The story is also really only apparent in the conversations and quest journals. While there are lots of interesting and dynamic details in the world, story and gameplay are cleanly segregated in Skyrim. I do love stumbling upon the stories that are implied by the level design in some of the dungeons -the unsettling results of failed magical experiments, the remains of other adventurers hung up on a trap, or overgrown stones of a collapsed watchtower - but these are just details to see, not things to do. It's disappointing because the game does occasionally get it right. Whether it's the dramatic attack that kicks off the game, or finding and freeing a fellow adventurer who's after the same treasure you're seeking, there are moments where storytelling and gameplay work together to draw you into the experience. The problem is that these moments are just too rare.
Gamers who, like me, eventually had to give up on previous games in the series because of the scaling problems and confusing story triggers will find some of those same frustrations here. Fortunately, there's nothing quite as obnoxious as the Oblivion gates from the previous game, but it is possible to hit the impossible fight from time to time. The quest journal is very useful at directing players towards a wide range of content, but given the "go anywhere, do anything" nature of the game, making sure you don't get in over your head or overlook some important plot detail is entirely your own responsibility.
Now, I realize that many of the things I'm criticizing are things that many fans like about this series. Of course the NPCs are just there to read the game's story to you, they'll say. Of course it can be hard to identify the main quests. Of course the intersection between character growth and the game's difficulty is sometimes frustrating and exploitable. Frankly, a lot of that stuff is what makes this feel like an Elder Scrolls game. Die-hard RPG fans who have been trained to look past these limitations will have no trouble focusing instead on the things that Skyrim does so well.
Bottom Line: An absolutely first-rate roleplaying game that combines an abundance of content with an abundance of quality. The outdated design elements are unfortunate but not so distracting that it ruins the depth of the story, the openness of the setting, or the visceral joys of combat.
Recommendation: RPG fans who can look past the old-school touches will definitely find a lot to love here.
Now all Steve Butts wants for Christmas is more time.
This review is based on the 360 version of the game.
Game: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)