Aka 'Dragonbotherer' aka, 'Biff the magic dragon (in the face)'.
I feel that I achieved an awful lot in the three and half days I had to review Skyrim (as documented here and here, but at the same time there was far more I just didn't have the time see/fight. Foremost of those was the main plot, with my long and happy experience with earlier Elder Scroll games having me convinced that the best course of action to get an accurate sense of the game was to immediately go off-piste and do my own thing. That is, I maintain, the real reason people take to Elder Scrollses, and particularly why they end up playing them for hundreds of hours, until their wives leave them, their abandoned children miserably grow into psychopathic adults and their pets die of love-starvation.
While it was always my intention to tackle the whole dragonborn thing afterwards, there has been... let's call it 'debate' within the towering obsidian walls of Castle Shotgun about whether I'd done the right thing or not. Well, now I'm a decent way through the campaign, my game-world is littered with sky-lizards and everything that crosses me is getting a good old shouting at: so, is this the one true Skyrim experience?
Short answer: no, not really. It's a narrative-led Skyrim experience, in the same way the Thieves' Guild or the Companions or the Dark Brotherhood or the College of Mages is a narrative-led Skyrim experience, but I don't feel it's the core of the game any more than those are. If you like your roleplaying to have you as dramatic Hero of the Ages and destiny and climactic fights and all that jazz then the main quest is certainly where you'll want to go pronto, but I still incline towards slowly carving out my own place in the world. Primarily by nicking everything that isn't nailed down. Everyone's going to have a different Skyrim experience, and for an awful lot of them that won't include too much dragon-bothering.
Anyway, details. A very important point to make is that dragons won't appear in your game unless you complete the first few storyline-based quests. There a couple of ways to get going on that strand, but they result in your first fight against a dragon a couple of hours later. Until you have fought that dragon, and devoured its soul, you're not going to see any more dragons, or be able to use Shouts. So it was that my initial 50-odd hours with the game were dragon and Shout-free, which did bewilder me slightly. I found a couple of Shouts in my adventuring, but couldn't use them as they require dragon souls to unlock. I kept expecting to at least stumble into an errant dragon, but no.
To be honest, I sort of miss that world I had, the one without dragons. This is not to demean the game's dragons or the Shouts, but simply that without the regular, widescreen fights with huge creatures swooping in from the sky, the game felt more like a roleplaying game and less like an action game. Riding across a quiet winter wonderland, occasionally dismounting to beat up a wolf and steal its skin, suited me down to the ground. Now, everytime I start climbing up a hill there's a reasonable chance the sky will darken and one of those big scaley bastards will descend on me: so it becomes all about the action and not about soaking up this beautiful world.
Nonetheless, they are very good fights as Skyrim's go, requiring a variety of tactics (to fight 'em on the ground and in the skies), a lot of movement and plenty of use of the wide-open world, as opposed to the relatively claustrophobic dungeon fights. They're exciting, and the thought that you really can take down one of those huge things when they appear on the horizon is impossible to resist. The Shouts I'm not quite so sure about: it's often a joy to unleash one and see the heightened effects they have on a dragon, but in some ways it feels like an unnecessary additional layer of magic complexity.
Plus, if you've worked hard on making a Mage Character, Shouts sort of seem like a gimme that anyone can use. 'Yeah mate, I'm just a thug innit, but I can turn intangible and breathe flames and shit. Mana? Nah, I ain't got no mana, mate. I shout at stuff, see, then all I have to do is wait a few seconds and I can shout at it again. What, you trained and bought spellbooks? Fookin' nerd, aintcha?' But: fun. The starting Shout, Unrelenting Force, especially, due to its rich scope for trouble-making. Try bellowing at someone standing on a high balcony and see what happens.
What I do like is the additional layer of sub-questing to find new Shouts and Shout upgrades, which tend to show off Skyrim's dungeon design at its most elaborate. There's no shortage of these mini-adventures in the game, for all sorts of purposes, but knowing there's a Shout and usually a bossfight at the end lends them a little more internal narrative and tantalising goal. Also, the hat I got the end of one of them had a sort of screaming robot face and lets me breathe underwater, so I'm pretty happy about that.
Another reason I'd avoid the main arc was because of how turgid Oblivion's was. I was afraid of being shacked up with some cheerless Brother Jauffre character again, and of playing courier for some guy who was the real hero of the piece with me relegated to Royal Dogsbody. I suppose Oblivion was in one way narratively bold to make the player an enabler rather than the subject of its grand prophecy, but playing nursemaid to Sad Sean Bean felt a bit limp.
I'm delighted to discover that it's so much better this time around: you're John Lennon, not Ringo Starr here. The key NPCs are better-realised than the Bethesda norm too, especially the half-mad, half Basil Exposition character played by Max von Sydow, and there's a definite sense of unravelling a mystery. There's also a fine variety of missions, including one where you play dress-up to smuggle yourself into a party, then rather more noisily make your way out of it. They've done well, and I'm keen to see the rest of the story in a way I really wasn't in Oblivion or Fallout 3. Also, it has you climbing all the best mountains. It's Bethesda's best main arc yet, I'd say, and a huge step on from their last two games in terms of plotting, variety and acting.
But is it Skyrim, the true game underneath this healthy banquet of possibility? No. It doesn't feel any more important or rich or compulsive than, say, the Thieves' Guild line did, but it is on a par with them. Skyrim at its best is getting out there and seeing what trouble you can cause, so don't feel you have to do the main arc until you're good and ready to; dragon fights are a party of a time, but they're icing on a very big cake rather than part of the sponge mix.
One thing I will observe, however, is that by the time I was far enough into the main quest to be running into sky-lizards on a regular basis, I was level 35 or so with the best glass armour and weapons 100 Smithing skill points could make, and thus the majority of them don't present too much of a challenge. Certain dragon types - the Ancient is a good example - are pretty good at blasting away most of my HP if I don't keep a fast eye on things, but the common or garden Blood Dragons, for instance, fall over after I've chopped them with my mighty one-handed glass sword Chillblain about half a dozen times. Levelling above the game-world has been a long-term problem for Elder Scrollses, and it's a shame the dragons don't really seem to have escaped that. So, if you want titanic, life-or-death fights with the big fellows, get going on the main quest earlier rather than later. Or start a new character, I guess.
(And something I'm still not in a position to comment on is John's favourite NPC Lydia. I recruited her ages back, but I can't abide the way Companion characters manage to block every damned doorway and foul up stealthing, so I've left her at home wearing my spare armour. Sorry, Lydia. If you weren't so incredibly stupid I'd let yet out the house. And let's not even talk about the dog, which I shed no tears for when it got killed by walking on the sixth consecutive arrow trap.)
Upshot of all this dragon-bothering, then? Skyrim remains my favourite game of the year, but the dragon stuff hasn't altered my ardour for it one way or another. It's just one more drink on offer at its mighty, if glitchy and sloppily-converted bar.