I bought it for the houseguests over Christmas, got mildly hooked, took a character to level 17, but that’s it, I’m bored.
Tech & production · The achievement is stupendous. The world is vast, open, and visually compelling in a way not remotely equaled by anything I’ve seen. In Skyrim you’ll regularly find yourself pausing just to admire a view.
The combat graphics are believable and fun; watching the slo-mo of your character leaping onto a dragon’s head to plant the two-handed axe has gotta make you smile.
Also, the quests and dangers are (mostly) nicely scaled so that the ones you find are within your reach, and the puzzles are (mostly) soluble given the evidence immediately to hand.
Art & Aesthetics · Those who still claim games cannot partake of the arts really need to get with this millenium; I feel no discomfort inserting this header.
For me, the best part was the game’s measured, unforced, even slow at times, pace. Yes, you will spend the next half hour working your way across rough, craggy, and very beautiful countryside to get where you’re going. And yes, you will stand still and listen to a lengthy monologue from some bandit chief, or maybe Paarthurnax.
The game will throw enough interesting side-quests into the cross-country trek, and interesting back-story into the monologue, that you won’t be bored. It may not equal the heights of a long single-take by Antonioni or Tarkovsky, but it is an all-too-rare appreciation of the virtues of sinking into the flow of elapsed time, of just Being Here Now.
Also, I have to tip my hat to the visual virtuosity of Blackreach; I was nodding my head in admiration as I ran around killing things.
Failures · There are two, such that I’m not playing this thing for more than a couple of weeks. First, the big bet is on breadth and scale, not intensity. The breadth and scale are amazing, but there’s no single story arc that will glue you to the keyboard the way that fighting your way into Diablo’s (or a sibling’s) lair will, or (in this century) matching wits with GLaDOS.
Maybe one day someone will build an immersive open-world environment that competes successfully with relatively linear author-has-the-steering-wheel storytelling. Me, I’m a storyteller and can’t imagine where you’d start on that project; but I hope someone is. Hard to see how you’d do it cheaply though.
Having said that, Skyrim’s big problem is loneliness. I want some buddies there with me, so my tank has a healer and an archer along for support while I’m mano a mano with Alduin. Also so we can crack profane cynical jokes. The next step is screamingly obvious; combining this sort of scale and visual intensity with real people having fun together.
Strategy and Tactics · Up till now, in role-playing contexts I’ve tended to build “glass cannons”; characters with overwhelming attacking power that crumple if someone gets close enough to touch. I can’t remember having made a deliberate policy choice; perhaps I’m still influenced by the Amazon having been clearly the best Diablo II character.
This time, on a whim, I built the purest of pure tanks: a Nord specializing in two-hand axes. If I were doing it again the only thing I might change is swords not axes.
But it works pretty well. You pour almost all your points into Health and a few into Stamina, you find a Companion who’s got high-octane ranged attacks (I recommend Marcurio), you put most perks into Two-handed, with a few in Heavy Armor and maybe Blocking.
You totally have to do the Greybeards quest and get the Unrelenting Force shout.
There are very few enemies who can survive the combination of that shout, well-placed, followed up by a few two-handed power attacks, while your companion blasts them from a distance. This notably includes most of the ordinary dragons you’ll encounter as you quest around.
My Exit · I ran into some boss who pwned me the first couple of times in, so I hit the wiki and read up on a few strategies to get past him, and realized they’d take a half-hour each and be boring. I play games to escape boredom.
The release price of Skyrim feels a little high to me, and the quality a little low, for a single player. For a houseload of houseguests, it was just fine.
But I do suspect that some of the highest-impact games of the future are going to have learned its lessons of scale and pace.