Skyrim’s marketing has been perplexing; every glossy front-page, every punchy trailer and every towering storefront cardboard-cutout are fronted by one character: A horned warrior with a sword and a board looking like quite the muscle-bound pseudo viking hero. Why? That ain’t what Skyrim is about. My character is a hunched lizard-man who feels the weight of piles of regal finery and raises his foes to fight for him in gruesome undeath. The eponymous country in Bethesda’s latest title is their most fully realised fantasy realm to date, packed with a hope-crushing number of tasks to tackle and presented with systems design that is at once both streamlined and richly detailed. And I’ll be damned if I’m wasting that opportunity on a boring old martial swordsman.
Dragons. Now that’s what I’m talking about. You play as a Dovahkiin, or dragonborn (Bethesda have created, if not a full J.R.R. caliber language, then certainly a whole bunch of words), who can wield the thu’um, or shouts, of your scaly hot-tempered ancestors. Fiery wyverns invade Skyrim for a not-glaringly-obvious reason, and the main quest potters along with finding out why.
The pair of leathery wings that allow Skyrim’s central plot line to soar (higher than any earlier Bethesda main quest) are not those of the dragons; a Dovahkiin can choose to side with one of two competing forces and the decision is far from black and white. Sure, the Roman legion-esque Imperials rule Skyrim against its will and strangle the culture’s religious freedoms with many a public execution, but they are also responsible for its entire economic viability. The Stormcloaks: a vast network of rebellious native Nords, are Skyrim’s freedom fighters, but can be brutally, terrifyingly jingoistic.
Bethesda has blown their preceding Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion (which presented a zeitgeist that could best be described as: “Oh no, demons!”) out of the water, but Skyrim hangs onto a few writing quibbles. Everything seems to come all to easily to the Dovahkiin; after “defeating” a dragon that was attacking a city (a feat which I accomplished by cowering in a nearby tower and letting the city guards skirmish and be devoured in my stead) you are heralded as the fortified town’s greatest hero and applauded before the quest has really even begun. A personal audience with the high queen of the whole of Skyrim is as easy as knocking on the palace’s front door.The high-fantasy tale is still great, but the dialogue and pacing is noticeably stodgier than, say, a BioWare game.
If you are anything at all like me though, then the main quest will sit as one near-obscured, if enigmatic and alluring, face in a crowd of many. A Skyrim player’s in-game journal, even an hour or so into the game, is so replete withtasks that journeying to a new town becomes the source of a real kind of dread.
Superficially it could be easy to cry “Simplistic!” at Skyrim’s vast collection of quests, and in a world of less richness and saturation a few might be, but most often they spiral out of control into something much greater. Fetch quests are a not-insignificant portion, that’s true, but if they aren’t just the prettiest little fetch quests you ever did see. Bounties that requirethe removal a hoarded-up power-hungry bandit captain would be immensely enjoyable on the back of Skyrim’s multi-dimensional combat system alone; that they take place in totally unique locations, eachwith its own story to tell,is the pastry lid on the pie (that you will be able to cook on a fire using ingredients you have found in the wild).
“Dungeon” is a pretty loose term when it comes to Skyrim; Nordic barrows filled with traps and undead fit the clammy bill well, and the rusted Dwarven ruins filled with thousand-year-old ratcheting behemoths that roll towards invaders fit more or less, but the great grotto filled with pirate ships or the similar huge cave containing a beautiful natural grove have a harder time. The job that the delve masters have done making each environment look unique is extraordinary. Even simple caves have very few repeating motifs. Once again, Skyrim is an era ahead of the wallpaper-paste bland dungeons of Oblivion and the rubble-filled broken buildings of Fallout 3.
This brand new dungeon design epoch isn’t without its drawbacks, as it might be argued that Skyrim’s set-piece locales are a little too streamlined: closer to a hydro-slide than a treacherous river. Other than maybe one or two, there are quite literally no branching pathways in any of the dungeons in the whole realm.After descending down from the vast tundra, which encourages travel along all 360 bearings, there is not a single fork in the road. Certainly, it’s less confusing; I can’t count the times I attempted to decipher how high up I was in one of Fallout 3’s multiple floor buildings, but somethingreally is lost – even if it’s just the ability to sneak around, stalk, and corral your quarry.
