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Layover In Tamriel

532 hours.  That is how much time Steam recorded I had played the original Elder Scrolls VI: Skyrim, and in all that time I never finished the main quest line!  Much of that time was spent rerolling my characters, as I bored with one build and moved on to the next.  Alduin, that pesky world-ending dragon, lives!

Back in 2013, I started what I hoped would be my last character with the intent to kick Skyrim's ass and put Alduin down for good.  It started out strong enough, with a great many barbs at Bethesda's expense at how the Radiant AI was repeatedly crapping itself for our amusement.

I ended up sidetracked, because that's what Skyrim does best.  I decided my quest log was too long and decided to complete a few to par it down to a more manageable size.  I finished the Dragonborn expansion, made it about half way through the Dawnguard expansion, and perhaps a quarter of the way through the original quest I had set about to finish in the first place!

Finally, I was distracted again to play other games, and never looked back.  I did not kick Skyrim's, ass; the sheer glut of content kicked mine.
There is much about Skyrim which has dated badly in the intervening years... but Whiterun at night is looking timeless.
It is now near the end of 2016.  Since then, Fallout 4 has been released by the same company using the same engine, and has improved upon Skyrim in early every way... but I find Skyrim has cleaner lines and a more epic vision, and frankly I just enjoy it more.  With the brand-new release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition, I now have a flimsy excuse to try to beat it once again.

My old "kick Skyrim's ass" build went heavy on the Archery and Conjuration.  The rules of engagement were simple, but effective:
  1. Summon distractions for the enemy.
  2. If possible, stand somewhere that would make it difficult for the enemy to path to me.
  3. Fill the enemies full of arrows from the relative safety of my position.
  4. Re-summon distractions as needed.  Shout as needed.
As far as exhausting Skyrim's content went, it was nearly perfect.  There was good load balancing between stamina, mana, and the shout cooldown.  However, aside from the satisfaction of nocking and releasing arrows, there was little enjoyment to be had.  It just did not feel all that involving - my summoned Dremora Lords were having more fun than I was!  It was a build created with the rationale that, if I could not make the combat entertaining, then I could at least make it quick and efficient.
Here is an old screenshot of my "kick Skyrim's ass" build, being an untouchable juggernaut per usual.  The dremora lord has the enemy's attention as my arrows neatly amputate their health bar.
My previous save games were largely incompatible with the Special Edition, it was time to start over.  From what I recollected from my previous experiences, I thought perhaps the ultimate Dovahkiin would basically have a build which deliberately forces me to fight foes at close range with melee, where the involvement was high.  It went a little like this:
  • One-Handed and Block are to be the primary combat skills, forcing a lot of interaction in melee. 
  • Avoid using spells much because I always thought it was really awkward to try to use weapons, shouts, and spells all at once.  However, weapons and shouts alone gel quite well.
  • Of course, I could still level up Conjuration to get extra help.  It is pretty much the only spell school that stays potent in the end game.
  • Might as well take Heavy Armor while I was at it.  It looks cooler, in my opinion, and if you take The Steed Stone until you unlock the Conditioning perk then there's really no downsides to going heavy.
  • It goes without saying that I will max out my trade skills to unlock ridiculously overpowered gear.  All my characters do that.
The build looked good on paper...
Though Farengar is looking alright, many character models look a little blocky compared to their new high-resolution surroundings.  It also more noticeable when things hover above the tables they were placed on.
 ...but after playing Special Edition for 7 hours, I hate this character.

While fighting in melee is more involving than the alternatives, but I do not particularly enjoy what I am becoming involved with. My rules of engagement went like this:
  1. Summon something to help out.  Walk up to enemy.
  2. Melee.
    • If the enemy is blocking when I hit them, it knocks me off balance.
    • I block their attacks, they're knocked off balance.  I take a little damage, but this is my safest time to attack.
    • I hit them with my weapon, it knocks off a tiny sliver of their health bar, less if they block.  Maybe I should not have been playing on "Expert" difficulty if I wanted that health to go down faster.
    • I power attack, it defeats their block, but I run out of stamina almost immediately.  
    • I shout at the enemy, it staggers them a bit, but only enough for a hit or two.
    • Even blocking, I soon run out of stamina.  I am basically stuck using weak attacks.  
    It seems melee in Skyrim is tiring, frustrating work!
  3. Swig health potions as needed, since I can't very well use a healing spell at point blank.
Compared to that, my "kick Skyrim's ass" build was the picture of convenience.

I have probably been spoiled by better games that have come out since Skyrim did.
  • Dragon's Dogma has far more epic fights, actually grappling onto larger monsters and climbing them, and even the basic combat mechanic is not as klunky (although I would hesitate to say it is truly without klunk).  
  • If satisfying combat is what I want, I should really be playing something from the Dark Souls series, where learning how to be good at melee is much more rewarding because the whole deadly dance has a weight to it.  
  • Even Fallout 4 would seem to recognize that melee is not particularly good in the Gamebryo engine, moving over 90% of the combat related perks to encourage the players to specialize in ranged combat.
I still think I ought to finish Skyrim, despite the tedium, but it is clear I am going to have to do something radical with combat. 
For the most part, the new lighting engine in the remastered version of Skyrim works well, but then you get scenes like this where everything seems too washed out and lacking in contrast.

One build I have found that sort of works (in terms of keeping combat interesting) is to focus on Illusion with Conjuration backup as a cloth mage.  You might think this is an under-powered build, since Illusion does not harm foes directly.  But actually, I played a character like this before, and he was surprisingly over-powered.  The rules of engagement basically worked like this:
  1. Sneak, made significantly easier by access to the Muffle and Invisibility spells - a perk of being an illusionist specialist!
  2. Upon finding enemies and choosing to initiate combat, summon your assistants.
  3. If a single enemy heads towards you intent to attack, cast a fear spell on it.
  4. If there is more than one enemy, use the frenzy effect on them, making it more likely they will attack each other than you.
  5. If there are too many enemies to readily deal with, calm some.
  6. If you are still being mobbed, blast them with a Unrelenting Force shout and turn invisible.  When they pick themselves up, the frenzy you left them should cause them to choose another target since they can't find you.
  7. Your summoned assistants and companion should have little difficulty finishing off the last one standing, but fear is a good spell to use to avoid reprisal as eventually they will get stuck on something and be unable to run further.
  8. Since I am relatively free to do so, feel free to use the heal other and courage spells to keep my assistants upright and productive.
  9. Engage in direct combat only as a last resort.  Just because you can.
It is hilarious.  It is overpowered.  It is a nice change of pace.  However, I soon discovered, it is disappointingly not all that challenging when your foes are helpless playthings.  One major downside of this build is that it is extremely hard to level up your armor skills because nothing ever hits you.  But then, the same could be said for my "kick Skyrim's ass" build.

Ah well, I think that is the best I can do.  Maybe, just for a lark, I will limit myself to wearing cloth armor, only using the Wabbajack for direct attacks, or perhaps crossbows.  But, if overcoming content saturation leading to boredom in the core mechanic is my goal, a wide variety might be a better bet than just focusing on a couple of spell schools and a few weapons.

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