The Pearly Gates: Assessing Skyrim’s dynamic difficulty

By Brenna Hillier, Monday, 14 November 2011 12:54 GMT

Reports of Skyrim’s difficulty vary wildly. Brenna Hillier takes on a pack of giants armed only with a love of floral arrangements and a tendency to run away in fear.

The Elder Scrolls series has developed a reputation for gaily leading the player down dead end paths of progression. Eager to capitalise on the free-form character building, you flit hither and thither, practicing whatever skill you most enjoy, until suddenly you find the scaling enemies beat you to a bloody pulp at every encounter.

The problem is, The Elder Scrolls has so many distractions. As you wander along the highways and byways, you pick flowers, and eat them, and turn them into potions – just to see what happens. Towns are full of houses bursting with sweet loot, the acquisition of which requires lockpicking, sneak, and pickpocketing. It is entirely possible to go up a handful of levels without encountering a single enemy.

When you, a level 15 character with a majority of ranks in non-combat skills, finally venture into a dungeon with a pocket full of potions and gold, the level 15 enemies with a majority of ranks in “bash people up” do the virtual equivalent of give you a wedgie, put your head in a toilet, and then stuff you upside down in a rubbish bin. It’s humiliating, and frustrating.

Enemies with a majority of ranks in “bash people up” do the virtual equivalent of give you a wedgie, put your head in a toilet, and then stuff you upside down in a rubbish bin.

Venturing into Skyrim for the first time, I had high hopes that this had been corrected.

“What happens in Oblivion is you start the game, play for three hours, and then think, ‘I want to start over. I chose wrong.’ So we’d like to sort of alleviate some of that,” director Todd Howard said back in July.

I was bang behind this, and in the opening moments of Skyrim, I almost believed. Along with classes, Bethesda had jettisoned the cumbersome system of major and minor skills, which allowed players to force level and achieve perfect stats – and to dig themselves into a great big hole.

Once through the introductory sequence, I set out questing with my rudimentary equipment and a refusal to think about mechanics. I picked flowers, made potions and stole to my heart’s content.

It is ludicrously easy to level up in Skyrim, which gave me pause, but as I was meeting a fair few monsters in my travels and having no problems dispatching them, I didn’t worry too much. Boss fights and group encounters knocked me down a few times, but this just encouraged me to explore the delightfully broad range of abilities at my disposal – further contributing to my random ability spread.

Then I hit level 19, and ran smack into a difficulty wall – that’s four levels later than in Morrowind and Oblivion, I guess. Every quest I pursued resulted in me confronting dozens of monsters, all of whom chopped through my health bar in three or less hits – even wolves, mudcrabs and rats. Even spamming my potions and poisons and stealthing like the love child of Solid Snake and Adam Jensen, I was just cannon fodder. I turned to the internet to help me.

The resulting Twitter, IM and email blow-out of the next 48 hours convinced me of one thing: Skyrim’s difficulty really is dynamic, and in more than one way.

A number of replies informed me of my newbstastic newbity newbness, boasting of how the players had turned the difficulty up to eleven and found the game way too easy. I was urged to try tanking or magic, and to grind up my weapon skills.

This puzzled me a bit. Grind? Build in a specific way? Both of these solutions seemed to undermine the free-form progression the series has always aspired to. It seemed I was best off starting a whole new game, losing my 20 plus hours of questing.

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

But no. Encouraged by several more advanced players, I pushed on, seeking a mythical plateau on the other side of the difficulty spike which would reward my efforts.

Also, I remembered this:

“As you level up you are going to see harder things, but the easier things stay around as well. You’ll still run into the weaker stuff and you’ll just decimate it,” Howard said in October.

I went looking for some of this weaker stuff, and I found it in the next town along the main plot’s questline. The dungeons and side-quests attached to this new settlement offered challenges which my Dragonborn struggled with just enough to make them interesting.

I still couldn’t charge into mobs and expect to live to tell the tale, but then again, I’d never wanted to – I’d wanted to enjoy botany, the healthy outdoors, and a flexible interpretation of property law – and I could use the skills I had to great effect. During this phase I really learned to play the game; using the environment to position myself and my enemies, combining skills which complimented each other, and when it came down to fisticuffs, learning the timing of attack, block and riposte.

A few hours later, I hit level 22, and realised I’d wandered back into the same territory which had been giving me heart palpitations earlier. I backstabbed the boss of a dungeon I’d barely penetrated the day before, injecting him with a potent poison which sapped a further quarter of the half life bar left to him, then dashed into the distance firing arrows which knocked him off his feet.

Outside, I met a giant. I wanted one of its toes, so I carefully lured it away from its friends and capitalised on my huge stamina pool to outrun it while I popped arrow after arrow in its face. A giant. The notoriously impossible foe.

Growing bolder, I fast traveled across the map to hit up a dungeon where I’d heard I could find one of the best weapons in the game. The enemies inside smashed me into pieces. Running away in gibbering fear, I passed through a previously-explored grove only to come face to face with a new set of enemies, who, I like to think, later used my corpse to decorate their spike-and-BBQ pit.

What all this taught me is that Bethesda has been very clever indeed. Skyrim genuinely supports free-form character building.

What all this taught me is that Bethesda has been very clever indeed. Skyrim genuinely supports free-form character building, and it’s been extremely canny with its difficulty gating. Some encounters are random, and tailored to your level; others are deliberately out of your reach, to keep you away from the sweetest loot before you’ve reached key progression moments. Some few seem designed to be an incredible challenge at any level; don’t get me started on the rare frost trolls scattered on necessary paths. And, inevitably, fresh, scaled challenges arise if you go looking for them.

Skyrim is only as easy and as hard as you choose to make it. Struggling? Forget the Companions for a minute and follow the game’s gentle hints towards suitable quests. Cakewalk? Stop grinding, get off the road and hit up those dungeon markers in the far distance. You get out of Skyrim what you put in.

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