I've explored the highest mountains and the deepest dungeons. I've killed hundreds of wolves, bandits and zombies, and been mauled by bears, trolls and giants. I've helped out lovelorn suitors, ghosts and a talking dog, and foiled the nefarious plots of vampires, evil mages and demon gods.
Oh, and I've slain a few dragons.
I'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 didn't 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's a good life.
It doesn't 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.
You have plenty of options in creating your character: male or female, scrawny or brawny, human or elfin, catlike or reptilian. Unlike most role-playing games, however, you aren't forced to choose one career. You can use magic, both healing and destructive, and still wield a wicked blade. (You can even use both at once, shooting fireballs with one hand while swinging your sword with the other.) Your skills improve the more you use them -- so if, say, you prefer picking off enemies at a distance, you get better with a bow and arrow.
As you explore Skyrim, you'll meet various groups that would love to have the Dragonborn on their team. You can enroll in the College of Mages and get on the spell-casting fast track. You can join the Imperial Army or the rebellious Stormcloaks. You can train to become a bard, a thief or an assassin. Starting on any of these career paths opens up hours of adventures, and you're allowed to dabble in some of each.
"Skyrim" is so open-ended that your most difficult task is often deciding 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'll notice tiny details and find unexpected rewards. More than any other virtual world before it, Skyrim feels lived-in.
And once you've moved in, you won't 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 don't trust the talking dog. Four stars out of four.
Follow Lou Kesten on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lkesten