Skyrim is the northernmost province in Tamriel, the realm where the Elder Scrolls games take place, so it follows that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is informed by a sense of the North. The warm, ornate Tolkien kitsch that has dominated the look of this fantasy RPG series is replaced in Skyrim by a cool austerity. The title screen displays a black stone carving of a dragon beside a sans-serif invitation to begin playing, and the world’s structures are designed in a spare, elegant blend of Gaelic and Nordic influences. This is a cleaner game than its predecessors. One essential contradiction of northern climes, though, is that they’re both clean and rugged. The masterstroke of Skyrim is that, in addition to its sleek beauty, the edges are still rough where they need to be.
As with other Elder Scrolls games, you begin as an anonymous prisoner without a past. Before long, you learn that you’re the last in a bloodline of dragonslayers, destined to save the world from an armageddon foretold in the Scrolls. That’s the “main” quest, at least, but the central storyline is just a spine for everything else you can do in Skyrim.
The land of Skyrim is a glorious mess of loose threads, and wherever you go, there is some tantalizing new intrigue. An afternoon spent helping the local guard captain inspect a house can somehow turn into a harrowing showdown with Molag Bal, lord of the underworld. Not everything needs to be epic, though. When one cute mini-quest asks you to convince a girl to stop bullying a local boy, there’s no twist. Skyrim mixes the prosaic and the fantastic to build up a rich world where, amid a cataclysmic threat, the smaller, stranger vagaries of human existence continue unabated.
This game has a more refined look than its often-homely (but still great) predecessor, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Unlike in Oblivion, not all the people in Skyrim are ugly—in fact, many of them are rather good-looking. The game’s menu tree handles the same essential data as before (quest logs, magic, skill development, weapons, and maps), but it’s been overhauled with a modernized interface, making it more intuitive than Oblivion’s ghastly faux-paper menus.
An updated combat system essentially treats magic and weapons the same way. You have two hands, and you can put whatever you want in either hand. Players can choose a standard configuration like bow-and-arrow, or mix it up with a fire spell in one hand and a dagger in the other. Or you can go double-fisted with a single spell to unleash added effects. A new “favorites” display lets you switch quickly between a wide range of equipment and magic. The system’s straightforward nature lets players invent complex strategies without getting mired in menus and tiny details.
The skill-boosting setup has seen similar refinement. Leveling up still requires choices about what kind of character you want to be—a stealthy thief, say, or a bruiser—and the world still levels up with you, so you don’t rapidly gain a huge advantage over foes. But you won’t experience the pitfalls of Oblivion, where, if you aren’t well-versed in the arcana of the game’s leveling rules, improving your character can become more curse than blessing.
The soul of Skyrim isn’t in these meticulous improvements, but in its shaggier side. Not every aspect of this world lines up perfectly. You might be anointed by an ancient priesthood as the greatest warrior in all the land, only to walk 10 yards down the road and get slaughtered by a stray bear. Incongruities like this arise all the time—characters behave weirdly, and quests veer off-script. It isn’t just about bugs, although there are some of those. These eccentricities are the result of an extremely detailed organic world acting out in unexpected ways.
Skyrim lets these rough edges show, because the element of chaos lets players feel like the game is happening to them, and they are alive in it—not just cogs in a pre-fab Game Experience. That’s what sets Skyrim apart from some of its contemporaries. Where many games with lavish production values seek to direct players’ imaginations, Skyrim seeks to ignite them.