Written by Aryn ClarkAs I took my first, tentative steps out of the fortress that comprises Skyrim's tutorial, I slowly scanned the misty horizon with the right analogue stick. In this moment, I had just one thought : this place is big. I wasn't wrong.
When you check the map for the first time, it really hammers home just how vast a world you're stepping into, and once you see the little markers designating the start and finish of your first journey, mere inches away from each other in the huge expanse of Skyrim, you know for sure that you've got a lot of walking ahead of you. However, it isn't only the size of the map that's impressive - the sheer number of locations within it borders on the ridiculous and, with the possible exception of the most diligent and methodical adventurers, the one thing that you can be sure of in this game is that there is always more out there to do.
Still, no matter how daunting the task of seeing everything in Skyrim, the game does a pretty good job of encouraging you to try. It seems that everybody and their dog has an urgent mission that can only be conducted by the one true hero, and it isn't long before you have a list of minor missions as long as my leg. These odd-jobs actually manage to be pretty varied, despite their number, and although some are inevitably “fetch this from here” or “kill this, vigorously”, there are quite a few that really stand out from the crowd. One particularly memorable mission requires you to deal with the fallout of a drinking competition that led you to deface a temple, sell a goat to a giant, and get engaged to a woman of very dubious quality.
As well as the innumerable side-quests, there is also, of course, a set of story missions to complete, and they're all well and good. However, they're not really where you're going to spend a majority of your time – saving the kingdom can wait when a small child needs your help with a bully. Even if you don't feel like completing any of the missions though, you can always go and explore Skyrim, and enough of the locations are dungeons that this can be rewarding even without a quest. Wandering around the landscape, you may even encounter a dragon, and while some fly obliviously overhead - unresponsive to any amount of frantic axe-brandishing - if they do land, they often make for a dramatic battle.
The eternal question of where to spend your time in Skyrim isn't the only one though, you also have a choice of how, and once again, you've got a lot of space to play with. There are eighteen different skills to work on, everything from blacksmithing to magical illusions, and each has it's own development tree, allowing you to choose not only which skills to develop, but how to develop them as well. With these options, you really can build your character however you like – whether a devoted specialist or a jack-of-all trades. Want to be that grizzled Viking on the poster, smashing in heads with sword and shield? Fine. How about a graceful Elven archer who has a side interest in summoning demons? Also fine. You could even play a cat-person thief who literally steals the clothes off people's backs! There are enough skills to put together whatever build you feel like, perfectly tailored to that character you spent 20 minutes designing on the appearance screen...
Unfortunately, despite the number of skills and the versatility that offers, some of the options do feel a little bit weak - there seem to be a few too few spells in some of the mage classes for example, and there's only so much you can learn about lockpicking and other one-dimensional pursuits. On the other hand, you can always branch into different areas if yours feels a bit limited, and there are enough levels that you can maintain a fair few specialities at once. It's definitely worth exploring a few different avenues anyway, as it'll help to keep combat fresh later in the game - there may be a lot of dungeons, but any amount of underground murder/pillaging can get wearing without variety.
Sadly, a potential for over-repetitive gameplay isn't Skyrim's only problem, and it would be remiss of me to go any further without discussing the others. The game's inscrutable scaling system for example, is meant to manage difficulty so players don't feel too out of their depth at any point. However, when it causes you to trek through a dungeon filled with inept, thoroughly defeatable zombies, only to be reduced to a fine mist by some foul overlord called a “Death King”, it seems to be working less than perfectly. The game is also prey to a number of glitches, and while anybody who's played one of their former titles will expect a few glitches from a Bethesda game, it's still exasperating at times. While the strange meteorological phenomenon that causes giants and mammoths to fall from the sky is pretty fun to watch, the glitch that makes dragon corpses refuse to relinquish their immortal souls is a problem – and it's not alone. Uncooperative NPCs, vanishing companions and intermittently pacifist monsters all make appearances, and can hinder an otherwise enjoyable experience.
Despite these flaws however, Skyrim is still a damn good game. Some of the problems that it has may have stopped me from recommending a lesser title, but no matter the issues, Skyrim's quality always manages to shine through. If you're thwarted by a glitch, you just try again, because quite simply, the game is worth it. With Skyrim, Bethesda has given players a world, and a full one, and no amount of flying mammoths is able to change that.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is available for Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC.