I remember the year 2006 when I first heard of the Elder Scrolls series a couple of months prior to the launch of the fourth title, Oblivion and it looked and sounded like no other game I had played before - it was THE best looking RPG back then and still a classic by today's standards. The fact that the game brought the medieval fantasy atmosphere so vibrantly to life paired with the fact that the game was so long and so diverse made me enjoy it for several years after that, especially because it was so moddable.
Now, more than 5 years later, this giant of a game got its official sequel: S K Y R I M.
Hoo boy, the internet was abuzz for months after its release. From arrow in the knee jokes to just how life ruiningly fun this game is, there was non stop chatter about Skyrim. Thankfully almost no spoilers at all, in stark contrast to the buzz about Mass Effect 3.
Anyways, when I first saw Skyrim's trailer I was actually a tad bit underwhelmed - the graphics, while definitely a big improvement over Oblivion, still didnt look THAT much better, you know? Oblivion already had set the tone for the series' current art style and Skyrim didnt alter this (also, the difference between Morrowind and Oblivion's graphics is far greater than the difference between Oblivion and Skyrim). A fully modded Oblivion can actually look better than a vanilla Skyrim, while the same can never be said between Morrowind and Oblivion.
In any case, I had indeed expected more - 2011 was already an age when games like Crysis 2, Killzone 2, Metro 2033, Battlefield 3 and the like were out and we had already been used to seeing fancy graphics. Thus, the long awaited Skyrim somewhat disappointed me and I didnt get it on day one. Instead, I chose to wait for the Legendary Edition that includes all three DLCs released so far: Hearthfire, Dragonborn and Dawnguard. I am happy that unlike Oblivion, Bethesda had the decency to not clutter us with micro transaction DLCs although a game as moddable as Skyrim (and especially due to it being tied to steam) was only begging to allow the company to monetize in this direction, so hats off to you, Bethesda.
So anyways, we're back in Tamriel and so I started playing Skyrim and have noticed that Bethesda has made a huge number of improvements over the years (and with their experience from Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas). Many of these improvements look like they were inspired by popular user made mods for previously released Bethesda games. For example, the fact that NPCs now carry torches in the dark was something that wasnt the case in Oblivion, but the content of a very popular mod made for that game. As is the fact that all kinds of fish swim in Skyrim's lakes. Or Dungeons no longer having silly doors that you need to interact with to get in or out. You can place your books on bookshelves, towns are illuminated at night, you can hear your heart pounding when low on health and on top of all this, there is horse combat now! Things, all of which had to be downloaded as mods for Oblivion come right out of the box in Skyrim.
Things like cooking, crafting (in Skyrim's case forging, smelting, tanning, sharpening etc.) have also been introduced, although far more dumbed down compared to the crafting in Fallout 3 and New Vegas - all you need in Skyrim is ore that can be smelted into ingots, which in turn are needed to create armor (that you can sell for more profit than the ingots required) or sharpen your weapons and improve your armor on the workbench. Likewise, buying ingots and crafting your armor yourself is cheaper than buying the armor directly from the blacksmith. And crafting is a process that takes 2 seconds once you have the 'ingredients', so it's not like you have to wait or anything. Of course, different armors need different types of ingots, like moonstone for Elvish and orichalcum for Orcish weapons and armor, paired with a higher required blacksmith skill. Unfortunately, weapons and armor no longer degrade after fighting, and repair hammers are thus non-existant in Skyrim. Yeah, the concept might have been tiresome/silly/mundane for folks playing Oblivion, but I kinda liked the mechanic (especially since it regularly bled your wallet dry and thus made looting dungeons more lucrative), so I am going to miss it dearly in Skyrim - you no longer need to head to the blacksmith to get all your gear repaired after doing a hard day's raiding anymore. On the other hand, we have even more newly implemented game mechanics, some of them utterly worthless, like the fact that you can now indefinitely cut your own wood and sell it to get rich (eventually) - for 5 gold a piece, while watching your character chop 3 pieces of wood (15 gold) already takes a half minute.
