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.