You know all that stuff I just said about less complicated dungeons? Truth be told, it kind of doesn’t matter –Skyrim’s combat, and the loot-plundering, reagent-gathering, armor-smelting meta-game that supports it, is really great. If you focus on swordplay as generic-marketing-campaign-fighter-guy did(or axe or mace-play as the case may be) there is a chance for disappointment. Pounding away at enemies feels only a little less clumsy and sticky than it did in Oblivion. Battling shield-wielding foes, for example, does not seem to rely on timing – and quickly degenerates to unceremoniously battering them until they submit. As your character gets pumped, and his levels climb quickly in Skyrim, new perks are unlocked that make melee combat a whole lot more fluid and fun – but sticking to it entirely would be a huge shame.
The moment you throw a dash of magic into the mix, or a little archery (ideally both) however,the combat lifts palpably– as most things tend to do with a dash of the arcane. With a couple of companions(I summoned one and procured another soldier pal from town to handle the less interesting melee combat), the battles become quite intense. Half a dozen zombies might be supported by a couple of mages, both sides might be launching exploding lightning balls, raising fallen foes to fight and having a grand old time about it. My favourite spell, and it might sound like the blandest of all, is a ward. They have the potential to block all magic damage but must be timed correctly to avoid draining magicka. It makes mage battles feel like a real duel. Who wouldn’t want to be Hermione Granger?
And that’s all before the dragons show up.
Dragons rule. It’s not because there are an impressive number of different kinds, or because of the way they dip, dive, circle, land and hover while blasting intermittent waves of frost or fire or whatever else. Dragons are great in Skyrim because they can turn up anywhere. I really mean that: perched on a building at the edge of town, sheltering behind a rock or simply circling the peak of a looming mountain. Best of all is when you find one already locked in combat. I came across a mighty beast dive-bombing a watchtower seething with necromancers. It blasted an inferno across the parapets as the creepy wizards responded with their own petty fireballs. It’s a source of another of Skyrim’s quirks – dragons, when it comes down to it, aren’t that difficult,and a few guards can take one down if they’re patient about it. It’s more than worth it,though,when you lure one into a tribe of giants and watch them promptly squish its skull.
To think, thirteen hundred and two words through an Elder Scrolls review without even discussing the fact that it’s an open world. It’s a mark of just how well integrated everything is in Skyrim that it doesn’t feel as much like a ”go anywhere, do anything game” as it does a game where “go anywhere” is contained quite snuggly under the “do anything” umbrella – If that makes any sense at all. My first whiff of freedom saw my lizard character working in a smithy: crafting leather on a tanning rack before making it into armour on a forge and honing some blades on a grindstone. A friendly blacksmith in a humble woodland village is totally cool with strangers using his equipment. The architecture certainly isn’t as out-there as it was in Morrowind (The Elder Scrolls III), but it’s not as boring as the comfortable British hamlets in Oblivion. There aren’t buildings made of hollowed out nuts that have no stairs (Because mages levitate – duhh!), but there is a whole town hewn from the stone of a mountain side nestled in an area sheltered from Skyrim’s persistent blizzards. The game sits comfortably in the middle ground.
Later on, (Not that much later. It does not take long to fill your pack to bursting with an enormous variety of alchemical ingredients) my scaly avatar devoured blue butterfly wings and strange vampire dust to experimentally determine their medicinal or poisonous properties. Whatever skill path you follow in Skyrim, it’s always going to be genuinely useful. Potions and forged jewelry are lucrative even if you completely ignore their obvious fighting applications. Archery is punchy, stealth backstabs can one-shot a dragon at high levels, and restoration is vital for healing your buddies. The whole character development system in Skyrim is wound tighter than the string on an ancient Nordic longbow.
It’s funny, isn’t it? The more a game does well, the easier it becomes to beg for more. Shamelessly beg. Plead. It’s embarrassing really. “Why isn’t this like game like Fallout: New Vegas” I find myself whining like a toddler– a game based on Bethesda’s own Fallout 3 that could be completed without killing a single gnat? In Skyrim, no matter what path you take, you will just be doing loads of fighting. The answer is that Skyrim is not that the kind of game. Skyrim is the greatest heroic fantasy epic I’ve experienced in a long time. Things will be slain. No question. So much slaying. There’s so little filler here. It all just works. Build a character in Skyrim, not horny Viking guy, something interesting, and head in your favourite direction. You will find something wonderful. I guarantee it. 
Platform: PS3, Xbox 360, PC