Rage's Wastelands would fill one corner of the map, Arkham City, a single mountain range. Skyrim's forged in the same fire as Bethesda's previous efforts. Like Fallout, like Oblivion, it's a vast open world realistically etched and densely populated, and detailing its cultures and history would fill a Lonely Planet guide twice over. The wildlife and its hierarchy would need a David Attenborough TV special. Investigating the land's secrets and hidden tombs would need an archaeologist with the balls and fortitude of Indiana Jones.
Skyrim's a big place. When other games are running their ending credits, Elder Scrolls is just starting to show you some of its secrets. Its that type of time sink. But it deserves that escalating hour count: it's a rich environment. Everything, from epic quests to routine village life, interests.
Gameplay draws from fantasy convention. So to the story. It's a first-person adventure - though third-person perspective is included - your weapons swords, bows, magic. RPG elements draw from the vast levelling system for these as well as other widespread perks that cater for specialisation in the likes of thievery, bribery, conjuration, crafting. These XP-upgrades, letting you master any number of roles are a means to an end rather the end itself; it's your, not the developer's, decision as to how you see and interact with Skyrim.
The narrative is fantasy stock: dragons, elves, hopes and dreams crushed under racism and oppression, but the developer crafts all with such vehement detail that from warrior-kings to lowly farmers, demons to insects, the wind-swept plains and ice-gripped mountains bustle with life.
The studio excels at making you believe that NPCs live, laugh, fight and die whether you're around to witness or not. Conversation options are surprisingly generous, and regional accents hint at the history of their lives. They're built from the same character creator as you are, so the only time you'll find incestuous parallels between them is when Bethesda wants you to.
Interaction with them can range from historical tit-bits of a particular region, pointers to areas of interest, request for help, threats or - more likely from bandits that roam the wilds, combat.
Fighting's primarily the trigger button alignment. You can map weapons or spells to your left and right hands, while a growing number of special powers can be selected with the shoulder button.
First-person close-quarters combat, always a difficult one to pull of in this perspective, is implemented beautifully.
Sub-menu instructions explain the pros and cons of shield-blocking and two-handed combat, but can't convey the invigorating battle-frenzy that results - awkward enthusiasm, tinged with fear (the opening hours, as you learn the timings and name yourself a fool for not saving your game earlier) into confident execution and beserker rage (instinct kicks in, and you wish there more worthy a foe to conquer).
Battles toss you against a wide range of foes; axe-men, witches with long-range spells, wolves, dragons, undead warriors, and each requires different strategies to overcome. Spamming health potions in hope of wearing your opponent out won't get you far, and with the worldwide open as it is for exploration, you can encounter enemies much too powerful to survive against.
Some force you to draw weapon and fight, but you're as equally free to slaughter friendly villagers if you so choose. It's a continent of a hundred different stories and areas, each as entirely important or superfluous as the next; even those ear-marked as main quests by Achievement-based unlocks can be ignored wholeheartedly.
Aside from grotty wish-fulfilment better served under the counter at your local porn emporium, Skyrim delivers any desire one would have involving a rich and varied fantasy setting. Likely too that this fifth game in the franchise does a much better job of it than your imagination ever could.
After a brief introduction that sets up the main themes of game's central narrative spine - a rebellion, dragons' return, the suggestion your role in both can be much more, you're free to strike out where you will, develop as you see fit. Brief tutorials and waypoints mere suggestion that can be ignored if you so choose. In Skyrim there's no wrong path; a reasoning that one of its strengths.
Personally, I couldn't give a fig about two suitors plying me to help them win their sweetheart's hand. It's beneath me. Don't like it either? Take a hike over yonder hill and you'll find a story, and quest, to your liking. A few hours in and waypoint mission markers will congregate on mass around towns and plains like smokers outside a pub in winter.
Some objectives are set in one area: the husband seeking your aid in breaking his imprisoned wife out of a bandit camp, a simpleton needing closure on his sister's whereabouts. Some you're thrown into: a fugitive pleading with you not to rat him out to the pursuing warrior he's stolen from, a courier with a terse message. Others have you marching from one end of the map to the other, others you encounter in ongoing fashion throughout your time here: scouts tracking down a wanted woman, a rebellion's hideouts in need of supplies.
