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I was stacking books on a shelf in my house in Whiterun, one of Skyrim's major cities, when I noticed a weapon rack right beside it. I set a sacrificial dagger in one slot, an Orcish mace in the other. They were on display for nobody but me and my computer-controlled housemaid, Lydia, who sat at a table patiently waiting for me to ask her to go questing. The chest upstairs was reserved for excess weapons and armor, the bedside table for smithing ingots and ores, the one next to the Alchemy table for ingredients. I'd meticulously organized my own virtual property not because I had to, but because tending to the minutia of domestic life is a comforting break from dealing with screaming frost trolls, dragons, a civil war, and job assignments that never seem to go as planned. It's even a sensible thing to do; a seemingly natural component of every day existence in Skyrim, one of the most fully-realized, easily enjoyable, and utterly engrossing role-playing games ever made.

Part of what makes it so enjoyable has to do with how legacy Elder Scrolls clutter has been condensed and in some cases eliminated. In Skyrim, there's no more moon-hopping between hilltops with a maxed out Acrobatics skill. That's gone, so is Athletics. The Elder Scrolls V pares down the amount of skills and cuts out attributes like Endurance and Intelligence altogether. There's no time wasted on the character creation screen agonizing over which skills to assign as major. You don't assign major and minor skills at all, but instead pick one of ten races, each with a specific bonus. High Elves can once a day regenerate magicka quickly, Orcs can enter a berserk rage for more effective close-range combat. These abilities are best paired with certain character builds – the High Elf regeneration is useful for a magic user – but don't represent a rigid class choice. Major decisions don't need to be made until you're already out in the world and can try out magic, sneaking and weapon combat, emphasizing first-hand experience over instruction manual study, letting you specialize only when you're ready.

It contributes to the thrilling sense of freedom associated with life in Skyrim. Do a quest, kill a dragon, snatch torchbugs from the air, munch on butterfly wings or simply wander while listening to one of the best game soundtracks in recent memory. Despite the enormity of the world and the colossal amount of content contained within, little feels random and useless. Even chewing on a butterfly wing has purpose, as it reveals one of several alchemical parameters later useful in potion making at an alchemy table. Mined ore and scraps of metal from Dwemer ruins can be smelted into ingots and fashioned into armor sets, pelts lifted from slain wildlife can be turned into leather armor sets, and random books plucked from ancient ruins can trigger hidden quest lines that lead to valuable rewards. Skyrim's land mass is absolutely stuffed with content and curiosities, making every step you take, even if it's through what seems like total wilderness, an exciting one, as something unexpected often lies just over the next ridge.

Many times the unexpected takes the form of a dragon. Sometimes they're purposefully placed to guard relics, sometimes they swoop over cities and attack at seemingly random times. In the middle of a fight against a camp of bandits a dragon might strike, screaming through the sky and searing foe and friendly alike with frost or flame. Momentarily all on the battlefield unite, directing arrows and magic blasts upward to knock down the creature, creating impromptu moments of camaraderie -- a surprising change from what may have been yet another by-the-numbers bandit camp sweep. Dragons show up often, their presence announced by an ominous flap of broad wings or an otherworldly scream from high above. The scale and startling detail built into each creature's appearance and animations as it circles, stops to attack, circles again and slams to the ground makes encounters thrilling, though their predictable attack patterns lessen the excitement after a few battles. In the long run they're far less irritating than the Oblivion gate equivalent from The Elder Scrolls IV, can be completed in a few minutes, and always offer a useful reward.

Killing a dragon yields a soul, which powers Skyrim's new Shout system. These are magical abilities any character can use, you don't have to specialize in spell casting to slow time, throw your voice, change the weather, call in allies, blast out ice and fire, or knock back enemies with a rolling wave of pure force. Even if you favor sword, shield and heavy armor and ignore magic entirely, you'll still be able to take full advantage of these abilities provided you find the proper words – each Shout has three – hidden on Skyrim's high snowy peaks and in the depths of forgotten dungeons, serving as another reason to continue exploring long after you've exhausted the main quest story, joined with the Thieves Guild, fought alongside the Dark Brotherhood, or thrown your support behind one of the factions vying for control of Skyrim.

Not only is this land under assault by dragons, long thought to be dead, it's also ripped in two by civil war. You can choose one side or the other, but so much of the allure of Skyrim is how, even outside of the confines of quest lines, the embattled state of the world is evident, and steeped in a rich fictional legacy. Lord of the Rings this is not, but with the release of every Elder Scrolls game, the fiction becomes denser, and the cross-referencing for long-time fans all the more rewarding.

Skyrim's residents are all aware of current events. They'll comment on the civil war, some sympathizing with the rebels, others thinking the establishment sold its soul. The peasants complain about the Jarls who control each settlement, the Jarls complain about the rebels or foreign policy, the overprotective College librarian complains when I drop dragon scales all over his floor; many characters feel like whole, distinct personalities instead of vacuous nothings that hand out quests like a downtown greeter hands out flyers for discount jeans. Characters stereotype based on race, they double-cross at even the slightest hint it might be profitable, and they react to your evolving stature within the world. It makes a ridiculous realm, filled with computer-controlled cat people and humanoid reptiles, demon gods and dragons, feel authentic, like a world that existed long before you showed up and will continue to exist long after you leave.

