In my last post, I mentioned The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The game is from 2011, so readers may be amused that it’s my current obsession, here in 2015. Especially with the much newer and shinier Fallout 4 by the same creators devouring people’s attention across the world even now! But I’ve always been one to delve into games several years after their release. Part of it’s a matter of cost; $60 for a game, then more on top of that as expansions come out, is too steep for me. If I wait a few years, I can usually get the game plus all its downloadable add-ons for half the price that the base game was at launch. But not only is it less expensive, it’s more valuable to me as a well-aged game, because of mods.
I first became involved with game modding in college with Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, a sprawling Dungeons & Dragons-based role-playing game that attracted a vibrant community of fans to hack and tweak it. You could get bug fixes above and beyond those the game’s original developers had time to take care of, put more characters on the roster, rebalance abilities, and add new dialogue including, hey, sexy romantic interludes between the main character and their love interests. The same applies to today’s open-world RPGs by Bethesda. Such tinkering appeals to my perfectionism as well as my interests in programming and game design, and enriches my appreciation of the game itself… when I stop downloading and applying mods and get down to actually playing, anyway!
Mods start to come out as soon as the game itself does, but the best fan work takes time like anything else, and waiting lets the modder community zeitgeist come to consensus on the top-quality stuff. For your amusement and edification, here’s a list of what I’m now putting to use in my Skyrim game!
The Skyrim Total Enhancement Project (STEP), version 188.8.131.52. This comprehensive guide walks you through the setup of dozens of individual mods, specifically geared toward beautifying, bugfixing, and improving the usability of Skyrim without making huge changes to the gameplay as originally designed. If you’re willing to take the several hours needed to go through it, this will get you a much prettier, thoroughly fan-patched game, and equip you with all the tools you need for any further mods you’d like to add. I use almost everything from their “extended” mod list, except for:
- Complete Crafting Overhaul. It conflicts, in design if not on a technical level, with something I add later.
- Burn/Freeze/Shock animations. Reputed to be unstable.
- Skyrim Enhanced Camera. It’s supposed to be immersive, keeping you in first-person camera whenever possible, but a lot of the animations are disorienting and suffer from camera clipping that way.
- Lock Overhaul. It adds skill level restrictions on what locks you can open with the minigame, and I dislike “you must be this tall to enter” restrictions on accessing areas.
- Not So Fast Main Quest. I get that the main plot line can feel hurried if you rush through it, but I like knowing what the next step is at any given point. No need for extra delays.
Onto that, I added the Immersive Survival pack, which adds some beautiful weather effects and requires that you feed, shelter, and rest your character to keep them in fighting shape. I love that, for instance, Realistic Needs and Diseases makes food and drink items relevant (normally they’re weaker versions of potions, no upside) without making hunger management a Roguelike-esque slog. After playing for a little while, I removed the following mods from the list:
- Frostfall. It’s a great mod, don’t get me wrong; it makes a lot of sense to have cold-weather survival as a gameplay theme in a frozen land like Skyrim. While I used it, I had some intense situations where I got wet and nearly froze to death before I stumbled into the warmth of the inn. But I found that it slowed down the pace of things too much. I’d venture into a snowy new territory, and oops, I’m getting too cold, so I have to stop, build a fire, upgrade it, and stand there for a minute while my warmth meter refills. And if the fire is badly positioned, the wind takes the heat away, so you need to try somewhere else. Too much of a drag. That said, I kept the Campfire mod that’s a prerequisite for Frostfall; it’s still super fun to be able to throw down a tent wherever you need to sleep or build up a fire to cook things on the road.
- Hunterborn. Skinning and butchering animals instead of “looting” them is clever and well implemented, but again, it was more of a brake on gameplay than something I found engaging in its own right. Each animal you harvest from eats up several hours of your character’s day, and until they get their skills trained up, what they get out of the process is of lower quality than what you’d have playing vanilla.
- Harvest Overhaul. The main effect of this is to give you more alchemy ingredients, which I didn’t find to be scarce to begin with.
- The Huntsman. It’s thematic, sure, but I didn’t see any need to add a random special weapon to an otherwise broadly-scoped set of mods.
To the above, I added Perkus Maximus, a top-to-bottom rebalancing of spells and skill perks by one of the mod community’s biggest names. It’s in fact the guy’s second major effort in the same sphere, putting to work all the lessons learned from his prior popular perk overhaul mod and the feedback it received. I’m super impressed by it: looking at the skill perks available, I have an “ooh, that’s cool” reaction to almost every option, rather than the “meh” that loads of vanilla perks produce. To tune the experience, I’ve added several mods suggested in PerMa’s discussion forums: extended perk descriptions, missing weapons, rebalanced shouts, tweaks to artifact items, and a mod that makes arrows shoot bullet-straight (what can I say, I like feeling like a badass sniper, not a fumbling putz).
Having restarted the game a few times due to modding and unmodding, Live Another Life is a breath of fresh air. No more sitting through that long, stuttery carriage ride to Helgen–start somewhere else on the map, with a character backstory to suit. The alternative starter areas can be a little more dangerous than Helgen and Riverrun, but that’s fun too!
The last major mod I added was ASIS (Automatic Spells, Increased Spawns), using the improved INI files here with the settings they recommend. I initially picked this up for the “automatic spells” part, to let the game’s NPCs use the various spells introduced in Perkus Maximus. But I gave the “increased spawns” the old college try too, and found it a quite enjoyable change. It makes miscellaneous fights a lot more challenging, in that instead of facing e.g. two or three bandits at a time, you might have to deal with five or a dozen! Despite not liking difficulty-boosters in general, I’ve been able to adapt my play style to this one, with a lot more attention to terrain, hit-and-run tactics, and target selection. It makes for some epic, memorable battles, where it really feels like you’ve assaulted a fortified enemy stronghold.
And last but not least, I tossed in Khajiit Speak. Because I almost always play cat-people when I can, and it makes the player character’s dialogue much more authentic to the way you hear other Khajiit talk in game!