On the other hand, magic underwent a HUGE improvement. You can now cast spells with your left hand or your right hand, or even both simultaneously, allowing for a lot of flexibility. Destruction battlemage? Grab your sword in your right hand and cast spells with your left as you charge in for the kill. Resoration battlemage? Strike blows with your right while you have your left hand ready to heal yourself should your health bar start to drop at an alarming rate during the heat of combat. Defensive warlock? Grab your shield with your left hand to ward off enemies who get too close, and keep hurling spells with your right. Full-on spell caster? Hurl a torrent of deadly spells at your enemy using both hands!!! Obviously your mana pool should be appropriately large for this kind of warfare. The fact that staffs are now one-handed instead of two-handed is even more of a bonus for wizards as this allows them to cast spells using their mana while simultaneously casting spells from their staff that does not tap into their mana but uses up magical charge instead. Also, the utterly useless "touch" school of magic has been removed and the "on target" school of magic has been changed in that instead of hurling one spell after another at the enemy, you can now also launch a steady stream of magic at them. There's also some pretty new improvements like an illumination spell coming in the form of a glowing ball of light that either floats above your head or sticks to any surface you hurl it at. Very impressive!
Something that I consider a huge failed opportunity is that Skyrim does not come with an eat-drink-sleep mod the way the previous Bethesda game, Fallout New Vegas, did with its hardcore mode. Sure, there are plenty of massively endorsed eat-drink-sleep mods on Skyrim Nexus, but most of them (except "iNeed", which I am using) look pretty complicated and certainly not as easy as the one from New Vegas which showed you your hunger, thirst and sleep meters and you needed to periodically reduce them. Similarly, they could have implemented a hypothermia mod due to Skyrim's unique climate, but again they didnt (also available on Nexus). You can frolick around frozen mountaintops in the buff and continue to do so indefinitely. At least NPCs react to you being naked around them and refuse to sell things to you until you put some clothes on.
What I strongly dislike about Skyrim are its random enemy encounters. Bears and sabre cats literally jump at you from behind a pile of rocks, and it doesnt take much playing to realize this wasnt a nice effect of the immservie game world taking your carefree self by surprise, no, this was literally an enemy materializing out of thin air when your character gets into its scripted trigger zone. This is fun once or twice, but not being able to ride your horse for 5 minutes in one direction without being ambushed by such an unrealistic creature spawn is just plain ANNOYING! At least in previous Bethesda games you could see enemies already existing in the game world (and thus avoid them while travelling) instead of being created on the spot just to attack you.
Another thing that annoys me (ever since Fallout 3) is that Bethesda has gone overboard with companions. In Oblivion these were done masterfully - there were very few in the game and coming across them and/or earning their services was a very rare, but ultimately rewarding accomplishment (of course, this doesnt count for the Adoring Fan). Sure, Skyrim could have had a bit more characters than Oblivion did, but not this much... hell, Fallout New Vegas was the last Bethesda game where we got a bucketload of followers dumped on us, but at least each and every one of them actually had a unique story and quest of their own and PLENTY of interesting dialogue everytime you spoke to them, making them feel distinct and actually persuading you to download mods that let you have more than two at a time because you wanted to hear all their stories and do all their quests without having to keep sending them back. In Skyrim, not only are followers ridiculously easy to acquire (aka no searching or tough quest solving needed - you'll find most of them in taverns or assigned to you after becoming a Hold's Thane), but you are also given one almost immediately - in the first village you come across, Riverwood, there already are two potential followers waiting for you, with only a letter and some dialogue keeping you from acquiring either of them instantaneously. And not only that, but the followers themselves are very bland and you can only give them commands but not ask them about their own story. Sure, they do occasionally make some comments when you visit certain places such as "Wow, would you look at that" or "Don't like the looks of this", but thats that. Followers in New Vegas on the other hand had entire stories to tell when you visited certain locations with them in tow.
