Reviewing a game like Skyrim is a bit like reviewing an entire grocery store on the strength of a single orange. The whole game is so vast and so detailed that the context for your experience could be drastically different from mine. The best you can do is extrapolate from an admittedly limited perspective, reasoning that, if the oranges are good, then the carrots and Cokes and canned soups must be good too. Having spent the last two weeks slaying dragons, sabotaging political factions, and stirring potions in the snowy land of Skyrim, I can definitely say two things. First, I love this game. Second, you will too.

The first important observation to make about Skyrim is that it is definitely an Elder Scrolls game. It’s hugely ambitious in scope, wonderfully open in terms of player choices, and strangely packed with several franchise-defining features that seem out of step with most modern roleplaying games. If you can look past its flaws, Skyrim is epic in the truest sense of the word – long, poetic, heroic, and full of fire and blood. I’ve promised myself not to spoil any of the main plot details in the review, but I will say that Skyrim does have all the intrigue and gallantry, and all the magic swords and dragons you’d want in a fantasy adventure on this scale.

The best thing about Skyrim, and the whole Elder Scrolls series, is the freedom to choose how you want to play and what you want to do. Rather than relying on set character classes and pre-set archetypes, Skyrim makes you choose a race, and then starts your character as a blank slate. Your character then develops based on how you choose to play. If you focus on swinging swords, your character will get better at swinging swords. If you prefer to sneak around, or use spells, your character will get better at those tasks instead. The great thing is that developing one ability doesn’t limit your chances to develop another.

There are also perks you buy each time you level up, which help motivate you to keep improving and defining your character. My character, for instance, might choose to make his fire spells consume less mana, or develop a high powered sword strike that does extra damage. These refinements are a great method to make your character feel even more unique and personal. When you take a character you’ve built through how you play and the perks you’ve chosen into combat, your level of tactical engagement is high. Have you pushed down a single branch, trusting in your two-handed battleaxe or lightning bolts to win the day? Or have you generalized, hoping that a wide range of abilities is better than only being good at one thing?

The freedom of choice is also present in the setting and story. There is a main plot in Skyrim but the overall world is open for you to explore in whatever way you want. Do you want to aid rebels against the reigning political power? Or would you rather climb to through the ranks of the Imperial Legion or College of Magic? You can even link up with Skyrim’s criminal elements if they’ll have you. Along the way you could become a vampire, either intentionally or not, or discover some ancient power hidden for generations. Or you might just pick up a sword and start murdering townspeople. The game reacts to those choices and presents unexpected opportunities all the time.

Let me give you just one example. I was creeping up to take on a group of enemy mages living beneath a shattered watchtower. As I climbed the hill leading to the tower, I noticed a passing dragon had discovered the guards posted outside and decided he wanted to eat them. He was making low passes over the scattered stones of the watchtower, and the mages were flinging fire bolts at him as fast as they could. I decided to take advantage of the situation by letting them weaken each other before creeping in and finishing them both off. Unfortunately, I moved in too soon and found myself in a three way fight between a handful of enemy wizards and one seriously pissed off dragon.

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.

The story is also really only apparent in the conversations and quest journals. While there are lots of interesting and dynamic details in the world, story and gameplay are cleanly segregated in Skyrim. I do love stumbling upon the stories that are implied by the level design in some of the dungeons -the unsettling results of failed magical experiments, the remains of other adventurers hung up on a trap, or overgrown stones of a collapsed watchtower – but these are just details to see, not things to do. It’s disappointing because the game does occasionally get it right. Whether it’s the dramatic attack that kicks off the game, or finding and freeing a fellow adventurer who’s after the same treasure you’re seeking, there are moments where storytelling and gameplay work together to draw you into the experience. The problem is that these moments are just too rare.

Gamers who, like me, eventually had to give up on previous games in the series because of the scaling problems and confusing story triggers will find some of those same frustrations here. Fortunately, there’s nothing quite as obnoxious as the Oblivion gates from the previous game, but it is possible to hit the impossible fight from time to time. The quest journal is very useful at directing players towards a wide range of content, but given the “go anywhere, do anything” nature of the game, making sure you don’t get in over your head or overlook some important plot detail is entirely your own responsibility.

Now, I realize that many of the things I’m criticizing are things that many fans like about this series. Of course the NPCs are just there to read the game’s story to you, they’ll say. Of course it can be hard to identify the main quests. Of course the intersection between character growth and the game’s difficulty is sometimes frustrating and exploitable. Frankly, a lot of that stuff is what makes this feel like an Elder Scrolls game. Die-hard RPG fans who have been trained to look past these limitations will have no trouble focusing instead on the things that Skyrim does so well.

Bottom Line: An absolutely first-rate roleplaying game that combines an abundance of content with an abundance of quality. The outdated design elements are unfortunate but not so distracting that it ruins the depth of the story, the openness of the setting, or the visceral joys of combat.

Recommendation: RPG fans who can look past the old-school touches will definitely find a lot to love here.

[rating=5]

Now all Steve Butts wants for Christmas is more time.

What our review scores mean.

This review is based on the 360 version of the game.

Game: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Genre: RPG
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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