I actually tend to play my Elder Scrollses completely unmodded, accepting only official expansion packs. I find it’s rare for a modder to perfectly match the fidelity of a base game — not just in terms of art style, but also in terms of balance and structure. While you can get away with a lot in Warcraft III because each map is completely self-contained, the Elder Scrolls modding experience is additive: you put more stuff into the existing open world, and that means it has to fit.
Skyrim‘s Anniversary Edition comes with 74 pieces of so-called Creation Club content, which ranges from bite-sized chunks to full-on dungeons and houses. While Survival Mode is a systemic addition that settles across the whole world like it was always meant to be there, a number of other packs struggle to conform.
The first one I stumbled into after Survival Mode was much more relaxed — Fishing. Yes, why spend your time beating up dragons and looting grave sites when you can plonk down next to a pretty river and see what comes up for a bite?
I am completely on board with the concept — it’s a natural expansion to a game that already includes plenty of other low-stress harvesting activities. There are rivers and lakes, of course there should be plenty of fish in them. In theory, it adds gentle colour and texture to the whole world rather than plonking down any disruptive focal points.
The traditional paradigm for harvesting in Skyrim is that you carry around the required tool and just Use an object to harvest it; like carrying and Pick Axe so you can mine ore through watching a gentle animation.
Fishing is more involved. Piles of Fishing Supplies have been put in convenient places to Use, but in a slightly clumsy addition, you must first wield your fishing rod as a sword before activation does anything. It feels a bit like there was an original, freeform fishing system, where you could cast your line anywhere, which was then cut down to specific locations — leaving behind the vestigial wielding of the rod. This kind of quirk I could surely forgive in a free mod, but in something I might have paid money for? Hmm.
Once you have activated the Fishing Supplies, your camera is locked and your line is cast… and it becomes a matter of waiting for a bite. Since Skyrim is a pretty game, this is a nice change of pace; the locked camera ensures each fishing spot has a lovely view, and I still can’t get enough of the way clouds cling to mountains and roll down their sides. It is a pretty game, at least at long distances.
After your first attempt at fishing, you are automatically given a quest, and this is where the wobbles come much harder.
The Riften Fishery now has some bonus characters who ask you to do some fishing work. Hilariously, these characters do not come with any new voice-acted dialogue, so they contort themselves using pre-existing barks to give you bounty notes to read through that contain the actual quest details. This causes an amount of back-and-forth that’s really rather nasty: speak to person -> get note -> read note -> speak to person again -> actually do quest. Eugh.
Unfortunately this approach is not limited to Fishing. Pretty much every single Creation Club quest I’ve encountered so far works this way. I can appreciate the artifice that’s gone into finding just the right bits of existing dialogue to get a quest going when combined with written notes for the actual content, but ultimately the verbal contortions and vague stock lines really stick out — it’s these parts that make some Creation Club extras feel detrimental to the game rather than fun bonuses you can take or leave.
While I can understand that approach being neccessary for a normal mod made by a rando in their bedroom, the Creation Club mods were all commissioned or whatever specifically by Bethesda — isn’t that the point of that partnership? That the big software house could arrange the voice acting that a solo modder could never otherwise achieve?
On the flip side, the written notes and bonus books are full of character and somewhat make up for the other missteps, and all the new artwork really is perfect. The Silver Armour set does not need a trail of notes to lead you to it — just integrate it into the normal enemy clothing options, the shops and the Smithing perks! Skyrim does not have enough clothing options — fact! — so every new style of armour is much appreciated. But I don’t think anyone has ever claimed that Skyrim (or even Morrowind or Oblivion) has too few quests. Have confidence in your new clothes and systems — just let them occur naturally!
The Backpacks add-on, for example, is perfect. No quest, no nonsense. Just new items that appear in closets and chests around the world, and become available for crafting at the Forge. Subtle, beautiful, but for a pack-rat like me, that extra carrying capacity is glorious (especially to offset Survival Mode’s stricter lugging limits).
Although, I am coming at this as somebody who just bought a blob of “all the stuff” in the Anniversary Edition; whereas each of these packs would have been purchased individually at the time, bringing an imperative to get your money’s worth. Even though what the game needs is simply more clothing, more systems, what is considered worth paying for demands a supporting quest, no matter how awkward it ends up feeling. Another reason why “paid mods” is a dangerous game to play.
The final aspect that worries me somewhat is that a lot of these packs break the balance curve. I was barely level 10 when I took on a small-looking quest to track down an assassination attempt on my boy Jarl Balgruuf — which netted me a powerfully-enchanted Ebony bow. Not long after that, I received a challenge from a warrior who wanted me to beat her to take over the Hendraheim homestead. I took her out in about three hits and, yep, Hendraheim just so happens to be a fully kitted-out mansion with all the crafting stations and supplies you could ever wish for.
Remember what I said about how Survival Mode adds enough friction to make Skyrim interesting? That’s the thing — many packs throw that right back under the bus, giving you too-early and too-easy access to too-good bonuses. Yes, Hendraheim is a fanstastically well-realised place, beautifully decorated and arranged, but for fuck’s sake, make me work for it! I don’t want to utter the dreaded phrase “pay to win” in the context of an offline singleplayer game, but…