The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the latest blockbuster hopeful from developer/publisher Bethesda Softworks. Following in the footsteps of the studio’s previous award-winning open-world role-playing games Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3, Skyrim avoids tacked-on multiplayer and overpriced rainbow-colored launch day weapon DLC in favor of delivering the most rich and compelling single-player experience in video gaming history, a rare goal in a market dominated by competitive online titles such as Halo and Modern Warfare. Was Bethesda up to the ask? The answer is both yes and no.

Terrible first impressions
After over 80 hours of dungeon-crawling, dragon-slaying, and potion-making, I was finally ready to write my Skyrim review. Although I literally lost five pounds (out of a total of 145, mind you) from not eating or sleeping while playing Oblivion when it was first released in 2006, Morrowind for the original Xbox and PC still stands as my most memorable Elder Scrolls title. There’s something about building pillow forts, summoning Golden Saints and delivering writs that leaves a warm fuzzy in my stomach. So I’m very familiar with the series, and while I simply wanted this latest chapter to be a good–hopefully great–game, it’s hard for anyone not hiding under a rock to avoid Bethesda’s infernal hype machine. “Radiant AI” this and “Creation Engine” that. It all creates a certain expectation that, technically, Skyrim is going to blow away not only anything that Bethesda has ever done, but everything else on the market as well.

Skyrim gets off to a rough start, with an on-rails prologue displaying some of the game’s worst graphics. It’s a terrible way to start off a game that promises so much, and I’m surprised that the opening hour, considering how linear it is, isn’t the most polished piece of the entire package. Even if you can look past the pixelated shadows, weak dialogue, and ho-hum scripted sequences, you’ll soon learn that Skyrim takes one of Oblivion’s cardinal sins and runs with it. In Morrowind, you could kill everyone. If you wanted to exterminate every citizen, villager, and straggler in the game world, you could, even if that meant permanently breaking a main quest. It didn’t matter, that freedom was yours. In Oblivion, Bethesda saw fit to limit that freedom; pivotal characters would simply be knocked unconscious whenever you went on a rampage. But they’d eventually recover and all would be forgiven. Now, in Skyrim, some characters won’t even acknowledge that you’re standing there hacking away at them with an axe. The man who guides you through the opening scene can have six arrows sticking out of his head without so much as interrupting his exposition to ask that you kindly stop doing that. Combined with the underwhelming visuals, and I had this creeping feeling that I had been duped.

Seeing characters not react realistically to events and damage rips me out of the intended immersion. And yes, there are some very rough patches in the graphics throughout the vast world. The much-touted animations can be particularly wonky, but there are also some extremely notable textures that stand out, not just compared to the rest of the game, but compared to all other games from 2011 as well. It’s almost as if you can chart which areas or items were created earlier in development and then never retouched to meet the game’s generally high standards.

Dragons should be fearsome, not target practice
Although superior to Oblivion in scope, variety, and production values, I was left feeling like Bethesda chose to refine the wheel rather than revolutionize it. This decision is not necessarily a bad one, but it is somewhat disappointing given that the Elder Scrolls franchise sees a new release once every five years. That being said, Skyrim does make some sizable additions to the formula, with the implementation of dragons being the most notable. These colossal winged beasts play an integral role in the main storyline, as well as the game world itself, but their execution is not quite what Bethesda promised it would be. Like the Big Daddies in BioShock, dragons should be intimidating entities that give the player serious pause as to whether or not it’s a battle worth engaging in. But like the Big Daddies in BioShock 2, I quickly found myself darting across the land anytime I saw one in the distance, hoping I got there in time to slay it before it ran away. Aside from a few troublesome encounters where I was caught out in the open with no protection, dragons never really put up much of a fight. Instead, I eagerly rushed them all, frothing at the mouth to harvest more valuable dragon bones so that I could buy myself pretty things.

