What is most immediately apparent is the huge boost to detail. Bethesda has amped up their graphics system and, at least in the Xbox 360 console version, may be pushing the limits of what that machine is capable of processing. The facial rendering and textures in-game are phenomenal, even if the hair continues to look like a pixilated hedge. The musculature of the average Skyrim Nord is particularly well rendered, male and female, which is smoothly interfaced in their character customization screen. In addition, the voice acting in the game is widely varied and realistic, almost to a character.
For those of you who’ve played an Elder Scrolls game before, they’ve scrapped the class system, and initial “tutorial” bit of plot exposition that was previously used to determine your class set-up, is really just to understand the mechanics of the game. Instead, there are 17 skills that level up with use, in addition to a set of Perks associated with each Skill that are optionally leveled as well. In hearing about this before the game’s release, I was unsure whether they were simplifying the character creation and leveling up too much, taking the challenge away from RPG fans that love to max out their character stats. The opposite is true, however, as the additional layer of customization in Perks makes the character imminently customizable, without regard to class, but the skill leveling up actually feels more challenging and involved. It’s a much more fluid system that responds to play efficiently without dumbing-down the leveling process.
Finally, the world is so incredibly rich that the potential to simply get lost in it (figuratively, as well as literally) is enormous. Elder Scrolls games have always had the quality of a player just walking through the forest for the enjoyment of what they find there; no particular quest or goal in mind. Skyrim brings that quality to a new high. Upon exiting the early introductory tutorial (most reviewers have referred to it as the Platonic, “exiting the cave” since the players actually do emerge from a cave), I found myself face to face with an enormous stag. Having just picked up a box I knelt (sneak) down and sunk an arrow into its flank. Being the Nord noob I was, the arrow wasn’t enough to fell the creature so it took off, and I tracked it for quite a while before finally bringing it down in a creek quite some distance from my starting point. I cleaned the deer in the creek (opened it up and took its hide), and found myself at the base of a ruined tower.
In this way I spent perhaps the first hour of free game play simply exploring the world, familiarizing myself with the controls, and not once did I feel the slightest itch to start a quest or find a town Not until I died, that is, because a beginning character is very truly a beginner. The creatures and enemies that you find populating Skyrim’s forests are often able to kill a fresh character as an afterthought, particularly when you start dungeon crawling. If I were to leave you with a piece of advice, find a little town and complete some local quests before you strike out on your own into the wilderness.
One other piece of advice, if you plan to buy Skyrim, prepared to lose a lot of your real life. Consider it a much more immersive and violent Second Life, but you know…with dragons.