The enitirely optional thieves' guild sub-quest alone lasts longer and offers more drama and variety than most singleplayer games released this year. And that's long before you factor in similar quest-lines for The Dark Brotherhood, the College of Mages, The Companions or the major, dragon-centric arc. And that's before you factor in simply roaming across this vast, mountainous world, discovering dungeon after dungeon, city after city, sight after sight. Skyrim, the fifth in the Elder Scrolls series of RPGs is enormous, both in landmass and in content: you'd be lucky to milk it dry in a month of full-time play, day in, day out.
It's not empty content, either. While on a basic level it's a very similar affair to its predecessor Oblivion, most especially in the slightly rinse and repeat combat, it's much richer in its world. The chilly land of Skyrim is based on Scandinavia, so its outdoors offer fjords, mountains, log cabin towns, cities built around waterfalls, Swedish archipelagos, and heavily-accented viking-alikes. It feels more distinct and other-worldy than the verdant but oft-bland Oblivion, more of an adventure into strange climes. The step up in quality of acting and character design - Oblivion was infamously dodgy in that regard - helps make the world feel more compelling, even if writing, voices and faces remain the game's very weakest aspect.
The star here is the range of possibilities: marriage, thievery, assassination, house-buying, dragon-hunting, trading, wood-chopping, armour-crafting, poaching, contracting vampirism, worshipping weird gods, getting suckered into drinking contests with disastrous consequences... Almost all of it builds upon what's gone before, but it's more varied and far, far better presented. On a good PC, Skyrim is stunning to behold, even if the compromises made to keep it also possible on console are often a little too evident. Modders and tweakers are already coaxing more out of it, and in a couple of weeks it'll surely be glorious.
The PC interface especially leaves much to be desired, having apparently seen a rather slapdash translation from gamepad to mouse and keyboard. On console, where we're that much more used to a lowered visual standard, it holds its own very well indeed.
On either version, do expect bugs though - it's par for the course for Bethesda games these days, and to be honest in a game of this magnitude it's almost inevitable. And hey, some chinks in its enormous armour even offer emergent gameplay possibilities - try sticking a bucket over a shopkeer's head then robbing his store blind. Still, rapid patching is likely for this one - even so, the glitches don't even bring to begin to bring things down meaningfully.
Obviously, some players will want to stick closely to the main quest, and all the epic dragon-bothering this entails, but this really isn't the best way to see the game. Skyrim is about doing your own thing, whether that's fighting, magicking, thieving, exploring or a little bit of everything. Once its over-long introductory mission is out the way, you're free to go and do whatever the huge game world allows. Just start walking from one side of the map to the other and you'll encounter all sorts - quests, towns, monsters, animals going about their business... Some encounters will be brief and throwaway, others will lead to huge chains of action and drama: there's simply no way you'll have the same experience as anyone else. It's a triumphant achievement in so many ways, and a refreshing example of ambitious games not discarding all their complexity in order to appeal to a mainstream console audience.