You can speed by all this if you want. You can drive directly through the main story content, see the conclusion and bail out, having never increased a skill category to 100 or read a virtual copy of The Antecedents of Dwemer Law. But to do so is to defeat the purpose of playing The Elder Scrolls. This is a world that rewards the obsessive and the adventurous, one where creative quest designs are the standard across primary and secondary storylines, not the exception. Primary quest lines may proceed in predictable fashion for a while, but only to lull you into a sense of complacency before the inevitable betrayal sends you scrambling in unexpected directions. The rewards are just as exciting, offering all sorts of unique gear and significant bonuses for dealing with the Thieves Guild, entering into the ranks of the magical College of Winterhold, or joining the battle-hardened Companions in Whiterun. These are the strongest storylines in the game, but even the shorter quests sprinkled all over Skyrim impress.

Random NPCs will run up to deliver notes in the middle of the wilderness, others whisper rumors in inns. Blacking out after randomly entering into a drinking contest, luring innocents to their deaths at demonic shrines or complying with the demands of a cannibal haunting a morgue are only some of the peculiar events you may encounter in Skyrim's non-essential content. You may see all of this, or after an extensive playthrough miss the quests entirely. Bethesda Game Studios' achievement isn't simply that there's well over one hundred hours of content in Skyrim, but that the content so frequently defies expectations. To have such an immense game where so little feels like a grind is incredibly rare, and a significant part of what makes this one of the best role-playing games ever created.

For such a complex game, Skyrim is surprisingly user-friendly. The Elder Scrolls' traditional leveling mechanics still apply. When you turn in a quest or kill a character, you don't receive experience points. Instead, skills level up through use. Cast fireballs and frost spells and your Destruction skill will go up. Craft armor pieces and your Smithing will increase, brew potions and your Alchemy will shoot up, and deflect damage with a shield to increase Block. After enough of these categories have increased, your overall character level notches up, allowing either Magicka, Health or Stamina to be increased. This is how you define your class, piece by piece, favoring Magicka if you want to use spells, Health and Stamina if you prefer weapons, or a combination if you don't want to specialize. It's an easy to use, sensible system, and the results are easy to see, a welcome change from the attribute system of old, which in retrospect seems cumbersome.

Influences from Bethesda's work with Fallout 3 can be seen as well, as each skill category is associated with a perk tree filled with unlockable powerful bonuses. One perk point is assigned every time your overall character level increases, but you don't have to spend it immediately. Points can be stored until you're absolutely sure about the best bonuses to unlock, which could be anything from a chance to decapitate enemies with a one-handed weapon swing, to a zoom ability while using the bow and arrow. With significant bonuses embedded into every perk tree, unlocking new abilities is always an exciting process, often resulting in tough decisions as you choose between unlocking dual-casting for your Restoration spells or learning how to create Dwarven armor, offering loads of incentive to replay the game with a different character build.

The Fallout influence can also be seen in the weapon combat system. By swatting at enemies with maces, axes and swords you trigger slow-motion death animations in the style of Fallout 3's glorified fatalities. It's a decent way to add a little flair to The Elder Scrolls' traditionally flat, floaty combat. Fighting with sword and shield feels more exciting in Skyrim than it's ever been, but it's still inconsistent. Many times it feels like you're slicing air instead of a mythical creature's flesh, though there's a certain adrenaline rush appeal to charging into a fight in a first-person perspective against a towering Dwemer centurion, mammoth or giant that fills your entire field of vision. Useful perks like a slow motion effect that triggers every time you block during an enemy's power attack gives depth to the close-range fighting, so while the system may be simple at first, it improves if you're willing to invest.

The spell system has received BioShock-like adjustments. When playing in first-person mode your hands hover at the sides of the screen with magic active. When you finally snap out of the mesmerized stupor brought on by gazing into the rotating blue cubes that characterize Alteration magic, you can cast from both hands. One hand can blast fire while the other shoots electricity. One can channel a heal while the other shoots a jet of frost at an advancing enemy. You can conjure a spectral sword and use the free hand to set fiery runes along the ground that explode when any hostiles step over. If you've unlocked the proper perks, it's even possible to combine the same spell into a more powerful version, letting you cast fireballs Street Fighter-style for better results. The system makes playing a pure caster the most fun it's ever been in The Elder Scrolls, and opens up useful hybrid options, letting you swing an axe while actively channeling a fire spell or healing effect. With a greatly improved visual presentation and the always entertaining physics system that takes hold after a target dies, tossing magic in The Elder Scrolls has never felt this satisfying, as a well-placed fireball can send a charging bear tumbling helplessly down the slope of a stony mountain.

