The beginning of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim continues the tradition of the previous two games, starting the player as a captured prisoner who will then make his or her way out into the wilderness to explore and maybe even save the world. The basics offer few surprises for anyone who has traveled through an Elder Scrolls game before, as there are the traditional quest paths for the normal selection of guilds, the fairly short main story, and the usual knick-knacks and collectibles scattered about. But Skyrim is not merely a northern clone of Oblivion, it is a beast of polish and execution that helps one to forget the somewhat boring predecessor and hearkens back to the sense of wonder that Morrowind originally provided.
This is the sequel that Morrowind deserved.
The most immediately apparent improvement is the implementation of the quests. While they may appear the same in a bullet list as those from Oblivion, there is a much more dynamic and theatrical presentation at work in Skyrim. The NPCs will cry out for the player to follow or lead, running through burning areas and hiding inside dimensional portals, while also proving themselves to be much sturdier than prior iterations. Gone are the days of important friendly NPCs wandering into an ambush and then dying forever from a mere scratch, as they are now able to even survive through assaults from dragons.
Those dragons are also the main gimmick this time around, a previously rare species that now seems to infest the land. They appear suddenly during the introduction and then begin to show up in various places; getting into fights with giants, mammoths, bandits, and anything else that can move and fight back. They are also the key to the new set of powers introduced in Skyrim, a series of vocal shouts that work like magical spells which only the player has access to. The shouts don't really differentiate themselves from spells in any way besides being player-specific, but the effects they give are a great bonus to whatever style the player wishes to take on.
However, the real meat of Skyrim is through appealing to wanderlust and giving the player the tools to deal with it all. The design simply begs for the player to wander off the road, showing just an inkling on the compass of something off in the distance to entice discovery. One can stumble across a ruined tower infested by bandits, a haunted tomb, or an area with a marked dragon that will give a new shout, and many of those lead beautifully into new quests. The mere act of getting close enough to a town to put it on the map in order to travel back to later will often put the player in earshot of an argument taking place, setting up another side task. The compelling nature of listening to what's occurring only continues to push the player even farther from any main goals, but is also irresistibly fascinating.
Sure, you could ignore all that side quest stuff and push on for the goal, but that would be defeating the purpose of playing such a wide-open game. Even now, Bethesda continues to expand on the available tools given to the player, advancing the combat from previous affairs where it was serviceable but lacking and into a set of far more well-rounded and visceral abilities. Both spells and weapons can be dual-wielded and come with talent trees, letting the player decide what new bonuses they would like to obtain. The animations are also greatly improved, making third-person view no longer look like a bad hack job and making deaths look much less rigid and awkward.
The expansion of the combat does still leave a few stones unturned, primarily in the available defensive options. Preventing an attack comes down to blocking and trying to stay out of range, but with all the advancements that have been brought in, the lack of a dodge or roll is sorely missed. The complete absence of control over the new cinematic kills also seems like something still in beta, as though it's a holdover from a dice-based randomized system left in a game that has moved on to stringent hitboxes and animations. Something to allow players to be in command of them would go a long way towards making it feel like a more cohesive part of the game, even if it meant a third regenerating resource or some other type of cooldown. In terms of the current state of the game, a straight addition of those two things would make the game far too easy, but if they had been implemented from the start and enemies been given corresponding ways to counter those then Skyrim would've been nearly perfect.
The other issues Skyrim presents are fairly minor or easily overlooked in the face of what it does right. The lack of a voice for the main character makes him or her seem hollow compared to heroes in games like Mass Effect, and the fairly stiff walking animations do little to sell character believability on their own. But the overall flow of occurrences - like doing tasks in a town when a dragon suddenly appears, circling around while those who can't fight back run to take cover and the guards draw their swords and prepare to fight - comes together and brings a cohesiveness to the world that the individual parts are unable to convey.
The quests themselves are so often charming or full of surprises that I would feel guilty spoiling any of them here. The overall goals may be often generic and stereotypical, but the characters and individual quests have a unique flavor that helps to propel them into an attractive and gripping state. There is, as mentioned before, the difficulty of keeping on a quest chain when so many side quests and things to explore are constantly appearing, but that really only strengthens the design that is built on trying to present a world that feels real. The writing even often takes into account how likely it is that one will get distracted doing other things, creating its own awkward effect if the player is rushing through one set of quests. Characters will remark about how long it's been since the player first joined them, giving times of upwards to “months,” which seems weirdly out of place if that series of tasks was rushed through in an hour.
As usual, bugs and glitches abound, but reusing an engine has allowed Bethesda to create a much more stable and friendly environment this time around. There have yet to be any huge, glaring flaws that present themselves outside of a couple issues that can currently be resolved by switching to windowed mode, nothing that breaks the game entirely. If not for that one blemish, this would be the first time an Elder Scrolls could be installed without patches and played from start to finish with no issues, so that's still certainly something to be admired.
Really, I could on for pages about the world and the many places to be explored, but it all boils down to how this is the sequel that Morrowind deserved. Much closer to delivering a true action experience than ever before, set in a beautiful world with naturally flowing quests, this is the kind of overall experience that doesn't like to let go of the player's attention and shows off the open-minded nature that Western role-playing games are known for. Being able to command zombie chickens and walruses to strike down enemies is the kind of thing that simply can't be found anywhere else, and no matter how strange the game may get it, all still works beautifully together. Skyrim is truly a game that everyone should experience.