For just a moment, imagine yourself dressed in armor and fur, your muscular frame toughened against the cold blowing wind and snow that swirls about you. Now let the camera in your mind's eye pull back a bit to show the heavy forest you're trodding through with sword and shield in hand, your senses kept ever sharp against stalking predators. Pull back even more and discover that your frozen woodland is on the slope of a mountain, one of many in a range surrounding a sprawling city. Pull back one last time, to a satellite view: The city you see is joined by two, three, then dozens more, spread out over a vast landmass crisscrossed by a seemingly infinite number of rivers, lakes and mountains.
You are in Skyrim.
If there's anything the Elder Scrolls games are known for, it's their immense size, deep storylines and sweeping virtual scope. And The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim doesn't skimp in any of those areas. This is a mammoth Middle Earth-like digital world full of Nordic humans and forest elves, giant frost-spitting spiders and bloodthirsty werewolves, breathtaking snow-covered peaks and dank hidden crypts, fierce trolls and wispy wraiths, magical spells and poisoned battle axes. It's a place of curses and quests. And above all else … there be dragons in this land.
Now, if that description makes you think of a massively multiplayer online game such as World of Warcraft, you're pretty close. This too is a fantasy role-playing game filled with guilds, bloody battles and an unending parade of quests. But there are a couple of big differences. For one, Skyrim is a console game that doesn't require any online connections. The thousands of folks and freaks you can run into here are all AI controlled. And most importantly, here you're not just one of scores of heroes, each trying to grind his way up to the next level. You are the hero.
It's all about you.
You play as a "dragonborn"—a guy or gal imbued with the soul of one of those winged and fire-breathing beasts of legend. The dragonborn haven't been seen in the land for many an age. As such, the kingdom is hoping they will be the key to figuring out why ferocious dragons have suddenly reappeared and begun terrorizing the populace. The macro-quest set before you is to find a means to stop the people-crisping onslaught before Alduin, the Nordic dragon god of destruction, slays every living thing. To do that you kill lots of the dragons, absorbing their souls and learning a series of special magical "shouts" that will eventually let you take the fight right to the big baddie himself.
For all the searching, spell casting and dragon battling going on, though, the key to this game is choice. The possibilities are myriad and every one impacts the way the stories play out. That's because there isn't really just one quest to follow, there are hundreds. From the moment you start shaping your character—picking from 10 different species of human, elf, orc or animal-like creatures, all complete with mix-and-match skill sets—you are choosing what direction to step in and how to layer on the upgrades. In fact, many gamers will spend their first 10 hours or so avoiding the central storyline altogether and concentrating on side quests that can level-up their character.
One choice you don't have, however, is what Skyrim's rating is—an M, for mature. On the surface, the edgy content that assignment represents involves typical sword-slashing blood spray and sporadic foul language (in my journeys, "h‑‑‑," "a‑‑" and "d‑‑n"). That seems light compared to other M-rated battlers. But with time and a bit of travel under your digital belt you start pulling back more layers and finding other dark bits that add to the M mix.
The land's various (worshipped) gods, chanted spells, zombie-like undead, ghostly children and other dark creatures of the night weave together in a twisted spiritual tapestry that hangs behind just about everything. There are hundreds of books that can be picked up and read to unveil skill upgrades or cultural history. Some are harmless. Others reveal tales of sexual affairs or wink-wink carnality. Pickpocket skills can be burnished to the point of being able to steal the clothes right off someone's back, leaving them in their loincloths.
You can join a drinking game and end up slur-speeched and blackout drunk. You can morph into a werewolf or vampire to sneak up on sleeping innocents and drain their blood. Up-close, front-row seats for beheadings or assassinations are an easy find. And in one memorable quest you can kill and cannibalize another human to gain a reward of power for your grisly actions.
Those are just a scant few of the concerns. After playing for 40 to 60 hours, I still felt I had only scratched the surface of what Skyrim had to offer—the good and the bad. Which prompts me to end this review in just about the same way I ended my review of the last Elder Scrolls game—by suggesting that it's not just the negative content that creates problems with these kinds of games. It's the time spent surrounded by that content. It's the time spent not surrounded by the rest of your real life. This is a well-made and immersive game, and thus could end up captivating an unwary button-masher for many an hour, day, dare I say month or year, locking them away in its fantasy grip.
New York Times reviewer Seth Schiesel writes, "Want to get lost? Play The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I mean lost in the best possible sense. As in, 'Where did those six hours go?' As in, 'I don't really need to go shopping today.' As in, 'Hello, Mr. Sunrise.'"
Scrap "the best possible sense," and I agree completely.