On the other hand Bethesda did improve in other aspects - for those of us who are a bit OCD and dont want to break immersion by fast traveling all the time (and yet dont have the time to run or ride from place A to B), Bethesda has implemented a nice little travel-by-carriage system that is a more immersive method of fast travel (but only limiting you to major settlements as destinations) compared to the actual fast travel method (also in the game) that leaves a lot more to the imagination. Another positive change is that when you are over encumbered, you can merely no longer run - Oblivion also prevented you from jumping or even walking, forcing you to drop excess loot on the spot and return to it later. In Skyrim you can also sprint by holding down the Alt key.
Regular combat has also undergone an improvement, the most noticeable of them all being the ability to dual wield weapons. Is this cool or what??? Another gameplay improvement I noticed is that archery has become a lot more rewarding. At least for me as an Oblivion player, I never bothered with the bow because it always seemed to take a lot more hits to down an enemy than your melee weapon would, and with them rushing at you, you would only have a couple of seconds before they were in your face anyway, so you would have to backtrack constantly and ultimately have less rewarding gameplay than just smashing your sword and shield in their face. However, with the implementation of a zoom-in and bullet time perk for archers, Skyrim has made this class very rewarding. Speaking of perks, these are introduced in Skyrim as you level up - with each level, you gain 1 point and can spend it to attain any useful perk on one of the various skill constellations.
Of course, just like in Oblivion you also get better at the things you do in Skyrim, and when one of your skills reaches 100, you can reset it to 15 and gain all the perk points back to spend it on other skills, which is a cool mechanic for people who get tired playing as the same sort of character and want to start using a different type of prowess - without having to create a new character!
Enchanting and Alchemy are also back, although the latter now also requires you to be in a place where there is an alchemy table instead of having a mobile lab in the form of a mortar & pestle and various retorts. You can buy alchemy recipes to get your potion brewing skills going, or you can just start experimenting on your own by tasting ingredients and learning their properties.
Most of the core game mechanics have been imported from Oblivion, though the user interface is wholly different. While it does look flashy, I actually think Oblivion's inventory system was better in that you could sort things and switch between lists easier than the clunkier interface in Skyrim that puts too much attention in showcasing a real, 360° rotatable model of every item instead of merely a small artwork pic. A very popular mod on the Nexus, "SkyUI", is here to fix this, but if you want to download this you better do so early on because after you get used to the new inventory system in Skyrim, SkyUI feels like a downgrade.
Of course, Skyrim is a cold and wintery place, but Bethesda has made sure that the game world isnt as monotonous as a Cyrodiil player new to Skyrim might think - you'll still find plenty of green forests and almost Cyrodilic pastures in Skyrim (e.g. around Falkreath or Riften), while the landscape still holds true to its icy hallmark the further north you go - from the cold craglands of the Reach over the frozen coast of northern Skyrim to the volcanic lands of Eastmarch very reminiscent of Yellowstone National Park, there is variety. It gets even better when it comes to dungeons - the hallmark and main selling point of every traditional fantasy RPG. In Oblivion each dungeon had a different layout, but the majority of them were largely generic (mine, cave, ayleid ruin and fort). In Skyrim on the other hand, while dungeons can indeed be divided into these same four types (though you'll have to replace ayleid ruin with ancient nord crypt), each dungeon literally feels like it was hand crafted to have its own unique and distinctive charm - each location has its own story to tell and it feels like its own, distinct mini-adventure when you embark on clearing out a dungeon in Skyrim. While there are several dungeons that are duds (aka just a large room inhabitied by two bears you're done clearing within a minute), the Dwemer Ruins are nothing short of fantastic that sometimes need more than an hour to clear as you keep working your way ever downward and marvel at the great cities of the dwarves now inhabited by foul goblinlike Falmer - I have had more than one breathtaking Moria moment while doing these ruins in Skyrim, let me tell you that!
While Cyrodiil had nine distinct cities (one of which was destroyed from the get-go), Skyrim only has five cities of such size and uniqueness. The other four are merely glorified villages, and even the largest city cannot match the amount of hours you spent in the Imperial City in the previous TES game. Perhaps to make up for this, Skyrim has completely gone overboard with quests. While Oblivion has 174 quests, Skyrim has 273. Of course, a great deal of them are fetch-quests, i.e. an NPC asks you to retrieve an item (or even several) for them from a ruin and bring it back for a reward - which can get quite tedious after a while, and these also get dumped in a new "miscellaneous" section in your quest log, i.e. a section where each quest merely shows up as an objective instead of a logbook-like narration accompanying it. Still, there are enough thematic and characterful quests to easily give Oblivion a run for its money. Dont let anybody tell you otherwise! Skyrim isn't just made out of fetch quests - I daresay only the amount of quests Skyrim has over Oblivion are fetch-quests, no more than that.
Speaking of quests, unlike the Fallout games (or hell, even Oblivion) Skyrim's quests not only take you to literally almost every possible corner of the map, but also encourage a style of play where you can literally spend the first 100 hours without even bothering with the main quest. Yes, there's that much stuff to do - you never get bored. I can't speak of this kind of satisfying main-quest-avoidal in any previously released Bethesda game, not even the enticing Oblivion.
Something I really love is the world map - it is no longer a piece of parchment, but an actual, interactive bird's eye view over 3d terrain, including weather effects like clouds and fog. Speaking of clouds and volumetric fog, these tend to wrap around mountain peaks as well, making things look that much more realistic.
While Skyrim may be a bit smaller than Cyrodiil, everything feels more natural - Cyrodiil felt like a game world, Skyrim feels like it is real. The geography is so much more believable than the relatively even and flat, or predictable landscape progression in Cyrodiil which, at the end of the day, really did look like everything around you was designed in a game engine's editor. Dungeons were pretty much evenly spaced out and felt like they were purposefully placed there, instead of feeling like they were hewn into the actual landmass and thus part of its geography. In Skyrim you do not need fancy mods like Oblivion's "Unique Landscapes" series to find yourself navigating between breath-takingly beautiful rivers, rocks, bridges, forests, ravines and cliffsides. Everything feels like it has been shaped by the raw forces of nature rather than dragged and dropped in a game editor. Even without any mods I had more "wait...woah...just woah" moments while exploring Skyrim's natural beauty than I could count. Something that barely happened in Cyrodiil except the first few hours after you had left the tutorial dungeon. And lastly regarding the map, you also need to remember that a sizeable chunk of Cyrodiil's game world was devoted to large waterbodies such as Lake Rumare surrounding the Imperial City, and Niben Bay further downriver. Such waterbodies (and thus wasted gameworld space) do not exist in Skyrim, so I think things even out in the end. And while mountains and steep cliffs do tend to block your path and get in the way, Skyrim has a lot of verticality to it, so there are plenty of ruins hewn into the side of the mountain, making its acscension rewarding for any adventurer, rather than skirting around it.
Of course, storywise we have something fresh this time around - instead of a demonic invasion from hell *cough* open Oblivion gates *cough* (which got annoying real fast), we have a dragon invasion threatening a Skyrim that is already destabilized due to a civil war between separatist Stormcloaks under the leadership of Ulfric Stormcloak fighting for an independent Skyrim and Imperial soldiers continuing to keep the peace in Skyrim as it is one of the provinces of the Empire, after all, and the last thing they want is for it to break away, despite knowing full well that having knelt before the Aldmeri Dominion and its Thalmor ruling elite and signing that peace treaty banning Talos worship would cause unrest in the very province Tiber Septim, the founder of the Empire, originally hailed from. You get pulled into this conflict and after you put on your iconic horned Iron Helmet you'll realize you are the Dragonborn, and it is up to you to save Skyrim!
Skyrim is an immense game - every day you start playing Skyrim for a few hours, you plunge into a different adventure. You get the feeling this game simply has no end because no matter how much you play, no matter how many quests you complete, your quest log is still bursting at its seams with more quests. Everytime you conclude something, there's more waiting for you just around the corner. You can invest hours and hours into this game, thinking you'll complete it soon, but three weeks later you'll find yourself saying the same thing. Skyrim is probably the largest singleplayer game ever made in human history - sure, people have logged more hours into MMORPGs, RTS games and such, but I'm talking about just following the narrative story of a game and not doing anything repetitively - Skyrim comes out on top with almost FOUR HUNDRED hours of gameplay on average (i.e. exploring every single dungeon, reading most of the books, doing every single non-repetitive (non-radiant) quest, and both expansions). If you play this game for two hours every day, you will be playing it for more than six months straight. I am not kidding. That's how big it is.
While Hearthfire simply allows you to buy three plots of land in different Holds that originally didn't offer player homes and construct your very own house using lots of building materials, Dragonborn is an actual story expansion to the game. You start being chased by mysterious cult-like agents across Skyrim, who follow the orders of their master who resides on the island of Solstheim, far to Skyrim's north-east, almost above the northern borders of Morrowind. You must travel there and explore that island and uncover its mysteries. Solstheim thus is like a mini province of its own, netting you several dozen hours of new exploration and gameplay. Dragonborn is a unique experience indeed, because the island's climate is split into north (being snow covered and very Skyrim-like) and south (volcanic ashland reminiscent of Morrowind). Furthermore, Solstheim comes with several pieces of music from TES III: Morrowind, which means that players who havent played Morrowind will be able to step into a new atmosphere and players who have, will be drowned in nostalgia. A lot of Dark Elf culture is also prevalent on Solstheim, with flora and fauna, armor, food and drink bring that of Morrowind. There are three settlements on the island - the Dunmer inhabited port of Raven Rock, the mushroom-tree-houses of Tel Mithryn (home to Telvanni wizard Neloth and his servants) and the small Nord Skaal Village. There is also a new daedric plane of Oblivion for you to explore, borrowing many elements from Lovecraftian horror.
While you get to explore Solstheim in Dragonborn, most of Dawnguard takes place within the borders of Skyrim. However, emphasis here lies on most - i.e, not all of it. Dawnguard still manages to take you to wondrous places outside of Skyrim you never thought you would travel to. It is a unique and thrilling experience that lasts you for hours and hours, as, operating out of Fort Dawnguard in the south-eastern tip of Skyrim, you basically traverse all corners of the land in search of vampire hunters to gather, vampires to slay and secrets to uncover regarding their sinister ambitions. You also gain a new companion who has a lot more character than any of the default Skyrim ones, and can finally get your hands on the crossbow! The Dawnguard quest is so large and expansive that it literally feels like a 2nd main quest - except the antagonists this time around aren't dragons, but vampires. And the best thing is, you can alternately decide to join the vampires and experience the questline from their perspective instead! Definitely worth having.
Speaking of vampires (which was a questline also present in TES IV: Oblivion), did you know there is a werewolf questline in Skyrim, too? That's right - what was once a mere mod in Oblivion is now a fleshed out trope with its own story in Skyrim. I told you Bethesda listens to their fans!
All in all, the best thing about Skyrim is the game world itself. The quests are great, but people may say previous TES titles were more captivating in this regard. However, it is a FACT that no previous TES title has its gameworld as beautifully and captivatingly designed as Skyrim. If you think Oblivion planes and alternate dimensions are fictitious, think again. Once you play Skyrim, you really are transported into this province and your real life self will take a significant toll as you will spend so much time in this realm instead! Skyrim proves that it's not just MMOs that can drain your real life away and make you entirely hooked. 5, out of 5 stars for a singleplayer game so immersive, that despite all the nitpickings I did in my review, you just want to keep playing, without even having spent a single minute online meeting other players.