In a time when even giants of single-player RPGs like Bioware try to cash in on the MMO market, it's nice to see Bethesda stick to their guns. And right they were, because Skyrim turns out to be a fantastic game. If you have played previous Bethesda titles such as Morrowind, Oblivion or Fallout 3, you will know what to expect and need read no further. Skyrim is as good if not better than those games, so if you liked them, make sure to pick up Skyrim as well.
For those readers who have not experienced those games however, some introduction may be in order. The game setting is a world called Tamriel, populated by different human races, elves and orcs as well as the humanoid cats named Khajit and the reptilian Argonians. But wait, don't take this to mean that the world is generic fantasy to the point of being boring, because it's not. I could not hope to give even a summary of the extremely detailed history of Tamriel, but in-game books will keep you occupied for hours on the subject if you so desire. Let me just give you an example: you may have noticed that I didn't list dwarves. That's because the dwarves have all vanished into thin air long ago, leaving their mysterious cities behind (daring explorers rejoice). Nobody knows exactly what happened, maybe you'll find out? Oh, and they weren't actually dwarves, they were elves. :) Interested yet?
Skyrim takes place in the province of, wait for it, Skyrim, a snowy, scandinavian area, ripe with the hardy Nord inhabiting it, Giants roaming the plains tending their Mammoth herds, mountain peaks, forests, you name it. The main plot line is concerned with the return of the dragons to Tamriel, the reason for that return and how you, the player, are mixed up in it. But there's more. Much more. You can help the Mages' College unearth dangerous artifacts, join the circle of the Companions, a band of mercenaries with a dark secret, support imperial loyalists or Stormcloak freedom fighters or you can do none of that and set out to roam the land as you see fit, become a master smith, etc. The possibilities are endless.
The almost complete freedom that the game grants the player is the game's greatest asset. The game does try to guide you where you need to go through a semi-dynamic quest system and you can choose to stick to the quests relating to the main plot, but you will still find yourself investigating ruins, caves and bandit hideouts that you come across in your travels.
Free choice is also present in the character generation as well as character progression. The only choice you need to make at the start of the game is that of a race. While this will confer certain bonuses, such as elves being more adept at magic while the feline Khajit are more stealthy for example, that choice will nevertheless be mostly cosmetic. Instead, every skill, such as various weapon-skills, schools of magic, sneaking, blacksmithing etc. all improve individually when used. As a result, your character will automatically develop to suit your play-style. Given enough individual skill improvements, you will also "level" which will allow you to increase one of the three basic stats, health, stamina and magicka, as well as granting you a perk point. The latter can be spent on further improving skills by for instance reducing the cost to cast spells, increasing damage from weapons, adding zoom-in for archery and a plethora of others. All in all, this allows for very detailed customization while greatly reducing the dangers of misbuilding your character or min-maxing.
So, a huge world to explore at your leisure with a tailor-made avatar, but does it look and sound good?
In short, yes it does. The graphics are very nice, the art style is impeccable and the soundtrack is suitably epic. Unlike many current games, you will remember the soundtrack on this one. All dialogue is voiced, as it should be and it ranges from competent to excellent. The devil though, is in the detail. As long as you look at the world, it's amazing, but if you actually examine it, textures sadly are not nearly as good as they could be on modern PCs, a fate Skyrim shares with many games released on consoles at the same time as on PC. It's not as bad as it was in Deus Ex, but still disappointing. On the plus side, Skyrim will run fine on "normal" PCs. Overall though, you will not notice these details while actually playing the game and it won't detract from the fun or immersion.
Perfect game then? Well, not quite. The main gripe I have with Skyrim is the user interface. It's a mess of scrolling lists that clearly make concessions to consoles. You'll suffer through it, you might even get used to it, but it's nevertheless unacceptable. A proper UI, taking advantage of the mouse should have been implemented. The map is also rubbish. Also, a small number of nagging issues, such as townspeople constantly engagin you in meaningless small-talk you just because you happened to walk past them, objects moving through the world for no reason, people sitting on non-existent chairs, armour clipping etc. will feel familiar to Fallout 3 players and should really have been ironed out.
Were it possible, I would give the game four and a half stars for the above reasons, but to be fair, a five-star rating is more appropriate because of the enjoyment you will get out of Skyrim vs the annoyance you'll have to deal with.