You don't have to be alone during combat, either. You can summon magical creatures or hire NPCs to tag along. Followers exist all over Skyrim, and if you do them favors, they'll be willing to venture outside towns and deal extra damage during a fight. Followers can even be given simple movement and interaction commands or saddled with extra gear, though don't expect to interact with them to the degree that you can with party members in BioWare games. The followers are meant to be tools of battle instead of ever-evolving personalities, but some still stand out, such as a boundlessly self-confident Khajiit in Winterhold's College, or, if you're into Conjuration magic, a summoned demon warrior that can't help but insult any hostile that walks into range.

As more enemies join a fight, things do occasionally get awkward. During large scale battles, pathing around Skyrim's environments can be problematic, as summoned creatures and followers get stuck on pieces of geometry. The drama of climactic moments, like when the screen is cluttered with soldiers as you overtake forts in the civil war quest line, tends to occasionally be undercut by the erratic movement patterns of enemies as they run around like over-caffeinated toddlers. Even during less hectic interactions such as conversations, problems exist. At times characters won't be in the right positions after you say hello, so you'll wind up talking to a wall or watching as an NPC inexorably slides down a staircase while delivering lines of dialogue. At least the conversation interface is a big improvement from Oblivion, where time flows naturally while characters talk instead of mysteriously freezing, and the voice acting is of a generally higher quality as well, though still sounds forced in some cases.

The visuals have also been dramatically improved over the last Elder Scrolls game. The sense of adventure and discovery is strong enough in Skyrim given how many cool items and quests there are to find, but the addition of beautiful scenery makes the inclination to obsessively scour Skyrim's landscapes irresistible. Mountains shrouded in mist ring every tract of open field, forest and marsh, and if you're willing to walk, you can eventually climb their slopes and view the rest of the world from above. Waterfalls tumble from high cliffs and split off into smaller tributaries as they wind through the rocks below, flowing across terrain that feels realistically varied. You'll see foggy mornings and crystal clear days, take in polychromatic aurorae streaked ribbon-like across night skies, rainstorms and near blinding blizzards, making it easy to drop what you're doing and survey a scene just to appreciate its beauty.

Weapon and armor designs are fantastically detailed, to the point where the increased damage or armor bonus for a new piece of gear is usually less exciting than the opportunity to marvel at its design. Playing in first-person gives you a close up of the weapons, like the curvilinear patterns built into steel war axes or the spiny surface of a demonic mace pulsing with glowing-green glyphs. Bethesda seems to recognize its talent at creating flashy items, since anything you pick up can be examined in your inventory from all angles, from every piece of Glass armor to a purple mountain flower. For the best view of armor, though, you'll want to switch out to third-person view, which in Skyrim is a far more viable way to play than it was in Oblivion. I still prefer the traditional first-person combat and interaction for the sense of immersion it provides, but the third-person mode isn't the vanity mode it once was.

As good as the visuals are in the Xbox 360 version of Skyrim, there are a few drawbacks. Even with the game installed, load times are lengthy and frequent. Every time you fast travel, every time you enter a building or town with a door, you'll need to sit through a load. You'll also experience framerate drops depending on how much happens to be onscreen. The PC crowd should be happy to hear that, assuming you've got a powerful machine, The Elder Scrolls V looks far and away the best. The draw distance can be pushed way back, letting you see clear across enormous spaces, and you benefit from a higher visual quality throughout, as well as dramatically shortened load times, to the point where they barely exist at all.

The only downside of the PC version is the interface, which is elaborately presented and a breeze to use on consoles, but is inefficiently laid out for keyboard and mouse controls. To cut down on time spent in menus with both versions you can assign almost anything – armor, weapons, spells, shouts, pieces of meat – as a favorite. This menu can then quickly be brought up during a fight, pausing the action, so you swiftly adjust to the changing nature of a battle without having to page through the main menu system.

As tends to be the case with games as large and complex as Skyrim, there are bugs. Some are minor, like dead bodies jittering madly or poking through walls. Your hands may momentarily disappear, equipping an armored face mask may actually turn you into an invisible man, and mammoths may soar into the air for no apparent reason. More serious glitches exist as well, such as those that prevent you from completing quests. How widespread these issues are is tough to say, maybe you'll have a glitch-free experience, but chances are you'll at least run into a few. Along with the occasional game crash, these issues can be periodically irritating, but given the overwhelming number of things Skyrim gets right, putting up with them is a small price to pay.

It's difficult to ever feel completely satisfied with a play session of Skyrim. There's always one more pressing quest, one more unexplored tract of land, one more skill to increase, one more butterfly to catch. It's a mesmerizing game that draws you into an finely crafted fictional space packed with content that consistently surprises. The changes made since Oblivion are many, and result in a more focused and sensible style of play, where the effects of every decision are easily seen. Featuring the same kind of thrilling freedom of choice The Elder Scrolls series is known for along with beautiful visuals and a stirring soundtrack, playing Skyrim is a rare kind of intensely personal, deeply rewarding experience, and one of the best role-playing games yet produced.

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