Like every great RPG, the fifth Elder Scrolls game is a grand enterprise. It’s huge in scale, epic in its breadth and scope, and will occupy such vast quantities of your time that you may find yourself losing sleep, dodging work and testing the patience of family and friends while you play it. Most of all, it’s a game destined to cast a shadow over the rest of the genre for several years to come, just as The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion did before it. Despite competition from Fallout 3, Mass Effect 2 and The Witcher 2, Oblivion has remained the defining RPG of this hardware generation. Skyrim comfortably improves upon it.
The reason is simple: Skyrim hasn’t got the best narrative of any RPG, the best combat, the best magic system or even the best graphics, but it does have one of the biggest, richest and most completely immersive worlds you’ve ever seen. Technically speaking, the visuals aren’t as detailed or beautifully lit as those of Gears of War 3 or Uncharted 3, and while the character models and facial animation are much improved on those of Oblivion or Fallout 3, they still don’t match the work being done in the Mass Effect series. Heck, The Witcher 2 has more photorealistic forests and glistening water.
Yet there’s something about the nordic lands of Skyrim that drags you in and won’t let go. The alpine vistas – all rugged mountains, towering pines and gushing waterfalls – are magnificent. The thought that has gone into the art direction makes each isolated village, crumbling ruin and underground tomb feel distinctive, yet part of some cohesive whole, with a history, a style and a culture informing every carving and every forged motif. It’s also one of those rare games where the visuals, sound and music merge perfectly together into one experience that has you in its thrall. Not since Howard Shore’s score for Lord of the Rings has fantasy sounded this good.
Skyrim is also a world that encourages exploration. The game has a central plot – and it’s a good one – but Skyrim is a game where side quests never feel like side quests, just another facet of your mission to be the best hero (or anti-hero) you can be. You can’t turn a corner of a mountain path without spotting a ruin that demands investigation or a bandit camp that could be cleared out, and each settlement has at least one decent subplot, whether it’s a serial killer on the loose or a mysterious fire that might just be linked in to something darker.
And it’s a world upon which you're free to stamp your own identity. Whose side will you take in political struggles and racial conflicts? Do you want to be a gruff warrior who lets a gleaming war-axe do the talking, or a silver-tongued charmer with a bag of illusions and tricks? Will you join the Companions or hook up with the Thieves Guild? It’s up to you, and you really don’t have to make up your mind at once. One of the beauties of Skyrim is that your character can emerge and evolve over time.
Skyrim continues Oblivion’s work of simplifying the RPG. On the console formats, combat effectively comes down to the two trigger buttons, with each controlling one hand, and whatever spell, shields or weapons you like assigned to either trigger (though bows and two-handed weapons, for obvious reasons, will occupy both). You can block incoming blows and charge spells or attacks by holding the trigger before release. And by combining attacks with movements, you can unleash different and more devastating moves. It’s easy to pick up, and not as tough on timing or strategy as combat in Dark Souls, but it provides you with a decent range of options - and there’s some skill involved.
Plus, if you want to play as a warrior-mage or a dual-wielding axe maniac, it’s easy. Just assign a spell and weapon, or the arms of your choice. You can even set favourites, giving you rapid access to a list of your most-used spells and weapons at the touch of a button.