Skyrim is the latest title in the Elder Scrolls series of games from Bethesda. After the accolades Oblivion received on reception, it’s a title that comes with high expectations and big armoured boots to fill. Skyrim boasts improved visuals, more locations and a far bigger adventure; prepare yourself for your new life, fantasy is about to overtake reality.

The main quest and story arc in Skyrim revolves around your character exploring his (or her) Dragonborn heritage. The game’s intro is perhaps the longest and most impressive yet in the Elder Scrolls series and sets things up nicely for the epic voyage. Things begin in the middle of an imperial war as you’re carted off for execution as a traitor only to escape due to the interference of a mightily impressive dragon. This initial forty minutes or so introduces many of the aspects of the game, including melee, ranged and magical combat. You’re able to choose your base class, appearance and race, it is then off into the world to explore as desired.

Combat in Skyrim has been improved a little, although the melee battles still feel somewhat less controlled and detached. Ranged attacks work remarkable well however, getting massive sneak damage bonuses and there are plenty of spells to learn, along with extra special dragon shout abilities, that are picked up on the travels across the various cities and locations, when discovered in the massive land area. It’s easy enough to switch between the different combat types, thanks to the slick “favourite items” menu, where any number of items can be hot-keyed. There is a fair variety of different creatures to fight; spiders, wolves, bears, mountain cats, vampires, giants, mudcrabs and others appear randomly in the land, though the varition is small from area-to-area with the same types clumping together. The player has the choice of fight-or-flight, but then there are the dragons.

There are a number of times throughout the game where there is the need to strike and kill these gargantuan fire and ice breathing foes. They are huge compared to other inhabitants of Skyrim, rattling the controller and screeching before you finally spot them. With plenty of HP, it takes some time to slay them, but the reward is the absorption of their souls, giving some seriously extraordinary powers to the player.

As progress is made through the game, it is the playing in the style of your choosing that levels your character. There is no more selecting the major skill sets and being stuck with them; if you want to become a great thief, just pick a lot of locks, sneak around stealing and pick-pocketing and before long you’re levelling up and gaining better and better abilities in your chosen career. Similarly if you want to be a great warrior, get busy with the swords and shields. For those who want to be a great potion maker and enchanter, then collect ingredients and go play with potions … and so on. It is a system that works exceedingly well, making it rewarding enough to feel like you are a true hero and adventurer.

When you do level-up, the choice is there to increase either health, stamina or magika, along with being able to select a special ability from the tech-trees that govern the major skill sets. Make sure to look out for special skill books too, as these give you cheap upgrades (as do numerous trainers, but for a few gold coins).

As well as the main story line, there are a number of guilds to join, such as the Mages, the Imperials, the thieves, the warrior clans and even a Bard’s guild, all with their own story to unfold. These occasionally cross paths and characters, but most choices don’t block the ability to complete all story branches. The odd one or two will close off certain paths – so make your choices wisely. One of the most fun guilds to enjoy once again is the Dark Brotherhood, with some fabulous and interesting missions to complete for Mother.

Even after fifty hours of time invested in Skyrim it feels like the surface of the game has barely been scratched. There’s still plenty of paint to claw through until the bare metal reveals itself. It’s all too easy to start off heading to complete one mission, only to get side-tracked on a dungeon crawl or miscellaneous quest gained from talking to random NPCs.

There’s plenty of dialog in Skyrim from the various quest lines and NPCs, and while the main stories are well voiced for the most part, there is a scattering of random accents, even across races that kind of spoils the illusion a little bit – it could of helped being a little more consistent, but it’s not a massive bugbear when there’s so much exploration to be done – dungeon crawls being a hoot in their own right.

There are a number of particular dungeons styles encountered throughout Skyrim, including the steam-punk Dwemer ruins of the Dwarfs, the shady cave hideouts of the vampires and the fortified towers populated with bandits. Clearing out these locations boasts great treasure rewards and there always seems to be something of worth at the end of the chase. The dungeons also feel larger than those of Oblivion, but the same great design means back tracking is rarely required, with alternate exits available to the main map at the end of the run in most instances.

You’ll also happen across shipwrecks, Deadric shines and encampments of giants herding mammoths. With a game map the size Skyrim boasts it’s easy to uncover over a hundred locations and still have something else to find. Many of the Deadric quests are filled with humorous scripts and tasks to perform, and without going into too many spoilers these include waking up from a Stag do and Barabas the talking dog.

It does seem like the developers have watched The Lord of the Rings (extended editions of course), many many times. There are loads of moments in the game that feel just like the epic journey Frodo and his buddies made, aided greatly by a wonderful soundtrack that accompanies the action and the exploration. Many of the areas of Skyrim are covered in snow and ice; when the blizzards strike it almost possible to experience the cold and gusting winds – it’s enough to confuse you in to turning the central heating on. There are subtle changes in colour saturation as the player moves from the warmer central areas of the world to the bleaker outer reaches, and there are vistas that seem to stretch even further this time, being both plentiful and jaw dropping.

The game has had more spit and polish in the looks department; there are less framerate issues, but there is still texture pop-in noticeable while moving in the world. There’s a definite improvement however, and the game even mocks itself with some NPCs proclaiming the women of Skyrim are better looking.

It should be noted that there are some glitches and bugs in the game. Considering the massive scale of the open-world and the many variants of dynamic content within Skyrim, this shouldn’t be a huge shock, and most of those encountered during the journey, such as levitating mammoths, minor framerate stutters and the odd solid invisible wall, haven’t been show stopping, that was until a major progress halting problem with the first Mage’s Guild quest. The game rotates three auto-saves and the player is free to save whenever the desire strikes, so the ability to back-out and recover should be achievable most of the time. A glitch in one of the main quest lines is pushing things somewhat, but Bethesda say fixes are being done. Given the nature of things it’ll never be completely glitch free.

Even with these issues there is only one way to describe Skyrim and that is epic. There is so much to see, do and experience that it’s exceedingly easy to get lost in the fantasy. It’s not a remarkable or radical departure from Oblivion, so if that game left you cold, Skyrim will too. For those who embraced that lifestyle, you will find Skyrim is Oblivion+++. Buy it now, ditch all your responsibilities and say goodbye to the rest of 2011 and perhaps even 2012 as well.

Marty Greenwell

Marty has been gaming since the heady years of the ZX-81 and still owns most of the gaming systems purchased since those days, including the Atari 2600, ZX Spectrum, SNES, Jaguar, Dreamcast and GameCube. Being a collection junkie (or more accurately, hoarder), he buys more games than he can possibly play, far too many of which are still sealed in their packaging. Marty favours RPGs and Driving games when it comes to genres, and is possibly a little bit too addicted to Disgaea. When not gaming he’s out frightening OAPs on his motorcycle, clad in black leather.

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