My introduction to The Elder Scrolls series involved watching a friend use the same spell over and over in a forest full of endlessly re-spawning rats, in an effort to level up his magical abilities. The sound of each rat's identical squeal of pain would be enough to drive anyone away from these games — anyone in their right mind, that is.
But Elder Scrolls fans aren't entirely in their right minds. And if you enjoy wandering the streets of Skyrim under cover of night, picking the locks on doors to steal books from a stranger's bedside table — that is to say, if you are utterly obsessed with all things Elder Scrolls — then you've probably already bought this game and spent your Thanksgiving ignoring your family and power-leveling your Altmer archer.
But what about the rest of us? Those of us who don't have to wipe drool from our chins when we hear the phrase "500-hour open-world role-playing game"? What else is there, besides pressing a button to watch your character tan leather armor, grind herbs with a mortar and pestle, or stir a cooking pot? Is Skyrim going to be any fun, or is it just a list of chores disguised as video game quests?
Believe it or not, Skyrim is fun, even for an unenthusiastic RPG player like me. First of all, you don't have to spend any time fighting the same low-level critters over and over in order to level up a skill. Enemies do not level alongside you as they did in Oblivion, so if you get too overpowered, you'll unintentionally destroy the pacing of the main quest's battles and make the game too easy.
You'll still need to devote a lot of game time to organizing your skill points as you level up. The plethora of leveling options can feel confusing rather than liberating if you don't make a decision early about how you want to play this game. Know thyself: do you want to run around collecting flowers for potions and picking out spells? Or do you want to murder everything in sight with the biggest weapon on offer? Once you decide on a direction, stick with it, because it's not easy to make sweeping changes.
There is a plot, but it's one you've seen before, and it's hardly the reason to keep playing. There's a prophecy about you, you have mysterious powers — as well as the ability to hot-key those powers to a favorites menu, like all the best heroes of old — and you fight dragons. Pay attention to that last part, because it's why you're here.
It may sound cliché, but swinging a sword at a dragon's flame-spewing, chiseled maw never seems to lose its sense of wonder, even after you've leveled up enough that you can smash these mighty beings into dust with ease. The game generates dragons and other foes at random, giving the world a sense of heft and a promise that anything can happen; you'll run into roving bandits in dark forests, bears traipsing along rocky ledges, mysterious cave-dwelling golems and swamp monsters guarding everything from magical artifacts to piles of bones.
Wandering alone without aim will provide that sense of realism better than standing around a town talking to people ever will, since the dialogue is stilted and each character has only one facial expression. Something had to get sacrificed somewhere, one supposes, and although the world's stunning landscape seems stacked to the brim with caves to explore and monsters to conquer, the cities and towns have been populated by waxy, unfeeling automatons. The voice actors do the best they can with what they have, but the real magic is in the treetops, the mountains, and the sky. The dragons, after all, need not say a word.