Damn it Skyrim, you fool me every time. I always think I can do just one simple quest before going to bed. "Kill a gang of bandits? This will only take a half hour," I say. Four hours later, I've got a set of dragon scale armor, membership in an ancient order of assassins, and a wife. Oh yeah, and I'm a werewolf.
A common failing of open-world games is that the game world has nothing to offer the player. There are a few limp attempts to pique your interest - "Collect all the flags and you'll get an Achievement!" - but ultimately the world is just this lifeless wasteland you're forced to trek through to get to each mission. Skyrim, however, does open-ended gameplay right. Like previous Elder Scrolls games, Skyrim provides a country filled with dungeons, quests and treasure for you to explore freely.
Skyrim is the cold, northernmost province of Tamriel. It's currently in the midst of a rebellion against - you know what, this doesn't matter. The campaign is good but it's only a fraction of the experience. The random things you encounter while exploring are more important. Skyrim, to paraphrase John Lennon, is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans.
It's not just that there's a lot of content in the world. The game also does an exceptional job of drawing you into it. Each quest seems to lead you to two or three more. At one point, I was asked to meet a noble in a tomb to speak with him about an assassination contract. After the meeting, I think "Hmm, I wonder what else is in here." An hour later, I've defeated a legion of undead and recovered a pair of ancient weapons.
Where Skyrim differs from its predecessors is that these dungeons, caves and strongholds you find throughout the land feel a lot less randomized. The layout of each dungeon feels less repetitive than it was in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Also, there's always some sort of unique aspect to a location to give it that hand-crafted feel. In the tomb I just mentioned, I had to collect two ceremonial weapons and use them as keys to unlock a door to the inner sanctum. There's no doubt some random generation going on - after all, the enemies and loot scale based on your level - but it's better hidden in Skyrim. Maybe searching caverns will get old after ten more hours but for now, searching through every nook and cranny of the world map is a blast.
The skill system is an exploration as well. When you first create your character, you only set their appearance. You don't choose a class, skills, or attribute. Your skills advance by actually using them in the world. Your character adapts to your playstyle. With each level you earn, you can choose perks that make your preferred skills better in some way. For example, an Archery expert can learn to slow down time while zoomed in with his bow. Your character progression isn't a strait jacket, either. A thief can learn how to use magic and a mage can use heavy armor. It's easy enough to grind up a desired skill, thanks in part to the trainers throughout the world.
The visuals of Skyrim will bring out the wanderer in you. Though Skyrim is a northern climate, that doesn't mean it's just miles of tundra. There are forests, mountain ranges, swamps and grasslands. Assuming you're not caught in fog or a blizzard, you'll be able to see for miles. Much of your free time will be whittled away trying to reach some faraway tower or chase down some dragon flying by.
There are both named and random dragons throughout the game world. You'll often find them attacking towns and it's fascinating to watch them in action. They'll circle high above the town and then swoop down, strafing the streets with their fiery (or icy or whatever) breath. They can also perch on top of a building and blast whatever helpless guards have attacked them. Eventually they'll land with a heavy crash and start gobbling up people.
In truth, it's more fun to watch dragons fight townspeople than it is to fight these monsters. Combat has always been the weakpoint of Elder Scrolls games and Skyrim continues the tradition. Ranged and melee combat alike just result in a lot of circle-strafing and button mashing. The introduction of dual-wielding, slow-mo executions and stealth kills aren't enough to make battles interesting. In combat, I look back and forth between the enemy's healthbar and my healthbar, rather than at the action itself - that seems wrong. It's a lot less riveting than combat in Demon's Souls, a fellow RPG in which movement and timing are key. Skyrim's battles don't demand much from the player in terms of strategy or reflexes. Considering how state-of-the-art most of the game is, it's surprising how outdated the combat is.
The A.I. doesn't help matters. Melee enemies blindly charge you, while ranged stay at a stationary point and barrage you. Playing a thief character, I was weak against melee opponents so my preferred tactic was to simply keep dancing around enemies until they got caught on the environment so I could fill them with arrows without taking damage. That same bug was in Fallout 3 and the other Elder Scrolls games, by the way. I think it's due for a fix, guys.
Also, I probably spend half of each fight rummaging through my inventory. Skyrim's user interface is a bit of a mess. The inventory is a series of alphabetical lists broken down by category (weapons, apparel, books, potions, and so on). To get a Potion of Healing, you'll need to scroll through the list of other potions you picked up - and it's a very long list because there are different levels of quality for each type of potion out there. You can designate items for a shorter "favorites" menu so you can get them quicker but this list quickly becomes a mess because it's a mix of weapons, consumables and spells.
The inventory might've worked better if we could see all of our items laid out on a page-sized grid, like you'd see from opening your bags in Diablo. I'm not sure why Skyrim insists on pushing all the items into these narrow lists, and then devoting most of the inventory screen to a rotatable 3D model of whatever item you've currently selected. I know what a carrot looks like, thanks. I can count the number of items I've needed/wanted to inspect on one hand. PC gamers can probably find a user-made mod with a less crappy UI but unfortunately console owners will have to make do.
Few games can eat up your free time like Skyrim does. I've played a few dozen hours and still feel like I've barely touched the game. Skyrim has its frustrations but the journey is long, exciting and worthwhile.
Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox 360, PS3
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks