Like many, many people, I have recently been spending a lot of time in Skyrim, Nordic land of snow and dragons. I got The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as a Christmas present (thanks BlueJay!) so I’ve only recently begun my adventures, and I’m not very far through, to the extent that such a thing can be said in such a game. Still, I think I’ve played enough to get a feel for the game, and I’d like to make a few comments.

First of all, I hated the introduction. I don’t know if I’d feel the same way if I re-played it now, being used to Skyrim, but based on my expectations it really annoyed me. Those who have played previous Elder Scrolls games will be unsurprised to find their character beginning as a condemned prisoner, but I was surprised to find how much my actions were restricted in the opening scene. I could listen to two men talk (though I could barely hear them, as the game and/or Steam won’t let me adjust my laptop’s volume once the game is started), but I couldn’t move. When my character was instructed to move later, the movement was scripted and out of my control. Alright, I was supposed to be going to my death, I understand that they didn’t want me to try and make a run for it; nonetheless, that little bit of railroading irritated me!

What followed was a frantic bit of gameplay with a wonderful atmosphere, the chaotic noise and cinematic feel of which I had to admire even as I fumed at the fact my character had apparently not learned how to pick things up yet. First time through, I found the whole scene so confused that I didn’t really know what I was doing, and when myself and an NPC got out of the chaos and into a nice, quiet building, I was dumped into the expected tutorial-dungeon with step-by-step instruction on the game’s various mechanics. Once I had run through that and been unleashed on the world of Skyrim to follow my own whims, I ended my first play session, disappointed.

[Edit: The wonderful people over at Extra Credits have posted a video covering much the same issues much more eloquently than I could.]

You know how I said that I was annoyed at the way that Skyrim, of all games, restrained me into following its introduction and sticking to the intended path? Well, the game more than makes up for that initial restriction. Once you’re out in Skyrim, you really are free to do what you like. There’s a central plot (dragons!), two warring factions to consider (the Imperial Legion and the rebellious Stormcloaks), and the usual myriad side-quests, caves and organisations to investigate. It’s a big wide world – go nuts.

What really stands out for me so far in comparison to Oblivion is that everywhere I’ve visited has felt like a different place. No copy-pasted cave maps, no infinite strings of identical bandit camps – each location has its own feel and plays like a different experience. This is probably what does the most to make Skyrim feel like more of a real place than the worlds of previous Elder Scrolls games. To give you some examples, I wandered into one cave that was lit with glowing blue veins through the rock, giving the whole place an eerie feel that I haven’t seen repeated. I crashed one abandoned tomb structure that turned out to be only one room below ground. Later, I crested a mountain range and found myself overlooking an apparently abandoned city with a large labyrinth at the centre (watch out for the frost trolls!). There’s a sense of wonder and curiosity when you walk into a new location in Skyrim that was rarely present for me in Oblivion.

Many of the quests I’ve encountered so far have reminded me of Dragon Age, although honestly I think Skyrim handles them better because it’s not so heavily focused on the moral dilemma angle. Situations are often not what they seem, and what you are initially told is often not the whole truth. In these cases, there is no right or wrong answer – act as you see fit and see what happens. I’ve double- and triple-crossed people, and in one instance in particular I was impressed at the flexibility the quest allowed me when I had an idea to try. There are dilemmas when you’re dealing with one NPC’s word against another’s, but most of the time the consequences are not far-reaching or grand, and this actually makes them more interesting. This also adds to the feeling that Skyrim is a living world in which you can do what you want, rather than a branching story with scripted decision points.

The game has its flaws, of course, and by and large they’re the flaws of all Elder Scrolls games. The combat feels messy and doesn’t give you many options beyond blindly hacking at things (and then, from what I hear, maxing out skills still makes you ridiculously powerful). I am reprising my usual role as a Bosmer archer-thief, so sneak attacks are my basic approach the every problem, and if anything’s alive after that it’s just a frantic repetition of arrow-to-the-face until it falls over. It’s easy to get so involved with exploring every cave and ticking off every location that you lose track of time, and three hours later all you have to show for it is an inventory full of junk to sell. But overall, the atmosphere and sense of exploration make it a wonderful single-player virtual world, whatever you say about the gameplay.

Oh, and the dragons. There’s really nothing like running along a hillside minding your own business when suddenly a dragon swoops down in front of you – or when you sight a dragon circling nearby, and have the choice to change course and avoid it or jump boldly into battle. Atmospheric sound is used amazingly in Skyrim: the sound of wolves howling heralds an actual wolf attack, distant conversation can stop a thief in her tracks to locate people around a corner, and sometimes – just sometimes – you’ll hear the cry of a dragon from somewhere out of view that will send chills up your spine and set you spinning the game’s camera to find it. There’s nothing like feeling the need to listen closely to everything in the environment to encourage immersion in a game, I think.

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