It's the Journey, not the Destination
HIGH The culmination of the Dark Brotherhood questline.
LOW Being spoken to as a Nord, even though I'm an Argonian.
WTF *Shoots child in the face with an arrow* Stop! You're under arrest! *pays 1500 gold* Okay, you're free to go.
First, I want to acknowledge that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim can be a frustrating game. It features an abundance of crippling bugs. A poorly designed user interface makes basic actions like equipping weapons and sorting through save files a pain. The PlayStation 3 version of the game is reportedly unplayable if the save file becomes too large. There were times when the faces of some NPCs would simply disappear. In addition, the game frequently crashed to desktop for seemingly no reason.
With that unpleasantness out of the way, I can say that these problems amounted to minimal hindrances to my appreciation of Bethesda's new blockbuster.
In the abstract, Skyrim's structure is highly similar to the two most recent games in the Elder Scrolls series. Controls are more or less the same, as is the first-person/third-person dynamic. Players have the choice between a melee, magic, or stealth-based character and suitable sets of abilities for each. The game is divided into a main questline, several major side questlines that can be explored at the player's leisure, and countless smaller activities. As with both Morrowind and Oblivion, the true heart of the game lies not in the main quest (a fact that the game should certainly be more upfront about) but in the ancillary content.
The player begins as a nameless prisoner being held by the Empire. A sudden dragon attack allows the prisoner to escape, and afterwards is left to fend for him/herself. While a specific purpose for the prisoner's release is hinted at, the player is soon completely free to explore the open world to his heart's content. That freedom is the core of The Elder Scrolls, and this dauntingly massive land is what makes games like this enjoyable.
Bethesda has stated that they applied a lot of what they learned from Fallout 3 to Skyrim, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the environment design. Megaton was the first in-game city that ever felt like a living, breathing town to me rather than a glorified rest stop, and in Skyrim that feeling has been carried over to every major locale. Gone are the cookie-cutter environments and cities from Oblivion, replaced by towns that each have their own personality and their own tale to tell.
As I walked from one destination to the next, it felt like the undiscovered locations on my map were taunting me—this pull became the core of Skyrim's obsessive grip. Being sent from one side of the map to the other became a privilege rather than a problem, since I would get to explore all the areas in between. Even as it got later and later in the night with the specter of work the next day hanging over me, my mind kept saying "just one more location, just one more location" until the clock struck 2am. It's been quite some time since I was so hopelessly immersed in a game, and Skyrim's brilliant atmosphere is the primary reason why.
Of course, a game world's size is not directly proportional to its quality. Indeed, large game settings often feel repetitious and static, which was a frequent problem in Oblivion. However, in Skyrim, every speck of the world is dripping with detail, to the point where the world is a character in its own right. Skyrim is, in the fullest way possible, alive.
For example, Whiterun is the first major city the game directed me to after my escape from the dragon. It felt peaceful, comforting and safe. However, its tranquility is threatened by the current war, and I frequently got the sense that it was trying to shield itself from conflict and get on with its life. It was like an island in a sea of conflict.
Riften, on the other hand, is much darker—almost like a fantasy version of Gotham City. The fog is heavy and the residents are appropriately dour, while criminals run the city under the watch of a corrupt and incompetent ruler. There's even an NPC that fancies herself as the city's resident Batwoman, making my character's gradual takeover of Riften's criminal underworld all the more satisfying.
Even outside of the cities, Skyrim is simply gorgeous. The mountainous, Nordic landscapes are beautiful, and there are almost no pop-in or draw distance problems to speak of. Standing on top of one of the game's many mountains and looking in any direction, like standing on top of the Washington Monument in Fallout 3, is a thrill that simply did not get old no matter how many times I did it. However, there were times when I wished that the interactions I had within this awe-inspiring world had the same level of detail as the world itself.
My main character is an Argonian, but the majority of the NPCs seemed to think I was a Nord, asking me questions that didn't make sense given my race. There were several other times after I became the head of the Dark Brotherhood (the local assassin's guild) that I was still treated like a common lout by most of the NPCs. While deep relationships and story structure has never really been a hallmark of Elder Scrolls, these moments broke my immersion when they occurred. Like its predecessors, Skyrim tends to leave a lot to the player's imagination regarding interpersonal relationships and the overall story. While reliance on the player's sense of fantasy can lead to some fascinating scenarios that are only possible with the help of the player's mind, it would be nice to see the series take steps into the 21st century in this regard. At the very least, I'd like to see specific interactions (like racism against Argonians) actually be applied to my character.
Despite falling into more or less the same formula as Morrowind and Oblivion in terms of how the player's character interacts with NPCs, Skyrim does feature a fundamental change to traditional RPG character creation and speccing (i.e. specifying how I will play the game with my character) which is extremely welcome.
In the previous Elder Scrolls games (and most Western RPGs in general) the player has to choose what he wants to be before the game starts. Things like base stats, major/minor skills, and special bonuses all had to be determined before the player was even remotely familiar with the game he was going to play. With Oblivion in particular, this pregame-centric speccing led to a countless number of character re-rolls trying to get the perfect setup. All too often I would make a character, discover it wasn't what I wanted to be, and start over again. It was a relentlessly time consuming process, and a big reason why I put 400 combined hours into Morrowind and Oblivion.
Skyrim has changed all that. My character is now specced in response to how I play the game. Instead of having to select skills I want to use at the beginning, I can level up using any skill I choose during play. This makes for much, much less restarting, since if I don't like how my character is progressing I can simply start using other skills instead. Now, I spend less time going through the creation process and more time actually roleplaying. It's this kind of innovation that helps make Skyrim a great game in its own right rather than just a prettier Oblivion.
When taken in total, it must be admitted that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim does not deviate much from the established Elder Scrolls formula. However, the painstakingly-designed world in combination with the retooled leveling system represents the most polished version of that formula to date. There's something to be said for sticking with what one knows and refining it, and in Skyrim's case, there's a lot to be said for it.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via Steam purchase and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 42 hours of play and counting was devoted to single-player modes. There are no multiplayer modes
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, and use of alcohol. "Intense violence" isn't a term I'd use, but it does get pretty gory in some places. I wouldn't be too worried of teenagers younger than 17 were playing it, but the littler ones should be kept away.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: If you're playing a stealth character you might have some problems. Enemies don't appear on your radar until you've been detected, meaning that you become somewhat reliant on sound if you're sneaking. I don't think it would be a *huge* problem, but I could see it making the game a little bit harder. Outside that things should be fine-all spoken lines can be subtitled.