Is Skyrim a monumental achievement in gaming? Absolutely. The world Bethesda has created is perhaps the most technically impressive in video game history. It’s teeming with life and adventure, and it’s easy to see why you can spend countless hours getting lost in it.
But from a narrative and gameplay perspective, which I would argue are the two most important facets of a game, it’s surpassed by a few titles this year, Portal 2 and Deus Ex among them. A thousand square miles of map means nothing if there’s not a compelling story to be found anywhere. A mountain of different weapons means nothing is all they do is bash heads in over and over again.
I get that some people like huge, sprawling worlds with the freedom to do whatever they want. I tried Morrowind, and didn’t care for it. Oblivion looked much the same, and Skyrim, from the reviews, is no different.
Bioware games are similarly lauded, but for plot and character depth. While they do better on plot, the gameplay is generally not good enough to make up for it. Bioware tends to have a cookie-cutter approach to game design, too; you play through a long introductory area, then you are given a few places you can go to in any order to advance the plot. Once you’ve been to those places, you go back on rails to the final one or two locations leading up to the ending. They did this in Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect (and it was even more obvious, since Mass Effect was almost KOTOR w/o lightsabers). And don’t even get me started on the load times…
You can’t just have an open world with a ton of gameplay without the plot to tie everything together; you also can’t have a bunch of plot without the gameplay to keep people from feeling like they’re watching terrible Star Trek fanfiction.
Games need both, and Portal 2 delivers (Deus Ex apparently does as well, but I haven’t played it yet).