I took out the guards first, because it was honestly harder to hide from them among the tower ruins, and then turned my attention to the dragon. I fired a couple of arrows and a few spells at him before he disappeared over the top of a nearby hill. When he didn't come back right away, I went looking for him. Without giving anything away, you really need to kill dragons in this game and I didn't want to let this one get away.
On the other side of the hill, I discovered my dragon locked in a life-or-death struggle with a giant. Again, not wanting to simply let this one go, I rushed in, trying to kill the dragon and stay out of the giant's way. I managed the first, but not the second, so I soon found myself racing back to the safety of the tower as the giant pounded after me. I jumped down a set of stairs leading beneath the tower and turned to wait for the giant appear. As soon as he did, I realized the entrance at the top of the stairs was, unfortunately, just slightly larger than giant sized. In the seconds before his club came crashing down, my last thought was, "When's the last time I saved my game?"
These moments, when the setting and the story and the combat all come together, are transcendent. The world is so rich in realistic details and high fantasy heroics that you can't help but be swept up in the excitement and drama of it all. In fact, because the world is so credible and dense, the inclusion of fantasy elements seems that much more believable. One minute you'll be helping a bard win the girl of his dreams, the next you'll be shooting fire out of your hands at a group of vampire prisoners. Or one minute you'll be investigating the death of a king, and the next you'll find yourself trapped in a psychic dreamworld by a deranged spirit.
The action-based combat system is genuinely fun, and works very nicely on the gamepad. Your left and right triggers control your character's left and right hands, so you'll always have two things you can do in combat. You might load up a shield on the left and a mace on the right. Or keep the mace but replace the shield with a frost spell. Or just double up with frost spells on each hand and unleash a veritable blizzard on your enemies. A quick-select on the D-pad and a user-defined list of favored abilities helps you move back and forth between different tactics without bogging you down in layers of menus.
You can see from the video review that the visuals are also top notch. While it can sometimes be frustrating to manage the pixel perfect looting and interaction system, the graphics are easily some of the best the genre has to offer. You feel the cold as the snows swirl around the mountain passes, sense the rich culture in the designs of the artifacts, and marvel at the physical power of the game's monsters. It's true that things are a bit gritty -- there's a "dirt" slider during character creation -- and that the details can sometimes overwhelm each other, but occasionally looting the wrong item is a small price to pay in a game that takes its visual design so seriously that you can actually scan the floors of crypts looking for trap triggers.
My criticisms of the game are based entirely on Skyrim's defiantly old-school approach to several of the roleplaying genre's primary conventions. The NPCs keep regular schedules and walk around town from time to time, but there's no real life in their routines or behaviors. Even the acting is devoid of any sort of emotion, at least visually speaking. Whether you're telling a shopkeeper you've recovered his priceless family heirloom, or merely watching a heated argument between a king and his advisors, the characters just seem like expressionless statues who are only there to deliver large chunks of expository dialogue. Your own character is even more of a non-entity; he or she doesn't have a voice in the game, and the only meaningful choice in character customization is picking a haircut that looks good from the back.