Review by ExtremePhobia

"An epic look, an epic feel, and an epic amount of things to explore."

Let's assume that you've played the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (and if you haven't, you should). Think of the sweeping vistas full of water, trees, and snowy mountains accompanied its grand music. Picture your ride on horseback or your stroll through the crowded streets of the Imperial City. Travel from lush Cyrodil to the fiery Plane of Oblivion, remembering the variety of the world. Now picture the inventory screen or the way you were asked to choose all sorts of things about yourself (race, sign, skills, etc.,) without even knowing what they were. It was a game that was superb in almost every way and had was just shy of perfect.

Now imagine the kind of game it would have been if you'd applied all the beauty and attention to detail of the world of Oblivion to every aspect of the game. And amplify it all four fold.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim by Bethesda is the labor of five years of love layered on top of (figuratively, since it's actually a new engine) one of the greatest games of all time. In an age where most games offer collectables and leaderboards to turn a 10 hour game into a 50 hour game, the Elder Scrolls series continues to offer hundreds of hours of gameplay and does so with dungeons and side quests that will still have your eyes popping until the very end. And if you play on a PC, that's only the beginning because there will doubtless be a modding community that will release an endless stream of additions to the game allowing hundreds of hours more lost just to customizing your own game experience.

The game starts off in the land of Skyrim after the High King has been killed. Various factions argue over the secession of Skyrim from the Empire due to the Empire's decline. While the people of Skyrim bring themselves to the brink of civil war, the long absent Dragons return, striking fear into the world. You take the world of the last of the Dovahkiin (Dragonborn), a person born with the soul of a dragon who is capable of speaking in the powerful tongue of the Dragons. The Elder Scrolls told of a time after the closing of Oblivion when Dragons would return and that you, the last of the Dragonborn, would be the only thing that they fear. You must discover the cause of their return and save Skyrim in Bethesda's deepest and most interesting story yet.

Skyrim (the game) takes place 200 years after Oblivion which means that if you've played through Oblivion, your previous knowledge will enrich the story but it is unnecessary for the understanding of Skyrim. For instance, you may understand why the Empire is in decline but since it happened 200 years ago, the events are only important in that they caused a chain reaction that lead to the state of things in Skyrim in a similar fashion to how the Hobbit enriches your understanding of the Lord of the Rings but is not necessary for its understanding.

And while we're talking abou back story, The Elder Scrolls series has always had a somewhat optional application of additional story and you could allow it into the game in whatever degrees you wanted. Surrounding the main story of the game are countless factions and side stories that flesh out the world you are in. In the world of Oblivion alone, there were hundreds of books that covered topics of religion, history, and just about anything else you wanted to know let alone actual quests or conversations with NPCs that you could have.

This style of storytelling returns in Skyrim. In every dungeon you can find things that add to the story of what you are doing. You will discover the personal effects of an adventurer who met an untimely end or the journal of a traveller who was returning home and sought shelter in a cave. Before you know it, you will be returning an heirloom to a grieving family or helping a mage with his research. It's such an organic process that you won't realize that you've been doing side-quests until you open your quest journal and see all the things you've recently accomplish. At every turn you will find something more to do and for everything you do, you will feel rewarded. If you take the time to enjoy the richness of Skyrim, you will find a world deeper and more fleshed out than any other game possibly ever.

Skyrim is all about options. At the start of the game, you only choose your race and every race is capable of doing every quest. All of your skills develop through use and you never reach a point where you can't use the skill you want.

The big addition is the ability to equip any weapon or spell to either hand. This allows you to dual wield weapons, spells, or use two handed weapons. After developing your skills, if you dual wield the same spell, you can cast a greater version of the spell or you may gain the ability to decapitate enemies in melee combat.

