elder-scrolls-v_web.jpgI've played more than 60 hours of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Softworks, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, $59.99), and after all that time I still feel like I'm just scratching the surface. I still have dozens of places to visit and quests to conquer, and if I did not have other obligations I could happily spend the rest of the year wandering around this massive fantasy world.

Skyrim has taken over my life. But, hey, it is a good life.

It does not look promising at first. You are a mysterious prisoner being led to your death. As you rest your head under the executioner's blade, though, a dragon arrives and starts belching fire — giving you a chance to escape.

The return of the flying lizards, long missing from the Elder Scrolls world of Tamriel, is the central mystery in Skyrim. And your character — the mythical Dragonborn, who can absorb the powers of a dying dragon — is the key to its solution.

Skyrim is so open-ended that your most difficult task often is to decide what to do next. There are hundreds of quests, ranging from simple delivery jobs to exhausting dungeon forays.

Amid the more conventional action sequences are some clever changes of pace: There are murder mysteries, ghost stories and tales of political intrigue, and at one point I found myself trapped in the mind of a mad prince.

The world of Skyrim is vividly realized, from its humblest villages to its grandest castles. Even in its most

isolated reaches, you will notice tiny details and find unexpected rewards. More than any other virtual world before it, Skyrim feels lived-in.

And once you have moved in, you will not want to leave. Skyrim is one of the most ambitious video games ever developed, and it lives up to its ambitions in every way.

I could easily write a review 10 times this length describing all its wonderful surprises, but every gamer deserves the opportunity to forge his or her own path in this remarkable world. Just do not trust the talking dog.


Photo: COURTESY OF IGN VIVID:  From its humblest villages to its grandest castles, tiny details, unexpected rewards.