The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the sequel to Oblivion, launches tomorrow. I've been playing the PC version of it during every waking hour of the last three and a half days, and most of the non-waking hours too. I'm still not really ready to tell you what I think. I will anyway.
I have not bought a house.
I have not worn heavy armour, wielded a two-handed weapon, dual-wielded two one-handed weapons or fired a bow (for anything other than as a distraction).
I have not got married (I did propose to a middle-aged warrior-woman by accident, but didn't get around to seeing a priest yet).
I did not acquire any spells above Apprentice level, even though I regularly fried foes with lightning bolts.
I have not completed 44 quests listed in my journal, nor even accepted probably twice more that number.
I have not visited the vast majority of locations marked on my map.
I have not visited the college of magic, or joined a mage's guild.
I have not contracted vampirism, though I have cleared out several vampire dens.
I have not killed anyone in cold blood, though I have been sorely tempted.
I have not hunted animals for their pelts, even though I need leather to make better armour.
I have not replaced my initial horse with a better one. I'm very fond of the fat old idiot.
I have not been invited to join the Dark Brotherhood.
I have not earned the favour of any of the Jarls who rule Skyrim's various cities.
I have not sided with either the Stormcloaks or the Empire in the great civil war wracking Skyrim.
I have not fought a dragon.
I haven't even seen a dragon, apart from the one in the mandatory introduction quest.
I have not needed or been forced to do any of those things, but I have been very, very busy doing many other things and I am excited that there is so much still remaining. I have played Skyrim for over 30 hours, and I barely feel I've scratched its surface. I haven't even thought about taking on its main quest, so lost was I to the other arcs and needy little self-interests this RPG is so generous in offering. I am earnestly worried that I will be playing it for months to come, because I don't know how I can reconcile that with also playing other games for my job.
Here's some of what I have done:
I have been inducted into the Thieves' Guild, and solved the mystery of why it's fallen on hard times - a tale of subterfuge, corruption, dark gods and decades-old lies.
I have joined the Companions, the booze-loving remnants of what was once the Fighter's Guild, and discovered the secrets of their true nature.
I have run alongside a wide-eyed fox, for miles, across snowy hillsides.
I have snatched dragonflies from the air and then immediately eaten them.
I have cooked a fine assortment of vegetarian meals. Oh, alright, and quite a few meaty ones too.
I have acquired a faithful hound who follows me everywhere. Wish he didn't bark all the time though - it seriously messes with my stealthing.
I have explored a vast dwarf city (the dwarves of this world vanished long ago), full of giant brass robot guards. For a while, a small brass robot spider was my loyal guard.
I have seen a werewolf tear five men apart in an instant.
I have made a meagre but honest living chopping and selling firewood, and selling crops to farmers...
...But then I got bored of that and robbed half the world blind.
I have resolved the great Mead Wars of Skyrim.
I have made naked zombies fight each other.
I have pickpocketed everyone from the lowliest peasant to the grandest Jarl, and can now even take the very weapons from their hands.
I have balked at a request to publicly shame a local woman for sleeping with three men in one month.
I have sat on a lone chair inexplicably placed on top of a high tower overlooking a vast valley, feeling like the king of all the world.
I can pick any lock you care to test me with.
I have raised zombie wolves, spiders, crabs, rats, bandits and zombie-zombies. A frightened farmer killed my zombie wolf on sight, which I was a bit annoyed about.
I have jumped down a waterfall hundreds of feet high and lived to tell the tale.
I have crafted epic Elven armour, enchanted fearsome weaponry and acquired a second set of clothes entirely dedicated to thievery. There are several tiers of light armour - my specialism - I haven't even tried yet.
I have unsuccessfully tried to stop an unfair public execution.
I have traded so often with one particular blacksmith that he gives me gifts every other time I see him.
I have fought Draugr, daedra, skeletons, ice wolves, necromancers, death lords, ice-throwing harpies, vikings, walruses, a giant and a mammoth. The latter were titanic, desperate, dramatic fights I can't believe I won.
I found a shop almost entirely dedicated to hats, and bought a chef's outfit.
Most of all, I have stolen oh so many vegetables.
Every time Bethesda reveal a new game, one of the first queries they have to deal with is how big its world is compared to previous games, with the general onlooker sentiment being that their open worlds are shrinking with every new generation. I can promise you that Skyrim is an enormous game, perhaps Bethesda's biggest yet in my perception of it, and that isn't anything to do with landmass (of which there is a vast and wonderfully varied amount). It's because there's so damned much to do. Hours fly by, great adventures are embarked on, and it barely dents what's on offer. The thieves' guild questline alone, the closest thing my time with the game had to a fixed purpose, offers more than do most other big-budget games' singleplayer modes.
And it's good stuff too, this thievery corporations' tasks: long, ambitious, twisty quests that take you all over Skyrim, require lateral thinking and exploration of the outer limits of stealth, plus offer bona fide drama and intrigue whose outcome I was invested in for reasons beyond money and power. I've only made early inroads into the Companions arc and that seems similarly huge - add in the other guilds and factions, and the reputation quests offered by each city's rulers, and the purportedly infinite roster of procedurally-generated favours for random NPCs, and you have something of grand magnitude, and an RPG that no sane person would consider writing a review based on a mere four days' play. Sigh. Still- expect follow-up pieces, particularly on the main, dragon-y questline that I've seen nothing of, so happy was I in doing my own, primarily kleptomania-based thing.