There are also a fair number of support abilities like smithing and alchemy that can provide you with very rewarding results. Develop these skills and you'll be able to use weapons, armor and potions of your own design. There is nothing more satisfying than knowing that all that time you spent crafting armor or potions saved your life. All of this is in support of the sneaking, fighting, questing and loot gathering that you'll spend most of your time doing. You will mingle in the streets, crawl through dungeons, and climb tall mountains, fighting monsters and meeting creatures big and small. Everything you do will feel meaningful and rewarding.

If that's not enough, there are also the dragons which take the place of boss fights that can happen anywhere. While some happen at specific spots because of story, others can appear randomly while you are travelling somewhere. What are your spoils for wearing down a dragon and finally slaying it? You get to absorb its soul which allows you to use powerful Shouts in the dragon tongue. These shouts are incredibly powerful spells that can range from a simple but strong push to controlling the weather to your advantage.

First, the bad news. It appears that Skyrim doesn't support non-widescreen TVs. If you don't have a widescreen, expect to have words in the menu system running off the sides of the screen and so far, I haven't found a way to adjust the viewable section of the screen which is sad consider a lot of games have decided to allow you to do that recently. Also, while Skyrim is a stunning game to look at, it comes with rather long load times on consoles if you haven't installed it. While unscientific, it appeared to me that the load times did decrease to a noticeable degree if you install the game. Also, despite these long load times, the game does still have hick-ups where it will freeze momentarily. While it's not something to be concerned about and is otherwise hardly noticeable, it's still there and slightly disorienting.

However, the long load times are so that both the world and even the menu itself wow you. Not all of the textures look great up close but as a whole, the hand crafted lands of Skyrim are a wonder to behold. When you climb to the top of a mountain, look over the world and your eyes pop out (they will), remember that people actually made that. The game doesn't always stand up to close inspection but if you are actually playing the game instead of nitpicking, you are only ever going to see a lush, green world filled with gorgeous architecture and panoramic views that will suck you in.

The menus are a huge improvement this time around, dumping the large, clunky menus of Oblivion for a streamlined branching tree system. Accompanying the common sense design are detailed models of all the items you are carrying and when you level up, you get an impressive look at the stars. Also of interest is the map which is actual the game world, rendered inform very far away. That map is actually exactly the same as the world you will be running through and it looks great.

The music of Skyrim is astounding. You will hear everything from grand orchestra music to only a single instrument or two. Every bit of music is perfect for setting the atmosphere of whatever you are doing. The sound effects come up a little short unfortunately but they are still far from bad. It's just a large contrast from the peaceful or powerful music to the frequently reused sound effects.

Modding has historically been a heavily supported feature of the Elder Scrolls series. Generally Bethesda encourages modding but it's something you can only take advantage of on the PC. While I can't tell you how this will work out in the long run, what I can tell you is that most people I've talked to (myself included) consider the console versions to be significantly inferior on the grounds of modding alone. I purchased the 360 version because my computer isn't in shape to run it but I fully intend to get the PC version at a later date.

Previously, modding has taken the form of upgrades to graphics, effects, music, textures, animations and the creation of items, quests, dungeons, characters and even new lands. All of this is really significant because if you can purchase the PC version, you can get even more value out of your game for free.

While Skyrim has a few wrinkles to sort out in the form of occasional bugs or dumb things like not supporting non-widescreen TVs, it's still an incredible game. This is not a game for people who can't stand RPGs because that's what this is at its core. However, if you like RPGs even a little bit, Skyrim will be the one game that you will get the most play time out of. As I said, I am planning on buying this game a second time. The world is stunning, the gameplay is great and it has the kind of depth you can lose yourself in for hours at a time just to see what's over the next hill.

I'll be giving Skyrim a 9.0/10 (really more like a 9.2). The only real marks off are for minor issues like bugs that sometimes pop up. It's not quite perfect but it is still a fantastic game and certainly a strong contender for Game of the Year and my front runner at the moment.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 11/11/11

Game Release: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Collector's Edition) (US, 11/11/11)

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