Skyrim

Dragons loom all over the mythic setting of "Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim."

Bethesda Softworks

"Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" is an awesome monument to the power of place in games.

The ruggedly detailed province is the most alive of any in the series' continental setting of Tamriel. It coaxes exploration not just because there's so much to do - dragons to kill, bandits to exterminate, gold to plunder - but because there's so much to see and hear. Over snow-dusted bluffs and under nebulous green and orange prairie night skies, you'll feel pulled toward every undiscovered inch of Skyrim. It may lack the iconography of "Red Dead Redemption's" American west, but not the vividness.

Though massive, the high fantasy terrain of Bethesda's "Skyrim" is ultimately finite. The action players can experience, however, is not. You play as the dragonborn, a human with the soul of a dragon. Your emergence proves fortunate to the people of Skyrim, because dragons, also thought long-gone, have recently returned as well. And you were prophesized to stop them.

As you travel the land, you see the jagged silhouettes of the winged beasts soaring high on the horizon. But soon, the camera quakes and your character stumbles as the dragon crashes to the ground before you, its leathery wings spanning the screen, its boulder of a head snapping teeth and hissing deadly frost or flame.

It's a daunting sight at first. But as dragonborn, you're armed with the tools of the dragon: shouts. Your very words can blast flames, hurdle you forward at lightning speed or lasso an airborne dragon to the ground. You learn some of these shouts during the main story, but can uncover several more in the bellies of Skyrim's many dungeons. Like magic in "Oblivion," the shout command is permanently mapped to the RB button. Given its array of powerful abilities, you'll be pressing that button just about every instant the shout recharge period has elapsed - and with desperate speed, during some battles.

As the recurring action centerpiece of "Skyrim," dragon encounters present mighty challenges for the first 30-35 hours of the game. Just when you've leveled your skills enough to dispatch one quickly or comfortably, a more deadly breed arises, such as blood and frost dragons. Some of the latter surprised me by lapping my dragonborn off the ground, his legs dangling between its teeth, to instantly kill him despite more than a third of his health remaining.

The soundtrack lays a chaotic tension over the action. You can barely make out the fantasy epic score beneath the dragon's feral roars, your own booming words and the curtains of fire crackling around you. Once you've slain it, the dragon's skin desiccates into embers that flake and float away, and a ritualistic chant heralds your absoption of the dragon's soul (which, in turn, unlocks more shouts). The first few times you experience this climax, an exhilarating sense of conquest ensues.

The most formidable of the dragons is the soul-devouring Alduin, who threatens to destroy Tamriel. The dragonborn's purpose in Skyrim ends with this World Eater's death, but it's far from the end of the game. As you pursue Alduin, you learn of a struggle between the Imperial Army and Stormcloak rebels over the right to worship the man-god Talos - a struggle that led to the assassination of Skyrim's king. You can align with either side and assist their war effort in a lengthy side quest.

Also waiting to welcome you into their ranks are "Scrolls" regulars the Dark Brotherhood and the Thieves Guild, as well as the mages College of Winterhold and a band of fighters known as the Companions. Miscellaneous tasks, which spawn instantly through the game's Creation Engine, also fight for your attention. Vendors might enlist you to collect supplies, or mothers may plead with you to track down the sons they lost to war. Fetching fire salts and clearing bandits from abandoned forts may feel redundant after 40 hours, but the chance to see new areas of Skyrim and strengthen your character is sufficient motive for the trek.

"Skyrim" introduces a stark black-and-white menu interface much more visually striking and navigable than that of "Oblivion." There are no columns of item weight and gold bartering numbers to overwhelm you and, after just an hour with the game, the precise sequence of two or three button presses to bring you to the map or the quest menu becomes muscle memory. A new system of tagging favorite items for quick access on a list supplants "Oblivion's" radial quick keys, which proved troublesome when selecting a diagonally placed item on the Xbox 360's shoddy D-pad. Along with its richer graphics and world sculpting, the menu overhaul marks "Skyrim's" most significant leap ahead of "Oblivion."

The leveling process does share some structural similarity to the previous "Elder Scrolls." Your continued use of skills, such as heavy armor or lockpicking, raises their rating on a scale of one to 100. But in "Skyrim," you needn't sleep to reach the next level. Upon leveling up, you first deepen your character's magic, health or stamina, then select a new perk on a series of skill trees. Utilizing those skills unlocks greater perks; e.g. wielding a one-handed weapon in battle eventually allows you to spend a skill point on power attacks that sap less stamina. The process feels more accessible than in "Oblivion," and rewards distinctive play styles more directly.

You can also customize your character through enchanting, alchemy and smithing at stations scattered throughout Skyrim. The first imbues armor and weapons with magical bonuses, such as fire damage or magic resistance; the second produces a huge taxonomy of potions through experimentation; and the third sharpens blades and fortifies armor. Smithing is especially helpful. Weapons and armor not only don't deteriorate, as they did in "Oblivion," but you can refine them and craft elite items like dragon bone armor with continued presence at the forge.

"Skyrim" reinforces its superiority to "Oblivion" in many more little things: random stylized kill animations to punctuate a skirmish's end, conversations that don't revert to the same full-on medium shot of homogenized faces (though some actors voice one character too many), and a new lockpick minigame that incorporates both thumbsticks in a fashion that physically resembles the criminal act. The game is also generally less glitchy than others on Bethesda's resume; the few quest progression issues that halted me have already been patched.

The actual meat of action in "Skyrim" is difficult to account for comprehensively. Like "Oblivion," the game presents such a wealth of character creation options and items that you can fight as a brute-fisted warrior, a sly bow-hunter or an elusive mage, then customize your character to strengthen your chosen tactics. With all the possibility beckoning you in Skyrim's majesty, expect to tread every path.

David Wilcox

282-2245

Twitter @drwilcox

PSN, Xbox Live: davewiththeid

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