Before I begin, I will just give the disclaimer that nothing will be spoiled – I will avoid anything story-related at all costs. When it comes to Skyrim, the stories that you can tell just from how the game works are the best ones anyway.
Skyrim is massive and takes place just north of where the previous game, Oblivion, took place. A very pleasant, yet brief, introduction sets up the plot of a lifetime: Skyrim is in the middle of a revolt, you have been sentenced to death, oh, and dragons have just showed up. Have fun!
Right from the beginning you travel through your first a cave and eventually end up at a cold and mountainous country. With no linear plot line, you ultimately decide where you want to go, and when. The sense of freedom in Skyrim is dizzying. The vast mountains in every direction make the landscape seem limitless, and even after exploring it for 55 hours, this world feels huge and unknown on a scale neither of the previous two games did.
The climates do change quite often (this is a 40 square kilometer playing field we are talking about) – you can travel to giant, hulking mountains to a coniferous forests to the rocker river valleys. The mountains change everything. Wherever you decide to head, your journey is split between scrambling up treacherous rocks and skidding down heart-stopping slopes. The landscape is a challenge, and travel becomes a game.
The hardest part about this game is that no matter how hard you focus on one single quest, you will never be able to finish it without being tempted to enter one of the 100 caves you come across throughout the world. Trust me, your curiousity will get the best of you. The caves, dungeons, bandit camps, giants and dragon burials are the meat of Skyrim and make it actually quite exciting to go exploring. Try walking past a cave and saying “I am positive there is nothing in there worth exploring” – you will not be able to.
The dragons don’t show up until you do the first few steps of the game’s main quest, so it’s up to you whether you want them terrorising the world as you wander around. A world where you can crest a mountain to find a 40-foot flying lizard spitting jets of ice at the village below is a much more interesting one to be in. But fighting them never changes much: you can just ignore them until they land, then shoot them from a distance when they do.
As your character progresses, your abilities will naturally get better as well. Whether you are fighting with a bow, sneaking up on people to back stab them, or going the good old classic sword and shield, it stays exciting the entire time. Each level you gain unlocks a perk. Perks can be used to “specialize” your character to your play style. For example: if you choose to dual wield, your perks will allow you to not only hit harder, but much faster and will also eventually lead you into special abilities – like pulling off a sprinting attack which will knock your enemies down. It is completely unrestricted, so do not feel like you have to build a certain way. Have fun with it.
One of my favorite things in this game is that, in most cases, the enemies you encounter are scaled to match the level of your character. This means that, no matter what level you are, the enemies will be equally as difficult. This allows for that non-linear story progression I mentioned earlier. If you want to go murder all the dragons now, do it. If you want to explore all the caves first, you can. It does not matter because it will never get easier. It stays a challenge until the end.
One dissapointment, however, was taking away the ability to design your own spells like you could in Oblivion. That opened up so many possibilities and now you are restricted to what you can purchase in a shop (remember you can still add perks though!) Speaking of negatives, the physical combat hasn’t improved much either. There is a fancy little cinematic that will randomly happen when you strike an enemy for the killing blow, but other than that, it is pretty much the same. The exception to the negatives is archery. Bows are deliciously powerful this time around and stealth shots can impale enemies in one supremely satisfying thwunk.
What does improve the general combat is a feature I didn’t quite expect: you can hire or befriend permanent companions. I did a minor favour for an elf at the start of the game that earned me his loyalty for the next 40 hours of play. Sidekicks add a wild side to fights: an arrow from nowhere can end a climactic battle, or a misplaced Dragon Shout can accidentally knock your friend into an abyss.
The Dragon Shouts, gained by exploration and killing dragons, are like a manlier version of conventional magic. One can send even a Giant flying, one lets you breathe fire, another makes you completely invincible for a few seconds. Even the one for befriending furry animals is macho: it can turn four bears and a wolf pack into obedient pets with one angry roar.
In your typical game that we refer to as a “sandbox” or “open-world” game usually restricts access to certain parts of the world until you reach a major story plot, or certain level. Not Skyrim, they put an entire country in a box ready for you to run around in forever, right from the start. It is literally the best open world game I have ever played and certainly the most liberating RPG I have ever played.
Long story short, if you missed what I am trying to say. This game is worth every penny.