The province of Skyrim might be frigid, but the role-playing game that takes place within it burns with a fire few games possess. In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you take up arms against dragons, and your encounters with them are invariably exciting--yet depending on where your adventure takes you, such battles may not even represent the pinnacle of your experience. A side quest that starts as a momentary distraction may turn into a full-fledged tale that could form the entirety of a less ambitious game. Yes, Skyrim is another enormous fantasy RPG from a developer that specializes in them, and it could suck up hundreds of hours of your time as you inspect each nook and crevasse for the secrets to be found within. If you know Bethesda Softworks' previous games, you might be unsurprised that Skyrim is not a land without blemish, but rather harbors any number of technical glitches and frustrating idiosyncrasies that tear open the icy veil that blankets the land. Many of them are ones Elder Scrolls fans will probably see coming, but they're ultimately a low price to pay for the wonders of a game this sprawling and enthralling. Prepare for many sleepless nights to come.
Those nights traversing these lands are ones well spent. The game returns you to the continent of Tamriel, where you explore the northern realm called Skyrim, home to the Nord race. In these northern regions, snow flurries cloud your view, and platforms of ice float on the chilled waters. Nighttime often brings Tamriel's version of the aurora borealis, with its gorgeous blue and green ribbons stretching across the heavens. Skyrim's predecessor, Oblivion, featured prototypical fantasy environments--pretty but not quite evocative of the lore's darker undercurrents. Skyrim embraces its darker elements. You might feel an eerie chill as you glimpse a half-sunken ship through the mist, or watch as a dragon comes to life before your very eyes under the swirling firmament. Skyrim's atmospheric tone harks back to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, only the hazy dust storms of the earlier game have been replaced by glimmering snowfall and opaque fog.
These lovely vistas are best seen from a distance. Closer inspection reveals plenty of hard edges, ugly painted-on textures, and other visual flaws that are awfully conspicuous should you seek them out. But like many enormous games, Skyrim makes a fantastic impression not because its individual elements are sharply honed, but because they contribute to a grander whole. There's so much to do that your quest log becomes an embarrassment of pleasures, offering dozens of choices at any given time, each one as enticing as the next. You could follow the story, of course, which weaves a compelling tale that casts you as a dragonborn; that is, the soul of a dragon emanates from within you. As such, you are the key to discovering why dragons have returned to the land, terrorizing cities and potentially ending the known world. The tale has you facing dragons, of course, but also crashing fancy dress parties and scouring sewers in search of a key figure long assumed dead. It's a well-crafted tale that makes good use of those fearsome flying creatures that horrify the masses with roaring gusts of fire and ice.
Even when you aren't pursuing story quests, though, the core narrative dogs you as you trot across the land on foot or on horseback. You might travel to a quaint hamlet only to discover that it's under siege by a hovering beast. The townspeople join you, aiming their arrows and fireballs upward, and not all of them may survive the encounter. These battles impress upon you the terror in which the populace lives, and thus give you a reason to be a hero to them. But plenty of narrative delights have nothing to do with dragons, and some of them could have formed the main story of a lesser RPG. Following an early lead takes you to a lonely house occupied by a single child with a disturbing request. The story that unravels has you acting as a predator and eavesdropping from an unimaginably sinister hiding place. Other story threads embrace the element of choice. You can take sides in the ongoing conflict between Imperial forces and the rebellious Stormcloaks, and then assault enemy camps and rescue prisoners jailed by the enemy. And in one memorable if minor quest line, you can kill a creepy cannibal--or join her and her cohorts at the table.
It's impressive enough that there's so much to do; it's even more impressive that most of it is wonderful. Not every dungeon is a joy to explore. Stone-turning puzzles occasionally bring the fun to a halt, and a few repeated cave designs could dampen your spirits. But overall, every task has an excellent sense of context, and surprises lurk around many a turn. Searching for a lost dog turns into a grander quest than you could have guessed--and witty writing and voice acting shine some light into this somber world. Even a simple "go there, kill that" bounty can be a thrill. After all, how often do you face a towering giant and a couple of woolly mammoths? It's too bad that as you approach the giant's camp, one of those mammoths might spawn 100 feet in the air and fall to its death, or land on another mammoth and ride on its back for a few seconds before sliding off.
So maybe not every surprise is a welcome one. But most are, and the element of the unexpected is what lures you to explore as much as you can. The reward could be a great weapon hidden in a locked chest, a gorgeous vista to ogle, or a book of lore that enhances one of your attributes. Or perhaps you'll discover words written in the dragons' tongue--an important discovery indeed. Finding those words is key to using Skyrim's most powerful spells, known as shouts. Well, they are half the key anyway: you also must defeat dragons and absorb their souls to activate those shouts. Shouts have their own cooldown timer and aren't tied to the magicka bar that governs standard spellcasting. With one shout, you can breathe fire on your attackers. With another, you can slow down time. Shouts hardly guarantee success in a difficult battle, but they can tip the scales in your favor. Besides, the dramatic visual and sound effects of both the discovery of words and the absorption of a dragon soul are a lovely bonus.
As for standard spells, they come in the usual schools of magicka: destruction (zap skeletons with sparks!), conjuration (summon a giant frost atronach!), alteration (light the way ahead!), and so on. You can even dual-wield spells, going full-on mage, with a glowing ball of fire in one hand and a summon at the ready in the other. For that matter, you can dual-wield one-handed weapons, giving you more flexibility in how you form your character. When you create your character, you choose a race from the usual Elder Scrolls standbys (Dark Elf, Breton, Argonian, and so forth), but you don't choose a class. Rather, your skill level with certain types of weapons, magicka schools, speech, and so on is governed primarily by how you play. Wear heavy armor, and taking blows gradually increases your heavy armor proficiency. Swing two-handed weapons, and you get better at using them.