So this is my first Skyrim character. Let this be record. I'm sure there'll be many more, if my near decade of playing Morrowind and Oblivion, the previous games in Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series, is any evidence. Certainly they have a lot of replay value--I was still happy to play Oblivion a week ago, and I've been playing that game since 2006. So far, I'm liking Skyrim, but I've only played about an hour and a half, and watched Tim play for around an hour, which isn't even really scratching the surface of an Elder Scrolls game.
Skyrim, like its predecessors, is a "sandbox" game, meaning its an essentially open ended world. You can deviate from the plot almost whenever you want to wander the forests and mountains and find side quests or just to wander and loot. This is made especially enjoyable by the beautiful environments and the Radiant AI of the NPCs.
Skyrim isn't quite the massive leap forward in terms of graphics Oblivion was from Morrowind. In fact, in some ways I think Oblivion looked better. Oblivion used essentially the same graphics engine as Morrowind, but with some improvements to allow for greater draw distance--one is able to see distant mountains that one is able to climb. For Skyrim, Bethesda came up with a whole new engine, yet I was surprised in how much it reminds me of Arkham Asylum in that everything looks sort of like it's made out of rubber, especially characters' hair;
Also, instead of trying to create very realistic forests and plains as they did in Oblivion, Skyrim's designers have chosen to make a more stylised environment. Not as strange as Morrowind's forests of giant mushrooms and egg shaped rocks, but there's definitely a stylised feel to the landscape;
I'm not sure yet how much I like it compared to Oblivion. I do like the new engine's capacity for environments that are dynamic in various ways. Look how the mist is wrapping around this mountain;
There's flowing water in the rivers and streams now, too, and visibly jumping salmon. And, perhaps most incredibly for such a large game world, there's completely dynamic lighting, meaning that the shadows move and change for time of day and amount of cloud cover. I also love the apparent automatic adjustment of camera exposure rather than relying on artificially bright interior lighting--when one steps outside into a bright day there's a brief moment where everything's blindingly white.
I was disappointed that there's a lot less freedom in editing the character faces than in Oblivion, though I think I ended up with something decent. I think I was trying to model her after Bibi Andersson;
You're also able to edit character body weight this time, though there's not a huge variance. Still, it's a nice touch, and if you make an ascetic monk or magic using character he or she doesn't now have to be as muscle bound as a warrior (I call this A Beautiful Mind syndrome after Russell Crowe's miscast body type in that film).
Bethesda still can't seem to animate characters properly, though at least the running animation looks more natural than it did in Fallout 3. Still, in the beginning when I watched Tim run for cover during a dragon attack, I noted the stiffly standing NPCs who'd taken cover with him by saying, "Must--maintain--good--posture--AT--ALL-
But the Radiant AI makes these NPCs sort of delightful to watch and supposedly it's improved in this game, giving them many more tasks to choose among. NPCs can now do blacksmithing, can work with their crops, and hunt, among other things. Though perhaps its funniest when the Radiant AI messes up--Tim told me he's already seen this in action when he killed a chicken in town and every NPC panicked like twenty dragons were attacking.
So far Skyrim's got a lot of promise. I have only two real complaints--the camera in third person only centres when your weapons are drawn, though I suspect a mod will fix this soon enough. I don't know why Bethesda thought this was a good idea. My other complaint actually doesn't effect me much since I don't particularly like to dual wield--Skyrim introduces the ability to equip anything you want in each hand, which works nice with spells, which are essentially treated like items now. One can throw fireballs with one hand and swing a sword with the other. The problem is, for some reason you can't block when you dual wield, even if you're equipped with two swords. This isn't just a big liability in melee it makes absolutely no sense.
But I love the Norse look and feel of the game. I'm excited about the voice cast--Christopher Plummer, Joan Allen, and Max von Sydow. I haven't run into any of them, but I'm prepared to imagine Sydow's character is Antonius Block.