We didn't see this coming. Stupid, I know. But when we got our hands on an early build of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I was certain it would be the game of 2011. Skyrim would be great, but it would just be Oblivion with a bit more snow. So now that it's here, why does it feel like so much more than that?
For so many reasons – but I'll pick four. The first is that character progression is so much more exciting, an element we've talked more about in our selection for RPG of the year.
That's a fundamental change, but in other places, differences of degree are just as important. The biggest of those is just how much stuff they've packed into this world. A ten minute stroll in Oblivion might pass one cave and an Elven ruin – both uncannily similar to the last ones you raided. The same journey in Skyrim can lead you up a rocky mountain path, past the door to a dripping abandoned mine, under a spectacular waterfall, past rebel guards escorting an imperial prisoner, through an icecrusted underground pass, into a steampunk Dwarven ruin, through a battle between an Elder Dragon and the guards of a local village, and ultimately to an ancient Nordic dungeon that ends in a wall of Dragontongue glyphs that grant you the power to breathe jets of ice.
It doesn't feel like a grudging reaction to a few fan complaints about monotonous dungeons, it feels like Bethesda genuinely understood how to make a richer environment. They went so many extra miles in fleshing this world out with substantial and interesting adventures that Skyrim feels like a different kind of place to Cyrodiil.
Then there's the landscape. Mountains have a natural drama to them that gently rolling hills never did. Skyrim is the spectacular skyline other games paint on their backgrounds to suggest a wilder, bigger world than they can really give you. This time it's really there: you can scramble up its twisting paths, tumble down its icy slopes, explore every frosted forest.
It's so much more than just a fantasy postcard generator: this crinkled country is always hiding the next adventure behind a cloudsmudged summit or a heart-stopping drop. Not being able to see what's over the next ridge – or where the game world ends – gives Skyrim a sense of limitless promise.
Lastly, it's just one leap closer to the perfect open world game that the Elder Scrolls series keeps shooting for. When I first heard about Morrowind, I kept thinking there must be something wrong with it. It's third person, right? Or the combat's turn based? Or I'm really controlling a party? Or I can't actually go anywhere? It can't actually be like an FPS in a gorgeous fantasy world, utterly unrestricted and rich with story. That's just ridiculous.
But it was, and every time Bethesda jump a bit closer to achieving that dream game, that incredible feeling of freedom hits me again. Every time they give us a new world to explore that way, my brain buzzes at the possibilities. Skyrim makes such huge improvements to the magic, the stealth, the characters and the landscape that they all feel real again, and the immersion is complete.
It won't stay fresh forever. But when Bethesda release a game that makes Skyrim feel clunky and barren, we're all in quite a lot of trouble.
Check out our Skyrim review for more.