Apparently, you can complete Skyrim in just over two hours. This claim – made in the immediate run-up to the game’s release – wasn’t made by some infatuated nerd, and it wasn’t fabricated by a start-up website shamelessly trying to generate hits; it was made by two of the developers who created the game in the first place. And in a way, this attitude tells you pretty much everything that you need to know about Skyrim. The admission serves as both a smoke signal to devotees and a valuable pointer to intrigued newcomers, a crucial reminder that you don’t play Skyrim… you live it. The engine that drives the game’s real plot is you, but Bethesda’s extensive window dressing has never been this delectable.

Despite being one of the most sumptuous lands ever seen in a videogame – an extensively vivid domain that practically demands that you get lost in it – it’s also a land that’s being ravaged by a bitter civil war, and a land whose inhabitants are intermittently being murdered by a horde of stealthy, fire-breathing tarragons. That’s the framework, and along with a prelude that sees your character (regardless of sex or race) dodging an appointment with a chopping block, is the only part of the Skyrim experience that’s fully set in stone for everyone. How you proceed is (as ever) entirely your call, and everything that’s here, from the huge action beats of the main plot to the ridiculously – ridiculously – bountiful collection of side-quests, are all written and constructed with exactly the same degree of meticulous attention.

It prides itself on being flexible, and even when you’re calmly stalking the hills for elk meat, you never feel as if there’s something more important that you should be doing. In terms of writing, Skyrim’s main story has taken a quantum leap in quality from the plain, poorly sketched main showpiece of Oblivion; which actually makes adhering to it a bit more compelling than expected. The inventory and levelling systems have also been streamlined, and the former does a marvellous job of ensuring that all of the most valuable information about your accumulated equipment and weaponry is constantly to the fore. The latter has been drastically simplified but remains every bit as customisable as the one that featured in its predecessor.

Whether it’s primarily down to the inclusion of dragons or to the developers’ newly ostentatious approach towards scriptwriting, Skyrim is unquestionably the most cinematic game that Bethesda has ever produced. Even the most menial tasks feel strangely epic, and an utterly brilliant soundtrack – composed by the perpetually unsung Jeremy Soule, who also created the music for Oblivion and Neverwinter Nights, among others – manages the trick of never becoming intrusive, despite being audible for a highly significant portion of your adventure. The slow motion kill cinematics that played via Fallout 3’s VATS system have also been approximated here, and although they’re seemingly triggered at random, for this reviewer they had an amazingly sharp knack of happening at just the right moment; provoking exactly the desired fist-pumping reaction.

Despite innumerable recent claims to the contrary, Skyrim isn’t quite perfect. The combat still feels terribly antiquated in a game that’s otherwise obsessed with its own forward-thinking ethos, and flailing around, mashing buttons in a reckless panic – which is liable to happen if you’re unprepared for an impromptu skirmish – is one of the only things that is truly capable of diminishing your involvement. It’s not much of an issue if you choose to play as a Mage but it nevertheless fares particularly badly in comparison to something like Dark Souls; however, the more than stellar archery and spell-casting systems do make amends for this somewhat. The rigid third-person viewpoint continues to be something of an afterthought too; a peculiarity, as this is how most people choose to (or are forced to) engage with most of Bethesda’s competition.

If you’ve always known precisely what Skyrim was going to provide you with, then you can rest assured that it does so with trustworthy confidence. For anyone who’s unfamiliar with Bethesda’s wares, a few brief minutes are all that you’ll need before you’ll ascertain whether or not it fits in with the mindset of your inner hero. And if it doesn’t, part of the fun will involve allowing the game to cleverly take shape around it. What’s perhaps most notable about Skyrim is that the entirety of Bethesda’s back catalogue – even the wonderful Fallout 3 – launched with a few pernicious and occasionally baleful bugs in place, and although Skyrim is no exception these very minor glitches almost never yank you out of the experience. It feels virtually complete, and for a game this vast, this ambitious and this capable of plundering so much of your precious spare time, it’s consequently difficult not to recommend it in the strongest possible terms.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is available now on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC.

Watch the trailer for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim below: 

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