Sometimes the hardest thing in “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” isn’t battling dragons or trolls or necromancers, but deciding what you want to do and where you want to go.
Like the previous games in the series (most recently “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” in 2006) and the similarly structured “Fallout 3” and “Fallout: New Vegas,” “Skyrim” sets you loose in an enormous world full of interesting places to explore, people to meet, enemies to fight and hazards to overcome.
There’s a main story line to follow if you wish. As the game starts, you’re an undeserving prisoner on the same wagon as a rebel leader fighting for control of Skyrim, the northernmost province of the Empire of Tamriel. Saved from execution by the timely attack of a dragon — a breed of creature not seen for millennia — you escape through the catacombs beneath the nearby fortress and emerge free to do as you will.
You may follow the main quest line, heading north to aid a local lord in killing the dragon before it can ravage his lands, and then onward to your destiny as Dragonborn, a rare champion of the gods able to project power through your voice using the language of the dragons.
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But aside from that first escape from the dragon attack, there’s no obligation to follow the Dragonborn path immediately — or, indeed, ever.
Such an extreme degree of latitude can be paralyzing, leading you to secondguess the choices you’ve made for fear you’ll be unable to change your mind later. And sometimes you won’t — there are some mutually exclusive paths, so you won’t be able to do everything the first time through the game. But all this freedom makes the game endlessly playable.
You can join the province’s college of mages or a local mercenary group, or sign up with the Imperial legion or the rebel Stormcloaks. You could become a thief or assassin, a vampire or a werewolf. Learn to forge items of armor and weaponry, and train to enchant them with powerful effects. Wander the countryside looking for ruins to explore, people to help and treasures to sell — or any combination of the above, and more.
This freedom extends to how you approach your character’s development and combat style as well. You can concentrate on spells for attack and defense, load up with heavy armor and weaponry, or take a stealthy, backstabbing approach (you deal extra damage to an enemy who hasn’t detected you) — or some combination of the above.
Improving in your favored method is as simple as practicing it — your character has a number of skills that improve with use. Swing a sword or ax and your One-Handed Weapon skill will increase; pick locks, and you’ll increase your Lockpicking attribute, and so on.
As your character completes quests, defeats enemies and makes discover ies you’ll increase in experience level, allowing you to boost your health, stamina and magic and to unlock new perks.
Arranged by skill type, perks grant you new abilities, such as casting Destruction spells with both hands or causing bleeding damage with your trusty ax. Better perks require higher levels of skill in a particular field to unlock, so it can pay to specialize, but while you won’t be able to choose an unlimited number of perks, you can always work to improve a skill you’ve neglected in the past.