According to Steam, I have played The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for more than 190 hours. Thus far, I have enjoyed playing Skyrim. If you enjoyed Morrowind, Oblivion or Fallout 3, you are likely to enjoy Skyrim as well. I will not be giving Skyrim a grade, as grades seldom give a good picture of a game (or anything else for that matter).
This review is PC centric, as I game on PC only. If you are playing on the PC, you have an extra option to improve the things you do not like: User made modifications (mods). At time of writing the Construction Kit is close to release, but even without it some 6000 mods have been released on Skyrim Nexus.
Skyrim is huge. Really. There are lots of places to explore. Many of these places have a history and semi-hidden side quests that can be found by investigating the environment. Clutter can tell a story for those who look. The exploration of Skyrim is where the game really shines, and is at its most enjoyable. There are a number of carriages that can take you between the cities, and it is possible to fast travel to a location once it is discovered. These features are quite convenient, but they should not be over used, if you want to get the most out of Skyrim.
There are lots of wild life (even foxes and bunnies), most of which will ignore or flee from you. Predators will attack, all to often on sight, which is a bit annoying.
There is another very welcome change: Climbing has been vastly improved. There are almost no invisible barriers, and it is very possible to scale many mountains. Much, much better than in Oblivion.
The Dwemer ruins from Morrowind are back, populated by automatons and Falmer. With them comes a number of investigation quests. Unlike Morrowind and Oblivion, most of the dungeons are one-way with a few side tunnels and a quick exit. Convenient, fun, but also immersion-breaking. There are also generous amounts of potions, and no need to use torches. Again.
Still exists, but it is closer to Fallout 3 than to Oblivion. Once you enter an area, it will lock to your level. So, if it is too difficult and you come back later, it will still be the same level. Some areas or enemies have a particular level range, so e.g. a Sabre Cat will always be dangerous to a low level character.
Bandits will seldom use advanced armor (the boss bandit may wear powerful, leveled armor, though), but it is less obvious. Except in dragon fights as dragons are leveled (there is a mod for deadlier, unleveled dragons).
Vendor inventory changes due to your level. Sic. Way to make gold useful early on. Like in Oblivion, the merchant inventories are placed in unreachable locations, so thieves can only loot the items on display.
Cities are similar in size to Oblivion, and the walled cities seem to be in their own world space. Unfortunately, there are too few NPCs in the cities (why did they not use generic NPCs like in Fallout 3?). It seems that the number of guards is similar to the number of citizens in the city, which is a bit … off.
There are bards in the inns who actually sing a few tunes, which gives a nice mood. But it would be nice if there were a few more people in the inn, e.g. a random traveler, a hunter or a mercenary celebrating surviving another job. On a more positive note, the interior cells respawn every 30 days (or some such), so if you loot a merchant cell, its contents will respawn at some point. You can also find chickens and cattle in the cities.
As should be clear from trailers and screenshots, the habitats of Skyrim are inspired by look and feel of the viking era. Not as outlandish as Morrowind, but definitely more interesting than the cities of Cyrodiil.
There are an absurd number of quests in Skyrim, some of which are randomly generated. As in previous installments of The Elder Scrolls, there are a number of quest lines and a large number of side quests. Depending on your play style, you may also run into a lot of characters that are essential to a certain quest, and, hence, cannot be killed. Even if the quest has finished.
There are lots and lots of side quests. People that hire you to do something, or clues that you find. Many of the side quests are pretty bland, with few actual choices. Many if not most of the quests are of the type “Go into that dungeon and get that artifact or kill that boss”. The deadric quests blend into the game much better than in Oblivion, and are overall some of the more interesting ones … like in Oblivion.
The quest lines are a number of quests related to a particular faction, e.g. the Thieves Guild, or a particular issue, e.g. the return of the dragons or the civil war. The civil war quest line differs from previous TES games by giving the player the ability to chose sides. Furthermore, neither of the sides are without merit or flaw. This is a good thing, and much appreciated.
However, most of the quest lines railroad you, like in Oblivion. There are little in terms of meaningful choices: In most cases the influence of the player is limited to “do or don’t do the quest”. Many of the quest lines are inflated by requiring the player to go into yet another dungeon to get to the next semi-scripted cut scene. Coupled with the lack of choice, it is easy to lose interest 2/3 way through the quests. Which is sad, because there are some breathtaking scenery as well as some good ideas. And I have often experienced that the ending of the quest lines did not feel like a climax, nor did the reward feel well placed. All to often it made little sense to keep playing after finishing a quest line.