While there are a few non-generic or story-related dragons, the majority are all nameless Frost and Blood Dragons, or literally just “Dragon.” And they’ll never stop spawning, regardless of what events unfold throughout the main quest. Of the 30+ dragons I’ve slain, only a few were memorable, delivering a remotely exhilarating experience, even if the challenge wasn’t there. But more often than not, they were deftly felled like any other enemy. I once killed a dragon in the forest only to have another dragon immediately land next to us and start attacking. I killed the second one in less than 20 seconds with repeated blasts of my most powerful lightning spell and harvested his bones before his body had even fully hit the ground, then carried on without a second thought to go find more butterflies for my alchemy. Speaking of spells, lightning not only drains health but magicka as well, meaning it’s entirely possible to eliminate a dragon’s ability to breath fire altogether. If you’re at a distance, they’ll just dry heave at you. So frightening!

Then there was the time that a dragon literally dropped out of the sky dead before I even knew it was there. What killed it? I’ll never know. If you do find yourself having trouble with dragons, you can always lure them towards a tower or city. The guards and even common peasants will all take up arms, helping to deplete its health in record time. If there aren’t any cities around, you have a fairly good chance that the dragon will waste its valuable final moments attacking mudcrabs or wolves while you blast away at it from safety. Whatever you do, just don’t stand directly in front of one….

The already-questionable animations in Skyrim are at their worst when it comes to the dragons. What are allegedly totally dynamic battles have very clear scripted events. Generally speaking, when you kill a dragon it just dies where it stands. But there are a few battles where the dragon’s health bar will disappear preventing it from taking further damage, then it will fly away and circle around for a pre-determined crash landing (which usually results in the game turning into a slideshow for a few seconds). It’s very poorly implemented, and the animations for this sequence are usually horribly unpolished and glitchy.

Ultimately, the game benefits from the inclusion of dragons because, even in the disillusioned state they’re in, there’s something awesome about seeing the wings of a massive dragon flapping in the distance and hearing its roar as it zones in on you, or prepping your arsenal and potions as you zone in on it. I’m left wishing Bethesda had done a better job, but at the same time, even if your pizza is cold and has anchovies on it, you’re still getting pizza.

It’s dangerous to go alone
An adventure as deep and lengthy as the virtual lifetime possible in Skyrim can get quite lonely. While many may go their entire playthrough without ever using a companion, they’re actually a very integral part of my role-playing experience. Previous Elder Scrolls titles and Fallout 3 both have had companion systems, where various NPCs (non-playable characters) could join you on your many quests, aiding in battle and usually lugging around any extra items you don’t feel like carrying yourself. Skyrim has quite a few sidekick options to choose from, whether it’s paid mercenaries, loyal friends, or even your own personal protectors obtained through story events.

In the beginning they tend to be quite useful, usually being a bit more powerful than yourself and helping to lay waste to any who would oppose you. For squishy characters like a mage or thief, they can act as tanks, allowing you to add support fire or healing from a safe distance while they do all the heavy lifting. Finding the right companion or hireling that suits your play-style will help give you the optimal setup, but like with the dragons, the companions are far from perfect.

For starters, their artificial intelligence (AI) is questionable at best. They will often stand in doorways and refuse to move, trapping you behind them. (I found shutting the door and then opening it again can sometimes force them out of the way.) They will trigger traps in dungeons and then just stand there as you or they are hosed down by flames or poison arrows. You can talk to them to give them orders, but it’s far too slow of a process to be useful and it has very limited purpose. You can tell them to attack something or move to a specific spot, but if you attempt to take any action of your own (such as defending yourself from an enemy) you will cancel their order. It’s a poorly implemented feature that I never really found a use for, but had it been designed better I could see it being one of the more fundamental elements of the companion system.

There are also horses and I even had a war hound (the ugliest dog ever). Every horse I’ve ever owned had an insatiable lust for battle, as it would come charging in to attack nearby enemies, usually getting itself murdered in the process. Not only is that $1,000 down the drain, but I then have to walk back to the nearest city and explain to the stablemaster what just happened for the fifth time.