Of course, listing all this epic quantity means little without addressing the rather more nebulous question of its quality. I'll admit, I'm in the camp that believes Bethesda's games have been on a downward slide since the hallowed Morrowind. I got plenty out of Oblivion (especially the thieves' and assassins' guilds arcs) but it did feel hollow, bland and awkward compared to its predecessor. Fallout 3 I found boring, contrived and clumsy, though I deeply wanted to like it. I seriously worried Skyrim would, for all its talk of lavishness, depth and dragons, continue the transformation into a trudging, consolified action game filled with clunky acting. It does not. It slams on the brakes then reverses at dangerous speed back into Morrowind territory. Some things are lost (e.g. Persuasion is a sadly watered-down, irregular affair now mostly to do with shopping), many things are changed (e.g. recharging magic items can be done anywhere) and it's certainly not as weird (no flying or Siltstriders), but it truly reclaims that sense of being in another world, rather than a generic soft-focus, over-familiar fantasyscape.
What perhaps didn't make itself known amidst all the exciting talk of dragons and dual-wielding over the last year of hype is that the cold land of Skyrim is based heavily on Scandinavia. And I don't just mean "big blonde guys who sound like vikings." There are sweeping, beautiful Norwegian-style fjords, there are grassy Swedenesque archipelagos, there are thoroughly frozen, near-Arctic plains and chasms, there are towns made up entirely of log cabins, there are multi-tier cities winding around a towering waterfall, there is an inn built inside an upturned longboat... It is surprising, it is oft-changing and it is gorgeous.
Mostly. All talk of this being a brand new engine quickly becomes unconvincing, most especially in terms of character animations and errant bloom, but it is vastly improved over Oblivion and Fallout 3. With settings racked up to Ultra (on a GeForce 560; occasionally the frame rate dipped slightly but generally it held steady) it's a dramatic, magnificent sight. Clever trickery (snow and mist are useful tools as well as being thematically relevant) makes distant areas look far more detailed than the sparse background of Oblivion, textures don't turn into a blurry mess up close and most of the characters look distinct, as opposed to the indistinguishable pudding-faces of Oblivion. Which is not to say they look great; characters remain The Elder Scrolls' weakest link. The vast majority of NPCs I spoke to - or indeed adventured with - I wouldn't recognise if I passed them in one of Skyrim's many towns' many streets. I know them from their favoured locations and sometimes from the fact an objective marker is hanging over them, not because of their faces, names or voices. Take 'em out of their regular context and they're perfect strangers to me.
I'm not even sure I can recall a single character's name, for instance. My main thieves' guild contact is called... um, starts with a B? Nope, that's it. I can't even tell you the name of the companion character who I had following me around and fighting for me for hours, until I decided I'd feel more comfortable without a silent stalker behind me all the while.
However, and mighty mercifully, the general standard of voice acting is much improved. This does not mean it's much beyond generic, but it is very rarely wince-inducing and there isn't the problem of everyone sounding the same. There's much more variety, but most performers err towards the flat, not helped by oft-leaden dialogue. Major quest-givers talk a lot, and not terribly engagingly - all too often I just skipped through their pre-amble then just looked up what it was they wanted me to do from my journal later. But honestly, overall it's much better than Oblivion and Fallout 3, and for that we once again have Scandinavia to thank. The Nords, Skyrim's most prevalent race of people, are voiced by Scandi-folk, whose accents add character to even the most turgid dialogue, and adds to the crucial sense that you are in another place. It's so much better than the usual prevalence of cod-English and unnaturally clipped American accents (of which there are still plenty).
There are even a few genuine highlights, such as the meat-headed drunkard who's convinced he's a living weapon or a few of the conflicted, self-interested, preening Jarls. On the other hand, there are a couple (possibly voiced by the same guy) where you can practically hear the furrowing brow of unrehearsed confusion and the page-turns of a script. That's the exception not the rule, and given the sheer quantity of people here I can forgive it. Also, a couple of 'em sound weirdly like Arnie, which I can entirely get behind.
Other things go wrong, and can disrupt that precious immersion. The shopkeepers who eerily greet me and offer me bargains in their sleep from beds a floor up while I'm invisibly robbing their stores at night, the way climbing rocky mountainsides on horseback has your steed appearing to hover in thin air on occasion, the monsters who get stuck behind rocks while chasing me, the arrow that's been protruding from my character's face for the last ten hours, the characters who don't seem to notice me robbing them blind in plain sight... It's not buggy as such, it's just that there are a few cracks in this enormous wall. Many will be patched, I'm sure, but it is testament to just how much the game gets right and just how much it offers that these slips didn't ultimately bother me.
Everywhere I go, I'm immediately presented with more opportunities and possibilities than I can possibly keep track of, let alone do all of. Both in terms of overtly-offered quests and ambient observation and intervention (racist attitudes towards Dark elves in Windhelm, the grim poverty of Winterhold...) , there is so damned much to see and do.
I have been deeply anxious about writing this piece for the last two days purely because I don't feel I've seen enough. Maybe I shouldn't have spent so long smithing and enchanting an epic armour set. Maybe I should have gone dragon-hunting instead of obsessively picking every lock and pocket I stumbled across. Maybe I shouldn't have gone mammoth-hunting just for the hell of it. Maybe I should have been a full-on mage or an axe-wielding barbarian. Maybe I should have ditched my namby-pamby pacifism and joined the Dark Brotherhood. Maybe I should have used a shield even once. Maybe I should have let that Master Vampire bite me instead of lightning bolting him to death. Maybe I shouldn't have spent several hours simply riding from West to East and taking it all in.
Maybe I'll do all that next time. First though, I really fancy a nice set of Glass Armour, so time to explore a few caves for ore to mine then spend some good, honest hours at the forge. I may be some time. I may be the rest of the year, and beyond. Not only is Skyrim, for my money, the game of the year, but... oh this is hard. Very hard. I'm sorry Morrowind - I love you, but I don't need you anymore. I think, at last, there is a new Best Elder Scrolls Ever.
To be continued.