What a wonderful world…
Skyrim is packed to the brim with far more detail and things to see and do than any TES game that’s come before it. Sure, the size of the map is still about the same as it was in Oblivion, but there are far more cities, villages, dungeons, and other points of interest scattered about its many acres, as well as perched atop the higher elevations that punctuate the landscape.
Despite the province being primarily one of harsh cold, wind, rain, and snow, there is surprising variety to the environments, which range from hilly grasslands and steaming marshes to dense forests, river valleys, and, of course, white-blanketed mountains. The entire outdoors is filled with wildlife that you can hunt and gather -- including birds, fish, deer, rabbits, foxes, goats, insects, bears, wolves, and saber-cats -- gaining you meat to cook up and eat, hides to sell or turn into leather, and if you’re lucky, some coin or other items the animal managed to swallow before meeting his demise.
Rivers and streams look amazing, glistening with a realistic foaming effect that glides fluidly around rocks. They actually flow with a current, too, which will carry you or any other objects floating in it along for the ride, even over a waterfall. Dozens upon dozens of different kinds of plant life litter the landscape, looking quite pretty until you harvest them for alchemy ingredients, causing the flowers or what have you to disappear and leave just the stems (something they copied from a popular Oblivion
mod). You’ll see other travelers along the roads going about their business; some are friendly, like patrolling guards, huntsmen, or caravan traders, but more nefarious folk will attack you on sight, perhaps attempting to rob you beforehand.
In addition to the 9 major cities and towns that serve as the capital of each hold, or county within the province of Skyrim, there are even more small towns and villages in between, not to mention self-contained Orc strongholds and remote, individual dwellings. There are more than 150 hand-crafted caves, tombs, castles, ruins (including Dwemer ones!), and other dungeons to explore, ranging from shallow enemy hide-outs to sprawling networks of tunnels and chambers, some of which contain their own unique side quests. Many of the most treacherous ones contain any number of deadly traps that are certainly capable of killing you instantly if you’re not careful, though that usually indicates some decent treasure will be waiting on the other side of them.
Combat in Skyrim is very similar to that of its predecessor, but with one major exception: dual-wielding. Where before you could only pair a shield or torch with a one-handed weapon, now you can combine any two one-handed implements, whether they be blade, blunt, staff, or even spell! This allows you to sacrifice blocking for DPS if you want to swing two swords, or cast double the spells by equipping one in each hand. It can also result in some really interesting combinations, such as using both spell and shield for defensive casting, being able to heal an ally or yourself while simultaneously slinging lightning bolts, or using a sword to deal your damage and an enchanted dagger in your offhand to apply a utility effect like drain magicka or absorb health.
If you’re skilled enough in a school of magic, you can also equip two of the same spell and combine them into a supercharged version for better results than if you cast both of them individually. The only downside to this system is you can no longer cast spells while your hands are full with weaponry (probably my favorite aspect of Oblivion’s combat); perhaps they felt being able to cast fireballs out of your sword arm was overpowered?
If you’re using melee weapons, having a lot of stamina is important, because that’s what fuels your power attacks. However, unlike in previous TES games, running out of stamina does not reduce the power of your regular swings, so you can bang away with those while waiting for it to regenerate. Otherwise, the only things that will drain stamina are sprinting, blocking, and zooming in with a bow (not jumping, anymore). A point of contention for some people will be the fact that health now regenerates, albeit at a much slower rate than your magicka and stamina. It’s not enough to keep you alive in the midst of combat unless you crank it way up using potions and enchanted items, so you will still need to be gulping down health pots or liberally applying Restoration spells during tough fights.
Stealth is my personal favorite way to play, though, combined with the deadly ranged force of a bow and arrow. It can be little rough to make that your primary way of dealing damage in the beginning, as you’re slower to draw and you can’t kite enemies very well (backward movement speed was reduced overall, and readying an arrow slows you even more). Fortunately, a secondary shove attack was added so that you can push enemies back and stagger them to allow you enough time to get off a shot at close range.
Eventually, it’s possible to become skilled enough that a single, swiftly-loosed arrow will be enough to bring down most enemies, especially if you take advantage of the sneak attack bonus. Sneaking still relies on keeping to the shadows and avoiding making noise, whether from your armor, moving quickly, or bumping into things. The sneak ‘eye’ icon has been greatly improved, slowly transitioning from a flat line when hidden, to a partially-open eye when enemies are suspicious and a fully-open eye when you’ve been detected.