It’s strange that most characters in the game do not use horses for some reason, and neither do your companions, meaning anytime you’re traveling it takes a while for them to catch up to you. Accidentally rushed into a bandit camp? You’re on your own. As soon as you’ve killed everyone yourself, your companion will come running up like the cops always do at the end of an action movie. You should be able to put a bell on them, since half the time you have no idea where they are and the other half they’ll suddenly be standing right behind you in a dark, creepy cave.

Lastly, Skyrim adds the ability to get married. I wed a red-headed lady from the city market because 1) I have ginger fever and 2) I had to slay a freaking woolly mammoth to gain her favor. After the ceremony I moved into her house and she offered to cook me dinner each day. I kept expecting something more to come of it, but it never did, so eventually I summoned a fire elemental to kill her and then ransacked her home for some extra potatoes and moved out. Another half-baked idea that could have, and should have, been so much more.

The Thief
Skyrim’s revised class system is broken up into three different build types: the warrior, the thief, and the mage. There are 18 different skill trees with six correspond to each of the main class types. Warriors are proficient in melee combat, blocking, and blacksmithing, for instance, while thieves are better at lockpicking, archery, and alchemy. There’s a lot of room for variation though, as unlike Oblivion where you had to choose your roles and skills before even starting the game or fully understanding their value, Skyrim’s skills develop naturally as you use them. Likewise, if you don’t ever wield a two-handed weapon, you won’t gain experience in that particular skill, while the ones you do use will steadily progress towards the Master rank.

For my first character I chose to be a weathered male Wood Elf named Azazel. Wood Elves make particularly good thieves and archers with the natural ability to control wild animals. Since this was my first time around, I foolishly took on every quest I was given, regardless of importance. Quite quickly my world map became congested with countless objective markers. From people needing an item delivered, mysterious legends that needed investigating, or even dragons that had been harassing a certain area. And of course, along my way I had to stop and rob every house and pickpocket every person I came across, eventually making my way to the run-down city of Riften where I was offered a place in the dwindling Thieves Guild.

By then I had built up my sneaking skills enough to where I could open any lock, lift items off any person even while standing in front of them, and slither through homes and shops almost completely undetected. My archery skill also allowed me to silently kill most enemies before they even knew I was there, and through alchemy I had created powerful poisons to make my arrows even more devastating. I had adopted a war hound for a while, but it never stopped howling, even when I was sneaking around a city after-hours or trying to talk to someone. The AI seemed completely ignorant to the strange dog barking in their home, but I was utterly annoyed, and eventually pitted the dog against a dragon to end my suffering. Sadly, and I’m not kidding, the dog came out victorious, though I didn’t witness the actual battle myself because I was looting nearby treasure chests. Soon after that it was killed by a lone ice wraith, and all was peaceful once more.


The Mage
After 30 hours of sneaking around in the shadows, I realized that a great deal of the quests and storylines didn’t make sense for Azazel to partake in. So I created a High Elf named Danica. High Elves are particularly potent magic users, so I immediately joined the magical College of Winterhold, something I had wanted to do all along to gain access to the best conjuration spells.

With my mage, I also took sides in the ongoing civil war between the Stormcloaks and the Imperials. Stormcloaks just sounded cooler so I sided with them, and soon found myself sieging cities and forts. The fort takeovers were not particularly epic, instead requiring me to deplete the enemy forces who would continuously spawn until the meter reached zero. Full-on city sieges were a bit more cinema-worthy, but ultimately felt anti-climactic. The civil war itself seemed fleshed out, but the quests built around it were not.

All the while I was finally moving the main storyline to its conclusion, and unlocking a great deal of unique abilities known as Shouts (the language of the dragons) in the process. Shouts can be used at any time, but require a cooldown before being used again. Some summon legendary heroes or allies, while others freeze enemies solid, or bring time to a standstill for everyone but yourself. My favorite Shout is undoubtedly the one that allows you to summon a violent storm which assaults your enemies with lightning. It is easily one of the coolest moments in the game, and it can be activated at will.

