Skyrim is easily the longest game you'll play this year, but does Bethesda's long-awaited RPG have what it takes to take the same game-of-the-year crown that Fallout 3 once nabbed?
Bethesda's latest RPG comes in the anticipated glee of rabid role players who have followed the Elder Scrolls series through to its fifth instalment. Each time, the worlds have become richer in detail, broader in scope and longer - and Skyrim is the superlative of all those qualities. You'll want a comfy chair for this one.
Players step into the shoes of an unbeknownst 'Dragonborn' in the land of Skyrim, where civil war pits Nordic rebels against a Romanesque 'Empire' that illegitimately reigns. Dragons have reappeared to throw a fiery monkey wrench into the works, and it's up to you to side with a faction or double-up on both as you explore and slash your way through the folk-lore, medieval world.
And it's a brilliantly animated, luscious world that captivates the senses. While it's not as graphically striking as many of this year's headlining FPS titles (and even the Bethesda-published Rage), the heavily interactive environment with all its individually rendered aspects make it all the more a spectacle.
Skyrim throws away typical RPG lore that suggests that players have to choose a class and stick to it. Choose a wizard, you're stuck to spells. Choose a barbarian, bring your boxing gloves. It's all been a bit tired and restrictive. Skyrim twists that by letting you choose a fairly generic character with a few particular skills, but everything else comes as you choose.
In my playthrough, I chose a 'Breton' who fits into the game as one of the most generic options - handy with a sword and good with a few spells. From here, I was able to boost my magic as I went along while specialising in one-handed weapons and heavy armour. If I'd wanted to be a bit more hands on, I could up my sneaking skill, focus on two-handed weapons and take the fight straight up to the string of supernatural attackers in Skyrim.
This more open take on levelling up is a refreshing twist that also gives the game a bit more longevity (as though the hour-after-hour gameplay needed any more leg room, anyway) so you can potentially max out every skill. Any skill can be boosted by simply using it more. The more you cast destructive spells, the more experience you gain on it and levels you boost, and as you level up, you can add perks to these skills. It's a simple but expansive system that gives you the power to level up however you want.
The free-roaming liberty ethos has been slightly chipped away at this time around. In Bethesda's older RPG, Fallout 3, players could kill almost any non-playable character (NPC), no matter how crucial they were to the story (bar a few, rare exceptions like your own father). This time around, there are quite a few quest-crucial NPCs that just won't die. It's handy, but a bit of a jip if GTA-style dystopia is your game.
If you've ever played a Bethesda RPG, then you're probably no stranger to glitches. Skyrim isn't as buggy as its predecessors, but it's still got a lot of holes to fill. For such a mountainous terrain, it isn't very hiker-friendly. Climbing some of the sheerer cliffs will take a skilful manipulation of the jump key and the angled run, lest you suffer invisible-wall syndrome. There is also a fair share of quest glitches that get in the way. At one point, a quest had me looking for an old man locked away in a cellar. When I found him, his character's audio wasn't working. I'd fumbled through the conversation on gut-instinct, but was ultimately left waiting an infinite time for him to inevitably not open the door. Brilliant.
These bugs aren't game-killers since there's still so much to do even if you do happen to run into the rare brick wall. At these points, there are usually bug fixes around (Google comes in handy) so don't despair.
Despite such impressive landscapes with a high attention to detail, far draw distances and individually rendered, usable items littered across the virtual world, the game runs very smoothly. Playing the PC version on a relatively average system by today's standards (ATI Radeon HD 4400 graphics card, Intel Core 2 Duo CPU) was relatively faultless and ran smooth at full resolution, albeit with a few frame rate hiccups at the higher intensity moments.
So why buy Skyrim? If you're not cashed up enough to go on a holiday gaming spending spree, then you may be faced with the brain-scratcher of which Christmas-time blockbuster to pick up. Call of Duty is the easy option, but the downloadable content in the long run will sap your dosh. Even Batman is jumping onto the DLC bandwagon. Skyrim, on the other hand, will give you weeks of play time without the need for repetitive multiplayer additives or any downloadable content purchases. You do the math.