acrobatics are in the miscellaneous section because they're way too easy to level, and I've been purposely leveling misc. skills because I want to raise certain attributes (I've been using Illkurok the Spear so I can raise my endurance, which is damned pitiful right now). It takes a while to level, and I find I like it that way.
Because this is the Game of the Year edition one of my early goals was to head north to Solstheim. I spent so much money getting there that by the time I reached the port of Khuul I was broke and had to swim all the way there. Thankfully no slaughterfish or dreugh spawn in the open sea; as ridiculous as it is to swim that distance it wound up being fairly economical and a good way to practice alteration spells.
One of the first places I visited was a skooma brewery headed by a creepy man who had little regard for one of his servants. I murdered the guy to put an end to his drug manufacturing and took his pointy hat. Pretty much the rest of the journey was a cursory exploration of my surroundings to see if I could find a crashed airship, and then running from cave to cave trying to get to the imperial fortress that was inexpertly described as being on the southern tip of the island, of which there are actually several, with the southernmost tip being quite a walk away from the actual fort.
The encounters along the way were fucking deadly and I died many times. I also learned that, at least with the expansions, creatures without unique names respawn when you load. I had forgotten about this, but if you want to talk about the greatest proportion of tiny cuts, it's clearing a room of enemies, making some dumb mistake, loading, and having that past self that reloaded suddenly surrounded by people she thought she killed. Fucking horrible.
The annoyance reached its peak later in Mournhold, when I was clearing out an assassin's den only to run into a very strong lead assassin. Upon loading, all the assassins I had painstakingly cleared out of the prior room were now all around me, stabbing me with their pointed sticks. I was not happy.
It's not like reloading on the XBox version of the game isn't already painful enough. The load time is significant compared to just about any other game I've played that has been made during the previous decade, and it's punishment enough to sit there waiting for the thing to chug to completion after I get creamed by a one-hit-kill enemy. Add on to that the respawn issue and it makes some of the trial and error that's sometimes necessary to understand the consequences of your actions seem like an excuse for the game designers to laugh at you. None felt more like that, though, than the play-within-the-game.
I tend to hate these sorts of things. There was one in Jade Empire. If you play a bard there's one in Baldur's Gate II (or so I've been told). You may know what I'm talking about: you're given the script, told to memorize lines (which, as a human being outside of the game you can write down on a scrap piece of paper if you feel the need), then pushed out on stage and told to break a leg. Well, there's a play in Mournhold, you're told you look like the person who was supposed to portray so-and-so, and you are given a text that you have to draw from to play the part.
The text was long, so I spent some time reading it to make sure I memorized some of the key words in each of the lines, so that when the prompt came up I'd know pretty much what I needed to say, if not the exact line. But when it came time to go out on stage, the prompts did NOT show the complete lines. They didn't even show complete sentences, for the most part. You were just given snippets. I got it perfect the first time, and then I was attacked.
The person attacking me had a blade that caused massive amounts of damage, and though I got a hit or two in I wasn't really prepared. I died and had to reload.
The director tells you that you only have two minutes to prepare, and I'd saved just after learning this, thinking this was going to be a peaceful side-quest, so I couldn't run back and buy a healing potion that I sorely needed. I read through the text again, took notes of the first words for each of my character's lines to make sure I got things right, and started again.
It was here that I noticed that one of the multiple choice questions actually didn't reflect any of the lines in the play. It was written down wrong by the programmers. It was perhaps my anger at this that made me die again and again and again.
Prepared for battle, I do it yet again, this time with my dwarven warhammer at the ready. The assassin pops up, I crush him, and my co-actor starts attacking me. Apparently I had hit her, too, and she went into the "I Will Destroy You!!" zombie mode of permanent attack, ruining that save, too.
Finally, I decided to leave the stage once I was free to move so that I didn't accidentally hit anyone. A few more tries (each load lasting a minute, and the play lasting a minute of unskippable dialog), and I beat the bastard into the ground.
All that for a minor quest. I'm afraid to even look up how much time it took me to complete it.
This series of annoyances was done, but since then I've experienced many insta-death traps that have worn down my ability to want to play this game. Yeah, Mournhold's for high level characters, which translates into characters with high hitpoints and a preternatural foreknowledge of traps, but even if I die I wind up getting smashed to the ground by the respawn issue. I'm at the point now where I'm going to quit a quest that had the player pursuing someone with urgency because I'm just not strong enough "bah, just leave that murderer to the sewers for now. Wait until I level."
I've been careful this game to dispose of corpses and put any items I can't carry into containers rather than leaving them on the ground where they never disappear, and I wonder if that's why I have yet to get a glitch despite many hours of play. One of the theories is that over time the game tries to keep track of too much stuff at once and it sort of cripples the game. I'm beginning to think they might be right because this run has been relatively smooth. It's too bad it didn't spend less time keeping track of items and more time keeping track of quest accomplishments, I have in only a few days play run into several quests that were busted by my not doing things in the proper order. This, for a supposed sandbox game, is disappointing.
Smooth is a relative term, of course, since I still feel like I'm on the moon in this game. Movement is so sluggish that I'm much more prone to hopping than walking (and it doesn't help that the fastest movement speed is reserved for characters moving EXACTLY straight ahead, because my old controller doesn't make it easy to find that exact notch unless I use the D-pad). This would be a little easier to take if navigation in the world itself wasn't so difficult, with directions being vague enough that you can be lost for hours trying to obey even the simplest of orders that would have been much, much easier to follow in real life (where the hills are less pointy and the roads are more clearly defined).
All that said, I still like it, even in its XBox awkwardness. I enjoy the alchemy system, in part because there's a chance of failure when making potions (risk vs. reward), and there are secret combinations that you can discover by putting two items together that I think they did away with in Oblivion (please correct me if I'm wrong about the alchemy systems being different). The 3D graphics are at just the right level of sophistication that I can look at the people I see as characters (albeit characters milling about with nothing to do). And though it breaks the game a bit, I'm glad The Creeper is in there. After being so poor for so long, and having expensive weapons I couldn't sell anywhere, it was nice to get 1 to 1 pricing from that guy so I could be comfortably rich again.
And as a credit to the ingenuity of the developers, I STILL find plenty of interesting tidbits and in-jokes that I hadn't found in previous run-throughs of the game. There's still a lot to discover, and that's probably what helps me ignore getting battered by the faulty game engine. When you think about the scale of content, even if it's not organized well, it feels generous.
Eh, and I'll probably play some more when I'm done writing this. If you notice a small fire coming from my general direction, it's just steam coming out of my ears. I'll probably give up should the glitches make it no fun to play again, but for now the main benefit, finding new little discoveries, outweighs the pain of the thousand cuts. If you'll excuse me, I've heard rumors of a submerged daedric ruin northwest of Hla Oad...