I've not posted anything about Skyrim on this blog yet since I don't really have anything particularly original to say about the game that hasn't already been repeated a thousand times by legions of admiring fans and reviewers alike. I usually get bored of the TES series' signature quantity-over-quality approach to open world design (the smaller, more hand-crafted Gothic titles being more my kind of non-linear RPG), and have been known to say some pretty nasty things about Bethesda in general and Todd Howard in particular. For the sake of discussion, it would probably have been more interesting if I felt the same way about the fifth entry in the series...but after having spent more than 50 hours in the land of the Nords I must admit that the game provides a consistently immersive and satisfying experience with a surprising amount of genuinely worthwile content to explore.
I'm playing as an Imperial fighter (who just reached level 36) with a focus on heavy armor and one-handed swords. Skyrim's melee combat still has a bit of that weightless, haphazard feel which characterized Oblivion and Morrowind, but welcome improvements have been made in terms of things like attack animations, the impact of the weapons as well as the precision and timing required to be really effective - especially with the slightly more technical shield plus sword combo as opposed to the less subtle two-handed berserker approach. Even more importantly, though, having two equippable and freely customizable hands ensures that the player can easily mix weapons, shields as well as spells in innovative ways and change between combinations more or less on the fly using the handy Favorites feature (in conjunction with the well-hidden Hotkey system). Overall, there's a fluidity here that feels a lot better than the detached clunkiness of Morroblivion.
The enemy level scaling in Oblivion was deeply problematic and resulted in a lot of frustration during my one and only playthrough of that game (partly due to poor skill management on my part). Therefore, it's a particular relief to experience the much smoother progression in Skyrim, in which at least the more powerful enemies still manage to put up a fight even past level 30. As usual, some notorious power players will complain that the game is too easy, and it's obviously always possible to exploit the mechanics of an open world RPG system (though that's more related to stats and perks which is not was concerns me here), but I think it's fair to say that people who had issues with Oblivion in this regard will find Skyrim to a considerably less bumpy ride.
As for the much-discussed dragon fights, well, they do quickly get rather easy but what's consistently great about taking down these oversized airborne lizards is that you just don't know when and where they are going to attack. The sudden appearance of a dragon has a way of making you forget whatever it was that you were doing and just get in the action...
Somewhat ironically, whereas Skyrim is arguably more constrained by aging console hardware than the largely PC-centric Morrowind or the 360 near-launch title Oblivion were, with TES5 I feel Bethesda nonetheless has achieved a great deal more when it comes to the world-building than with any of their previous releases. The vaguely Scandinavian-looking environments are teeming with relatively realistic wildlife and the endless rolling hills of TES4 have been replaced by dramatic landscapes which are both more varied and more detailed, and therefore also more interesting to explore. I suspect this general increase in quality is partly the result of technological advances and rising consumer expectations in the graphics department rather than some sort of creative revolution within Bethsoft itself, but whatever the case Skyrim feels more meaningful and worthwile as a world than Cyrodiil or even the delightfully strange but rather brown Vvardenfell ever did. Much like past Elder Scrolls titles, most of the human settlements in Skyrim are curiously dull and prefab-heavy but at least this time around it's actually rewarding to just wander through the jaw-droppingly beautiful wilderness and discover hidden dungeons filled with challenging enemies and great loot.
Skyrim both has a lot more properly scripted and dialogue-supported side quests than any previous Elder Scrolls title and the game is much better at subtly steering the player towards cool new experiences. Almost every tomb or crumbling castle I've stumbled upon in the wilderness have shown clear signs of being part of some substantial side quest or other. Also, one of the greatest things about Skyrim's exploration is that there always seems to be a quick shortcut out of a dungeon once you've cleared it out and/or found whatever quest item you were supposed to collect. Walking all the way back from where you came was a tedious issue even as far back in the series as Daggerfall, so it's great to see the shortcut approach in no less than two Bethesda-published games this year (the other one being id Software's Rage).
In conclusion, while Bethesda's new open world RPG undoubtedly has many of the exact same flaws as previous TES titles - such as less than stellar combat, forgettable NPCs, lots of minor skill imbalances and a bit too much repetition to quite justify the scale of the game world - the improvements to the long-established formula are significant enough that, at least to me, Skyrim is the game both Morrowind and Oblivion desperately tried to be but never was. RPG of the year, then? Well, given the undeniable shortcomings of the compelling and well-intentioned Dragon Age 2 and my own lukewarm feelings towards CD Projekt's ambitious but somewhat forgettable The Witcher 2, I think that might very well be the case...