After finishing a quest line, you may experience some strangeness as some quests were not written to take your accomplishments into account. E.g. after finishing the main quest and killing some 40 dragons this guard tries to shake me down!
I like the voice acting in Skyrim better than in Oblivion. Many NPCs are pretty bland, but this is mostly due to not having enough dialog. Some may surprise you, though. The persuasion minigame has been removed, and when persuasion, intimidation or bribes are needed it is available through dialog. As it should be. One annoying feature is that NPCs start talking to you if you are in their vicinity. Even during quest-related speeches. Bad. Cipscis made a mod to reduce the talking distance.
The good news is that there are loads of followers. Some will follow you if you solve a quest for them, others can be bought. The bad news is that most of them are pretty boring, with little dialog and seldom more than a short quest that you need to complete before getting them. There is also a bug that causes their number of HP and Stamina not to level when you do (there is a workaround for that). Followers are semi-essential. When they reach zero HP they kneel, and if they get more damage, they die.
Horses work pretty much like in Oblivion, except that they aren’t very fast. Strangely, horses are incredible climbers. Horses can carry you when you are over encumbered, but there are no saddlebags. There is no fighting from horseback, but horses seem quite aggressive – my horses usually end up dead when they charge some powerful monster. Horses are cheap, but not really worth the hassle of keeping them alive.
The UI is a console port. For the most part it works reasonably well, but sometimes the UI gets confused most likely because you have multiple input units (keyboard and mouse), so e.g. during a conversation it may choose another reply than the one you tried to choose. Quite annoying when it happens. There are a few UI mods that work well, but none of them fixes the issue above. Dialog and crafting happen in real time, so they will no longer freze the game.
The lockpicking minigame is modelled over the Fallout 3 minigame, without the skill requirements. This means that if you take your time, you can open any lock. The lockpicking perks are mostly there to reduce the annoyance of the minigame. However, the game is frozen during lockpicking, so you can lockpick while someone is trying to chop your head off. Also, if you successfully sneak before starting, you will not get caught.
There is a journal that you can use to keep track of active and completed quests. You can activate (or deactivate) a quest to show (or hide) map markers for the next objective. Unfortunately, only the note for the current quest stage is shown, which makes it difficult to review your clues. It is not possible to write notes yourself.
If you fully explore a dungeon, it will be marked as “Cleared” on your map, which is a useful feature. It is also possible to place a marker on the map that will show up on your compass. This is useful if you want to find a location not previously visited, and you do not wish to open the map all the time. The map is quite beautiful, but roads are not marked. Fortunately, Ice Penguin made a mod so that the in-game map does have roads.
The Player Character
The number of skills has been reduced (again), but in my view it is more cutting away the unnecessary fat than “dumbing down” the game for casual gamers.
There are no classes, and you get to follow celestrial signs by finding the standing stone for that sign. This has the advantage that you just start playing, and you end up getting good at the things you do. This gives a nice, natural flow where you just play the game. The flip side is that your startings skills are decided by race, not by your background.
As you gather experience, you gain levels. Each level gives you a bonus to either Magicka (used for magic), Health (Hit points) or Stamina (expended during fights and affects carry weight).
As you level, you chose perks, and this is where you specialize. Unfortunately, some perks are overpowered while others are useless, so some rebalance is needed. Furthermore, many skills seem to have little effect unless one gets the skill perks (Lockpicking is the worst in this regard).
There are a number of templates (10 for each race/gender) that are pretty good starting points for making your character. You can choose scars, war paint, beards and body width. The face sliders work pretty well (but still no undo button), and the hair/eye color options are quite limited. The normal maps for the faces are a bit blocky, particularly visible on the nose and chin (mods like this one fix this issue). There are no in-game ways to change war paint or hair do, and the ShowRaceMenu console command has some issues.
There are loads of crafting options. Aside from the classics (Alchemy and Enchanting), you can smith and improve weapons and armor, mine and smelt ore, chop wood and cook food. And you can see yourself while you are doing it (but still not when going to sleep). Skillbased crafting gets a bit overpowered if you grind it, just like in Morrowind and Oblivion.
So far, I have experienced one gamebreaking bug (fixed by reload) and 4 crashes to desktop (all with the 1.2 patch). I have experienced few minor bugs (aside from the resistance bug introduced with the 1.2 patch). So, for me, Skyrim has been the least buggy Bethesda game to date. There are, however, a large number of minor and major bugs in the game, so it is recommended to use the Unofficial Patch whenever it comes out.