Thank god for Skyrim crashing from time to time, because that's the only reason I stop playing to do other, real-life things like sleep.
It's that good. “I stop playing only when the game crashes.” That's a gold quote to put on the back of the box. For all its major and minor failures and all the little things that Bethesda continues to screw up on, Skyrim is a helluva of a game, a game that pulls you from a thousand different directions, begging you to explore this, find that, or talk to him or her or that thing.
"…there's always something to see, do, and discover."
Its enormity is only part of it, as it’s all contained in a world that has, for a lack of a better term, a genuine sense place – caves, hideouts, old abandoned temples all have history behind them and places within the geography that makes sense. Whether its a pile of dead bandits next to a table of embalming tools or fossilized mammoths near the geo-thermal regions of Skyrim, there's always something to see, do, and discover. It isn't as foreign and alien as Morrowind, but it's much, much better than the uninteresting landscapes of Cyrodiil in Oblivion. Hand-crafting the world has done wonders for the game, constantly resulting in interesting sights and places to go.
The closer you get to any semblance of civilization in Skyrim, the less of an achievement the game becomes. Anything human or anthropomorphic are awkward at best. The voice acting is better across the board, but with so many lines of dialogue, only a few characters feel like they're given any specific direction to their rhetoric or enunciation, making a lot of the lines sound dry. The animation, while a huge step up relative to Bethesda's previous work, is still pretty poor, as characters fail to transition between animations all that well.
This has always been Bethesda's struggle – making interesting characters and flexible quests with good writing to support them. It's substantially better than their work in Oblivion – the lore is better, and the civil war has a surprising amount of ambiguity in it, but the things some of these people say and the limited amount of dialogue options you get are still only bearable – and abysmal once you compare to it something like Fallout: New Vegas, which retained a lot of Bethesda's open-world exploration, while injecting with Obsidian's trademark writing and solid quest design. The only true winning quality about the quests in Skyrim is that they'll often take you to interesting places.
That's what it's really all about – interesting places for your character to traverse and to see how your build fares in it. The character system in Skyrim is arguably the best iteration in the series. All skills are given equal weight, and leveling up results in upgrading one of three attributes and then choosing a perk for any of the skill branches. It’s simplified but much more obvious that your character is gravitating towards a specific build, because the perks offer substantial bonuses to the skill tree in which you're investing. Also not having to look out for doubling or tripling attribute scores removes the meta-gaming aspect of leveling, which was uninteresting at best and exploitative at worst. Some of the skills, like acrobatics and athletics, have been cut out entirely, instead of providing anything interesting to replace them. It's a bummer when you know you won't ever jump any higher or run any faster, but overall it's far more rewarding and fun to level.
The scaling problems that got progressively worse in Oblivion has largely been redesigned. Bears, giants, dragons, mammoths and anything else that should be intimidating and respected is, up to a certain point. Eventually, you'll out-level them and have better gear, and the end result is you curb-stomping a lot of the things that gave you a ton of trouble before. This in itself is immensely satisfying, and Bethesda could've put in the extra effort to have loot do the same. The vast majority of the loot is randomly generated, and it seems that all of it is scaled. You'll find weaponry that did a moderate amount of damage before, only to find another specimen hours later with stats having been given a curious buff. Higher tier loot also becomes more common the more you level, making the scaling completely obvious. The looting experience is damaged because of this, as the game continually generates generic loot through all the spelunking.
It almost doesn't matter, though, because the exploration is so damn good. I've mentioned this just about four times already, but it's the reason why Skyrim is Skyrim. As a hiking/anthropologist/tourism simulator, it's unparalleled. The world, fragments of the lore, the various regions and their diverse landscapes – it all slowly seeps in to the point that simply running around and being in the world is fun.
It's massive too. Despite having roughly the same square miles of Oblivion, it plays with line of sight by shoving in towering mountains. It diversifies landscapes by adjusting elevations and geography. Giving regions themes while holding onto a unified look of a general chill in the air, where the north is ravaged by eternal winters, and where the southern regions feature more temperate climates, gives Skyrim a real identity, something that was lost in Oblivion.
The overall effect is a perception of utter hugeness, where you can genuinely get lost. The compass always keeps things manageable, but that thrilling sensation of being far, far away from any city or village is so intoxicating and freeing, that this alone makes Skyrim such a grand achievement in world-building.
It looks and sounds wonderful too; rewriting much of the renderer has resulted in one of the best-looking games out there. You'll see that shadows tend to get blocky, and a lot of light sources curiously don't draw shadows, but it's the kind of visual gravitas that could only be achieved after five years of constantly working on and reworking an existing engine.
Jeremy Soule's musical legacy in the Elder Scrolls series expands further with this game. The score here is simultaneously more sweeping and serene than any of his previous work in the series. He's been known as the go-to guy for a generic fantasy soundscape, but damn is he good at what he does. The soundtrack manages to work in compositions from both Morrowind and Oblivion, evoking a little bit of nostalgia, all the while fully embracing the grandness of Tamriel's northernmost province. Skyrim also contains Bethesda's best sound design to date. The foley work is impressive with its attention to just about every little bit of everything. Destruction magic sounds scary, conjuration spells sound… conjurey, the movement of earth in caves, the crackling of ice, and even the footsteps just sound so right.
"For every problem the game has, there's the world."
You may notice I've forgotten to mention a lot of the problems that plague the game constantly. Path-finding is still screwy, AI is still very dim, and while the combat has become more dynamic and interesting, the aforementioned problems tend to sap a lot of the potential. The UI, while functional, could use a major overhaul in how it sorts items and, well, there's a lot more, but seriously – it really doesn't matter. For every problem the game has, there's the world. There's always Skyrim.
For the explorer in all of the us, for the curious in all of us, for the adventurer in all of us, Skyrim is our game.