That doesn't mean that you don't wield manual control over how you progress. Each time you gain a level, you choose to enhance one of your three main attributes: health, stamina, or magicka. You also earn a single point to spend on a perk, which might increase damage done with axes or let you conjure creatures at a greater distance. It's a great leveling system that forms around the way you play, but allows for tweaking so that you retain a sense of control. Even just the act of leveling up can be a pleasure due to the slick and colorful interface that imagines perks as stars in constellations. It can be a pain to navigate to certain perks; the game often has you flitting not to the star you want, but to all the ones surrounding it. But considering Oblivion's cumbersome interface, Skyrim's is a much improved beast. On console (and if you play with a controller on the PC), thumbstick navigation minimizes button presses, and you can easily move between your quest log and the main map. Additionally, you can mark weapons, spells, and items as favorites and then access them quickly during combat. Certain aspects might be fiddly, but on the whole, Skyrim's interface is a wonder, considering how much information and inventory is at your fingertips.
Regardless of how you tailor your character, the action is entertaining and varied. Trolls, undead draugrs, necromancers, bandits, witches, ratlike skeevers, and many more foes want to make your hero a zero. You occasionally feel as if you're flailing blindly rather than connecting your sharp blade with a vampire's flesh. But this is the tightest Elder Scrolls combat yet, the visual and audio cues normally providing proper feedback with your blows and zaps. Some death blows result in Fallout 3-style slow-motion kills, which retain their power because they're not overly frequent. Movement, too, has seen improvement: you can now play from a third-person view and feel like you're moving across the land instead of floating above it. What hasn't been improved is the friendly AI. It's nice to have a companion along for the adventure, and you're given one for free early in the story. But companions are morons, crowding you in tight passages, lagging behind when you need them the most, and even getting stuck in various death loops caused by spinning blade traps.
If you're the stealthy type, you can sneak about, picking pockets and breaking into homes. If you really enjoy keeping to the shadows, you may even wish to contract porphyric hemophilia--that is, vampirism. Vampires earn some benefits by way of certain spells and status effects, but also endure particular risks and must feed on unsuspecting victims as they slumber. But even if you like to wade directly into the fray, you can benefit from Skyrim's non-combat activities. Lock-picking no longer works as it did in Oblivion, but takes its cue from Fallout 3, having you rotate a lock pick and turn the lock to determine how closely you matched the correct position. As before, you can pick flowers and collect ingredients, and then create potions out of them at an alchemy table. (Forget mortars and pestles this time around.) And any adventurer can benefit from enchanting, which lets you imbue your equipment with certain status effects--though you must use soul gems to recharge their power.
Many of Skyrim's delights are the touches that occur outside of the action. Citizens go about their daily lives, selling their wares in shops during the day and closing down at night to hang out in the pub or head home to rest. Under some circumstances, they may comment on your rancid breath or remark on how sickly you seem to look. Children run up and down the streets; one may even ask for you to stop a bully from picking on him. Citizens move somewhat stiffly, but with more grace than in previous Elder Scrolls games. Before, conversations brought the world to a halt and focused the camera on some character's waxy face. In Skyrim, certain dialogues limit the camera and temporarily paralyze you in place, but overall, conversations feel more organic than before--a nice improvement that enhances your sense of immersion.
Skyrim also uses scattered books and references to enthrall you. You may not be a big fan of reading books in role-playing games, but even so, you should make an effort here. If you don't feel like reading up on Tamriel's rich history each time you find a volume, grab it and read it later--there are a lot of narrative tidbits that deserve to be read. Elder Scrolls fans will appreciate nods to events in prior games, and everyone can enjoy the bite-size tales contained therein, about vampires, noble heroes, and gods that bestow their blessings on their followers. Skyrim takes place hundreds of years after the events of Oblivion, and organizations you might remember have been restructured or are shadows of their former selves. But Tamriel's history is threaded throughout Skyrim's fabric, and some quests, such as one that begins with an invitation to a faraway museum, are great reminders of past misfortunes that the world has not forgotten.
It's a pity that Skyrim often breaks the immersion it tries so hard to create, in ways both minor and major. Some bizarre details are simply annoying. A character might initiate conversation through the ceiling. The chatter of nearby characters could drown out important story exposition. Two shopkeepers standing next to each other may be voiced by the same actor and repeat the same lines. A dragon skeleton might disappear and then later drop out of the sky in a new location. A dragon could get stuck in place, flailing about in the geometry in a mess of wings and tail. For that matter, you could get stuck in the environment, maybe just by walking into a corner, which forces you to either quick-travel to a different location (if you're lucky enough to be outdoors) or load a save game. Frame rate drops are uncommon, but you might encounter a few severe ones, and Xbox 360 system crashes might occur. The question isn't whether you will experience anomalies--it's a given. The question is: which ones and how many?
If you've played previous Elder Scrolls games, glitches and oddities don't come as a surprise. Nevertheless, Skyrim comes in a year graced with multiple quality RPGs that feature tighter combat, fewer bugs, better animations, and so forth. But to be fair, none of those games are endowed with such enormity. Yet The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim doesn't rely on sheer scope to earn its stripes. It isn't just that there's a lot to do: it's that most of it is so good. Whether you're slashing a dragon's wings, raising the dead back to life, or experimenting at the alchemy table, Skyrim performs the most spectacular of enchantments: the one that causes huge chunks of time to vanish before you know it.