Skyrim unrivalled in detail and scale
Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Xbox360/Playstation3/PC, Bethesda, $105.
If there's one word in the English language that has been all but ruined by overuse and clumsy application, it would have to be "epic". Once reserved for only the most enormous events and experiences, it's now commonly trotted out to describe everything from a sandwich to a trip to the pub.
Blame the internet or the constant evolution of language if you must, but when the most super of superlatives is reduced to a throwaway remark, what happens when you encounter something that really is epic? If a bag of chips is "awesome", how to describe a Lotto win, or the birth of a child?
Herein lies the problem of trying to sum up a game where 50 hours of play barely scratches the surface. A game not only set in its own unique world, but with its own fully functioning economy, religions, racial tensions and legal system. Deeper and more detailed than anything that has come before it, the Skyrim experience is difficult to condense into 700 words, and even more so when the only ones that would do it justice have been blunted by years of misuse.
Although the premise and setting (dragon-slaying messiah saves the world) are far from original, what sets Skyrim apart are the open-ended sandbox structure and the freedom to play through the game in any way you choose.
There is a central storyline but you're never pushed towards it in order to progress. If you decide that the fate of the planet can wait for a while, you can spend as much time as you like on a seemingly endless array of jobs, errands and side-quests, interact with hundreds of characters, or simply jump on a horse and explore what has to rank as one of the most beautiful virtual worlds ever created.
From snow-capped mountains to sprawling cities, every inch of Skyrim's wintry landscape is begging to be discovered and investigated, and there are no annoying invisible barriers or areas that remain off-limits until you reach a certain level. From the outset, the entire world is yours to explore – every mountain is climbable, every inn and shop open for business.
Sometimes the incredible size and limitless options can seem a little daunting, but if there's one thing even more impressive than how Skyrim handles the big stuff, it's the attention to detail in the cleverly crafted finer points.
Most games use things like bookcases as backdrops and window dressing – not so here, where wandering past a bookcase allows you to pick up and read each individual book. These novels, diaries and historical accounts amount to some 30,000 pages of text that serve to flesh out the world of Tamriel and provide vital information on the people, places and societies you'll encounter as you delve deeper into the game. Again, there's no obligation to thumb through thousands of pages if that's not your cup of tea – like everything in Skyrim, it's entirely optional and allows the player to make things as deep or direct as they choose.
After creating a game that would take the best part of 200 hours to fully complete, you'd think developers Bethesda would be happy in the knowledge that they'd put together the Moby Dick of video games and leave it at that, but thanks to an innovative and original feature called Radiant Storytelling, Skyrim will continue to generate new quests and missions long after the final dragon has been slain, turning an already epic adventure into one that's literally never-ending.
Although it's a genuinely incredible game, Skyrim is not without its faults, with disappearing characters, flickering scenery and repetitive dialogue among its many glitches and bugs. But if it occasionally feels as if it's bursting apart at the seams, that's only because there's so much content crammed into it.
Despite these minor niggles, there's really no justification for awarding Skyrim anything less than top marks. As well as being one of the richest and most realistic virtual worlds ever created, it's a landmark achievement in game design and sets a new benchmark against which everything that follows will be judged.
- Game supplied by United Video, Nelson. Lee Henaghan reviews games fortnightly in Leisure. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- © Fairfax NZ News