Unfortunately, as my mage went from a lowly, weak novice to a grand sorceress, I encountered what I perceive to be a devastating flaw: Companions can be permanently killed only by friendly fire. If an enemy downs your companion, they will simply fall to their knees for a moment before recovering. But if an enemy lowers their health and then you accidentally splash some area of effect damage on them, they are killed. With a warrior and a thief it’s not so much an issue, but when dual-casting powerful chain lightning spells that jump from target to target, or explosive fire spells that rumble the screen upon impact, collateral damage is an inevitability. Eventually I got so tired of reloading my last save to prevent the death of my beloved warrior Lydia, that I swore if she died again I would just leave her behind and begrudgingly move on with my life.

Sure enough, after a three-way battle between a random Imperial camp, Lydia and I, and a dragon, I’m left waiting for her to catch up to me. But she never comes. I scour the entire area until I come across her crumpled body almost a half mile back, where the battle first started. I accidentally killed her and didn’t even notice, and I had customized her armor to be far better than what anyone else was wearing at that point in the game. I know I complained about not being able to kill everyone in the game earlier, but why would my chain lightning jump to a friendly target? It’s clearly an oversight, and as I stripped Lydia down to recover my items and enchanted armor, I felt as though Thane had died during the suicide mission in Mass Effect 2.

Eventually I became such a powerful conjurer that I could maintain two elementals at the same time, including a Storm Atronach which was immune to my lightning spell spamming. And they would come in handy, as I soon decided to run around the outer perimeter of the entire northern continent of Skyrim. The developers have stated that the game world is roughly the size of Oblivion, but far more dense. I found that traveling by foot wasn’t too bad, even if something initially seemed to be miles away. And it was here that I really started to take in the sights of Skyrim. I stand by my claims that some of the visuals are blatantly not on par with the rest, and you will see them too, but more often than not, I would exit a dungeon and look up to see a mesmerizing aurora lighting up the night sky or some other equally awe-inspiring sight. Even during the day there are so many scenic moments and beautiful vistas stretching as far as the eye can see that I literally stopped whatever I was doing and just looked around, taking it all in. When’s the last time a video game actually got you to do that?

Skyrim could benefit from a little more variety in the enemies (or at least the variations of their appearances) and the wildlife, though.

The Warrior
My third and final character, Donut, the fierce orc warrior, cared not for shiny things like Azazel or unlocking the mysteries of the world like Danica. Instead, he cared only for bloodshed and earning glory on the battlefield. For Donut, I chose the path of the Companions, Skyrim’s equivalent of Oblivion’s Fighters Guild, with some interesting twists that should please longtime fans.

Straight sword-and-shield combat can often be boring in action adventure games, but Bethesda has added some flair to make this role more interesting, or at least more flashy. When delivering a killing blow, warriors will often do a special fatality move. These are actually pretty impressive, especially considering my usual disdain for the quality of the animations in Skyrim, though the camera does get a little hectic during the executions. Overall, the warrior felt like a far less vulnerable build, perhaps best for newcomers, but also a less versatile one, and for that reason I quickly shifted back to my thief and mage.

So why do you have to play this game?
It may seem like I have nothing but gripes with this game, when in actuality all of those things are only so apparent and bothersome to me because, when contrasted with the overall experience Skyrim delivers, they prevent  the game from being the unequivocal masterpiece it is so close to being. Skyrim is an abyss of gameplay, and if you choose to get lost it in you won’t be disappointed. I think perhaps the one thing the team has really learned from Oblivion and delivered on is a far greater variety in content. Yes, there are countless dungeons and villages and miscellaneous objectives to tackle, but the game is always throwing in some fresh ingredient.

Perhaps it’s a small conversation that abruptly ends with you being transformed into a farm animal, or a labyrinth where you must activate crystals to guide the light of a goddess to her shrine.  Perhaps you were just out for a leisurely stroll when you come across an unsuspecting cave entrance. Upon entering the cave you are led to the ruins of a dwarven factory where clockwork spiders lurk around every corner. And just when you think you’re done, you enter this massive cavern a mile beneath the surface with its own unique wildlife, stories, and residents. And that is just one random cave that you could have easily missed if you had walked 10 degrees in a different direction, or had been distracted by a dragon as you passed by.

And I want to stress that aside from the nagging visuals here and there, this game really does create a wondrous sense of being in Skyrim. Beyond that though, Bethesda has drastically improved the attention to detail possible on the weapons, armor, and enemies. Each item you own can be inspected, allowing you to truly admire the masterful craftsmanship the art team put into this world. Even the loading screens will offer up a random dragon or object for you to examine, and for once I don’t mind a developer peacocking with what they’ve created.

The user interface is also a vast improvement for the franchise, allowing you to easily and quickly move between equipment, magic, skills, and your map. Weapons, potions and spells can even be favorited, allowing you to swap between them all with an instantly accessible list. A quick-select menu would have been better, but so long as you don’t favorite a 100 different things you should be fine.

And lastly, being a Bethesda game you would expect Skyrim to be riddled with an endless list of bugs, but I’m glad to report that this is their most sound launch title ever. Dragons have a tendency to occasionally break the game in various ways, and that’s a big one, but other than there’s rarely anything to note other than how smoothly everything operates. Even the load times are manageable, which is impressive considering how much this game has going on at any given time.

Sacrificing the little things for a bigger picture
I suppose all of my complaints can be wrapped up into one key issue: a lack of realism. I’m assuming the ultimate goal of Skyrim was to create the most immersive RPG experience on the market, and in many ways, they have. But there are also many times where the game reminds you it’s just a game by doing inexplicably stupid things, such as having NPCs with arrows stick out of their head act as if nothing’s wrong, or the remains of fallen enemies that never go away. Why hasn’t the corpse of a bandit decomposed or been ravaged by wild beasts? Why haven’t the ashes from a necromancer’s conjured pet blown away? Why aren’t invaluable dragon skeletons immediately scavenged, or at least relocated if the creature died right on top of a plot of farm crops or in the middle of a well-traveled road? If I retrieve a priceless family heirloom and then steal it again, why does the owner seem completely unfazed the next time I visit? If I discreetly murder a mother in one room, why does her husband or son not react in any way whatsoever when they finally go to sleep in the same room as her still-warm body? And on and on the list goes, from floating rocks and bushes that haven’t been properly attached to the world, to chaotic AI or repetitive dialogue, etc. The voice acting is also quite poor, even laughable at times. Half the world sounds like it’s being voiced by some half-assed Schwarzenegger impersonator, and the most powerful summon creature my mage has reminds me of Travis from Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

But don’t let my breakdown of individual parts fool you. While I’ve deliberately avoided talking about a great deal of positive things so that you can experience them for yourself, in your own way, there’s also plenty that I myself have yet to experience. At almost 100 hours of playtime, I feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are so many unfinished quests, undiscovered caves, and unclaimed treasures to seek out, and most importantly of all, I actually want to keep going. When I’m stuck in traffic I’m planning out where I’m going to explore next, and when I’m playing different games I’m thinking about all the things I could be doing in Skyrim. So despite the fact that it’s not at all the groundbreaking perfection fans had hoped for, it is the most engaging single-player experience currently available on any platform.

Other RPGs such as Disgaea and Final Fantasy XII may rival the total hours of gameplay one can derive from Skyrim, but they can only do so through mass quantities of grinding. What they can’t rival is Skyrim’s incalculable amount of content and the sheer variety it has to offer, which I’m fairly certain topples even that of several existing MMOs. Whether it’s story quests, randomly stumbling upon a new dungeon, seeking out dragons, micromanaging everything you’ve collected and crafted, or doing dastardly deeds for the Daedric gods, Skyrim is indescribably massive. And, despite a handful of notable shortcomings, more often than not it is jaw-droppingly beautiful and thoroughly satisfying to play. 89 out of 100

Skyrim is set for release Nov. 11, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows PC. This review is for the Xbox 360 version.