You're given multiple choices in how to engage with each, and any can twist in surprising ways: the wife is revealed as the bandit leader, seeking self-worth away from a marriage of servitude, a search for the sister's remains has you stumbling not only upon an archmage's tomb, but an era-long mystery over a disgraced warrior who's removed from the annals of history.
These are just a handful of the side-quests that propagate the lands. The story behind each rich and different from the others to mask completely the mechanics that lie behind them, and even retrieve quests, the classic fetch and find staple of adventure games, can turn on their head unexpectedly.
There'll be missions you love, others you hate, some you can't see the appeal: and the number of names, places and events are such they can become white noise after a while. The in-game journal is abridged to keep miscellaneous mission goals straightforward but is too brief to allow for research after the fact. Case in point: we agreed to the murder a child's teacher when we thought we were delivering a sword to a blacksmith due to a mix-up in names. In that respect, the game does require you to meet it halfway; to engage in the belief of where you are and keep track of what you're doing.
Yet side-quests flavour the imagination. The central story hub, at least to begin, seems boringly stuffy in comparison. Condemned prisoner revealed as having power unknown to man, and wanders the land in search of enlightenment by way of a group of Gandalf-wannabes sickening in their servitude to the greater good. It seems the standard pomp that fills any named fantasy novel.
Cue the dragon fights, however - the winged beasts randomly dropping from the skies as you trek across the landscape, and you feel fully merged in a Tolkien-style saga, requiring you to know your repertoire of attacks and the terrain - nearby holdings can be used as cover, villagers as a distraction.
And this is a fantasy epic of your own making. Where individualism in other titles is marked only in XP-orientated spending decisions, here every choice defines you, the freeform nature both craving and mystery that'll pull you back in for several hours at a time, eager to see what you can do and its fallout. Making you think, analyse, antagonise - feel - the weight of each perk chosen, attack initiated, road taken.
The illusion's not perfect. Open worlds such as this are prone to the odd glitch, and Skyrim is no different. We learn to overlook the odd issue, but it can shake the immersion somewhat when, say, a mammoth air-walks over the hut you're currently using as cover. Or a group of dragon-spotters slide Michael Jackson -style sideways off a mountain. Break into an NPC conversation to talk and occasionally the others will carry on regardless.
You pick-up a lot of stuff over the course of your adventure, some items that'll remain completely useless because you've decided against learning herbal remedies, or crafting your own enchanted weapons. Alongside upgrades, skills, scrolls, books...it can be daunting. Bethesda has done its best to make the experience as easy as possible; but no UCAS, application or life choice could ever be as complex, frightening, exciting and potentially rewarding as what you have at your fingertips.
Such juggling between all the diverse elements should be a nightmare. The studio streamlines the system smoothly, a four-direction selection menu with B keeps things as simple as possible, mimicking drop-down menus as you dig deeper into items, levelling up, magic or maps. A quick-assign sub-menu for your favourite armaments means you're never long away from the action.
Visually Skyrim is a pock-marked beauty. The landscape is vibrant and loaded with detail. You'll soak in horizons, appreciate the finer carvings in dungeons, but grimace over the ruggedness of character models that's less realistic portrayal, more hardware deficiency. If that's the weakest element, then audio and score are the strongest, immersing you completely. Nature's voice in the creak of trees, bubbling brooks and freezing winds complemented by swells and dips of music that are the best we've ever heard.
The fifth Elder Scrolls is also terrifying. The kind of game that breaks reviewers out in a cold sweat at night, fearful of doing the game an injustice. Not that the title is poor, far from it, but even with playing the game over a week and a half now, we still feel like we've barely scratched the possibilities within. Flicking through review screenshots, idle conversation with others confirms that notion.
Certainly, the game's huge enough to outlast all the recent triple-A titles' campaigns combined. We started by saying this was the best solo experience on the market right now. That wasn't entirely accurate. Skyrim will be the title dissected the most between you and friends, findings detailed, secrets traded.
It's a game whose worth grows in the sharing, as you begin to conceive how much you haven't seen just yet, even as you exchange tips on alchemy, or commiserate on the bitter fruitlessness in spending all your savings to buy your first horse, only to have it taken down by wolves a few miles down the road. It's as real a world as gaming can get right now and you're going to be told things in the coming weeks and months that you never knew. It's game incredibly personal yet globally-shared. Good entertainment is gripping, great stories are compelling: Skyrim is both.
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