Two centuries after the Oblivion Crisis and the death of Emperor Uriel Septim VII, the Empire of Tamriel is a shadow of its former self. A powerful new nation has arisen in the south and pushed the boundaries of the Empire back, forcing the near-bankrupt Empire to accept its religious pogroms or face open war. In the north, the province of Skyrim, home of the Nords, has become divided between those who wish to support the Empire in its moment of weakness and those who are enraged at the oppression of their religion and seek to make Skyrim an independent kingdom once again. Against this backdrop, chaos is unleashed when the elder god Alduin returns, unleashing a storm of dragons to devastate Skyrim. Only a warrior known as the Dragonborn can stop Alduin and save Skyrim and all of Tamriel from his wrath.
Skyrim is the fifth game in The Elder Scrolls series, following on from Arena, Daggerfall, Morrowind and Oblivion. As usual with this series, the game contains only minor continuity references to the previous titles and can be enjoyed on its own. As normal, you get to create a character, choosing their stats, background, gender and race, before being unleashed into the wilds of the Imperial Province of Skyrim. You can follow the main storyline, pursue side-quests or simply strike off into the wilderness to kill some wolves. If you're really into role-playing you can even go off and split some logs or pursue a career as a blacksmith. The game is an immense toybox and it's up to you how you play it.
Those who've played Bethesda RPGs before, particularly the recent era beginning with Oblivion and continuing through the SF Fallout 3 and New Vegas games, will find much here that is familiar. The ageing Gamebryo Engine has been given an overhaul and renamed the Creation Engine, but it's the same old technology propelling the title along (particularly noticeable with the still-clunky movement and jumping). The upgrades are impressive, with much-improved graphics (particularly in the departments of wind and snow effects) and character animation. The stiff, robotic figures of the previous Bethesda games are thankfully gone and people are now less off-putting to interact with. Bethesda have also provided a full voice cast for the game, which is a relief after Oblivion's tiny pool of voice actors resulted in some serious immersion-breaking moments. In Skyrim this is limited to a few of the various city guards, who have the same voice and even the same dialogue (the oft-repeated, "Arrow to the knee," complaint) no matter where they are, which is more amusing than problematic.
The game has also had a major overhaul to its rules system. Oblivion's level-scaling mechanic (where the whole world levels up with you) has been chucked, thankfully, and the skill system has now been made sane (in Oblivion it was a valid tactic to choose a mage class and then increase your opposing sword skills, so you wouldn't level up and make the entire world tougher). Bethesda have chucked out the class system altogether, so now you can tailor your character precisely. If you want to play a magic-fuelled archer of death, you can do that, as well as a rapid-casting pyromaniac or a sword-slinging barbarian who's also handy with a lockpick. The result is a 'streamlined' system which is actually just that, streamlined and made more logical without sacrificing depth or complexity. The perk system, where you gain impressive skills and powers in return for levelling up skills, also works well in the game.
Combat is mostly unchanged from Oblivion, particularly in the sword-swinging side of things. Whilst combat remains chunky and satisfyingly physical, it's still a button-mashing affair, disappointing in an RPG. Some sort of fantasy implementation of the VATS system from the Fallout games could have been a really good idea, but Bethesda chose not to do that. However, Skyrim permits dual-wielding, or dual-spellcasting, or using one hand to cast a spell and another to use a sword, which adds a greater tactical nuance to the game. There are also now animated sequences for impressive creature deaths, which is nice but only of cosmetic value. More interesting are Shouts, super-powered spells that you have access to as a Dragonborn. These can blow people off the side of mountains, fill a subterranean corridor with fire or carry you through the air in a mini-whirlwind. They're pretty cool and tie in directly with the game's other big change: dragons!
At first glance the dragons of Skyrim merely replace the Oblivion Gates of Oblivion: a hazard that can show up at any time in the wilderness and cause mayhem, often when you're simply trying to get from Point A to Point B hassle-free. However, the dragons are (normally) visible from miles away, so it's much easier to avoid them. Dealing with the Gates was also a major pain, as you had to fight your way through a mini-dungeon and steal an orb for each Gate to shut them down. With the dragons you just have to kill them, which is surprisingly straightforward (dragons can be dealt with relatively easily from about Level 8 or 9 onwards, maybe even lower if you trick the dragon into attacking a settlement or bunch of tough monsters, like giants). Every time you kill a dragon you open a slot for a new Shout power, which is filled by visiting major dungeons and searching them for magical symbols. It's an elegant process which ties the game's primary enemies, the myriad tons of dungeons in the game and a cool new magic system together into an impressive whole.
The game has the standard Bethesda set-up of having a major storyline quest, a number of important subquests and a bajillion side-quests. The major storyline is relatively entertaining (Skyrim's dragons are pretty cool and getting to talk to them and then kill them is enjoyable), certainly moreso than Oblivion's, but Bethesda's biggest problem of poor writing remains in place. Dialogue is po-faced and characterisation of the major NPCs is limited at best. Some of the major subquests, such as the Guild storylines, are also a lot of fun. The side-quests are variable, running from straightforward fetch quests to quite major episodes in themselves taking hours to complete. Many of the quests involve dungeons, and compared to Oblivion's small caves the dungeons in Skyrim are stunning, often spanning multiple levels and varying art styles (Skyrim contains lots of fortresses belonging to the long-vanished but technologically advanced Dwemer, so there's a brilliant genre cross-slide into steampunk in the game as well). They're impressive but also disappointingly linear with the game often holding you by the hand as you make your way through them lest you get lost, despite the fact that getting lost is half the fun of a good dungeon-delve.
The game scores big on atmosphere, as well. Trekking through an alpine forest with the snow streaming down and something growling nearby in the fog is suitably disconcerting, especially when the cloud breaks, revealing the northern lights in all their glory (and an ice troll charging at you). The environment is depicted superbly throughout, aided by an excellent musical soundtrack.
Where Skyrim falls down is the typical Bethesda problem of providing an immense world packed with things to do, but no real emotional reason to do them. The world is stunning, but populated by thinly-drawn characters who lack motivation or depth (though this is still better than Oblivion's world of disconcerting mannequins), and provide you with no real reason to help them beyond financial rewards or greater power. You can spend almost the whole game with a companion, but beyond swapping items with them, you can't talk to them about anything of interest, leaving them as little more than an an extra inventory and sword-arm. The 'civilised' parts of the game are among the most disappointing due to the lack of good writing and the resulting lack of emotional investment in the people you meet. The game even fails to have major NPCs recognise changes in the game's storyline: after completing the main quest with all its world-altering conclusion, it's astonishing how few people take notice of the fact.
However, the game is at its best when you are stuck on the side of a mountain exchanging spells with a dragon, or exploring a vast subterranean city whilst battling ancient steam-powered robots from before the dawn of recorded time. Or to put it another way, it's at its best when it puts you in charge of it and deciding what you want to do with it rather than following the developers' choices. On that level, Bethesda succeed more completely than with any of their previous games to date.
Skyrim (****) is rich in atmosphere and represents a significant improvement over Oblivion on almost every level. However, Bethesda's poor writing, dialogue and characterisation continues to hold The Elder Scrolls series back from fulfilling its true potential. The game is engrossing and interesting whilst it's you against the wilderness, but becomes flat and dull when you enter more civilised area. Still, it's a stunning technical achievement with some fabulous artwork and design. The game is available now on the PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and PlayStation 3 (UK, USA). The PC version has some highly impressive mods for it, not to mention comprehensive content-creation tools, to the point where the PC version of the game gets an extra half star from me.