Flash forward back to 2016, and Skyrim makes a grand return onto the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, with an older, wiser version of myself returning to the game that once sunk its teeth into me all those years ago. This Special Edition has been enhanced by a smorgasbord of visual and technical improvements and is packaged alongside all the DLC, not to mention mod support for consoles. It’s quite the temptation for anyone who’s made a trip to this part of Tamriel before, and the open-ended nature of Bethesda’s trademark RPG blueprint ensures that playing as the Dragonborn remains a magical experience, even if it’s for the second or (in my case) third time.
It’s become pretty clear that Bethesda games generally don’t age too well. Their worlds and ecosystems look great from a distance, but fail to impress on the same level when examined up close. The visual upgrades employed in Skyrim: Special Edition, for better and for worse, have accentuated that contradiction even further.
The good stuff first: the improved depth of field, lighting effects, and shaders allow the endlessly enchanting environments of Skyrim to reach new heights in terms of spectacle, particularly with regards to the heart-stopping beauty of the outdoor landscapes. Foliage appears more lush and detailed, the rivers and snowy peaks don a more realistic hue, and the changing weather has never felt more dynamic and alive.
But these moments of wonder are often juxtaposed poorly by a building, texture or humanoid that didn’t seem to get the memo about this impending remaster. NPCs, especially, remain in need of a serious facelift; and their infamous capacity to defy the laws of acceptable lip-syncing (or physics and common sense, for that matter) is all the more noticeable among the upscaled beauty of their milieu. That said, with its epic vistas, mesmerizing soundtrack (the audio is at its very best here) and perfectly realized world, Skyrim has always held a sense of majesty to it, and that hasn’t been lost in this remaster, despite the frequent presence of horrendously outdated assets.
I’m not really into fantasy, so that could be the reason I enjoy Fallout‘s lore more than The Elder Scrolls’. Even then, Skyrim’s main questline is still rather engaging. After some quick exposition where you learn your character’s lot in life (and get to orchestrate a bit of it yourself), you get thrown into the character creator pretty quickly. There, you have to choose between one of several races or human factions, each with their own pros and cons; in the end, I chose an Imperial cause I thought I could make him look the cutest.
Finding my decision-making process flawed, I learned I could fix this as I progressed; you’re able to tweak your character’s attributes with every level you earn. You also get to choose between increased health, magic or stamina, providing drastically different loadouts from those your friends are rocking. On top of that, you gain XP in armour, magic, weapons and more each time you actually use that item in-game. I wasn’t a magic (or, more accurately, a “Destruction”) user when I started off, but through persistence, I’m fairly adept now.
Skyrim is designed for you to explore. By venturing off the beaten path, you’ll encounter Giants with pet Mammoths (no, really), gangs of bandits, wolf packs, dens of zombies, Witches’ covens and so much more. You can’t help by feel like a rockstar when you find some cool new place, or beat-down a pack of enemies. Epic moments will be had, where after rounding some new corner, you somehow manage to fend off a surprise Frost Troll attack using unconventional means. Save often.
The Autosave in-game is WEIRD. It’ll ensure it has saved you a checkpoint as you enter a some new areas, but won’t kick in after you manage to, say, kill a huge dragon! I spent about twenty minutes slaying my second dragon in the game, only to immediately fall off a cliff. I loaded up my last save literally JUST before the dragon and had to rinse and repeat. Frustrating? Hell yes.
On the topic of dragons, they get built up to be SO much and turn out to be rather anti-climactic. They appear at random (and at times, in scheduled) intervals, but once you’ve seen one or two, you’ve seen them all. They have the same attack animations and patterns. Dodge, wait til it lands, hit. Dodge, wait til it lands, hit…
Even with a new engine, the game still suffers from the same shortcomings as Oblivion and Fallout 3. The inventory system is a mess. It’s hard to find, equip, sell, drop, and generally manage your alphabetically stored potions, weapons and armour. Hoarding items like I usually do, you’ll often find yourself weighted down to the point where you can barely move; buying a property quick is essential to store your gear (and become a virtual “Hoarders” TV episode waiting to happen). As you progress through the game, you’ll also pick up magical Shouts, which can be mapped to your right bumper (I played the Xbox 360 version); I had the hardest time figuring out where to access my Shouts, and then how to map them once I did.
Enemy AI sometimes goes ultra-wonky; you can get foes stuck in your environment by doing the standard Fallout “circle around the enemy til it breaks” tactic. Also, at one point, my companion went homicidal and started killing everyone in a village that was friendly to me. That went over well. It’s really something when potentially game-breaking bugs come off as charming, eh?
While I’m not nearly as drawn into the world as most others, Skyrim boasts an epic story, decent combat, and limitless opportunities to explore.
The Special Edition of the game, complete with DLC and available on Windows PC, Xbox One and PS4, manages to look great and old at the same time. Uprezzed assets manage to impress as they confuse, and outdated character animations are very off-putting. Skyrim is a double-edged sword; it’s easy to fall back into it on current-gen, but that means you’ll have to sink hours and hours into the title as a result. With myriad ways to play, you’re definitely not going to have the same experience as on last-gen, and new mod support on consoles (admittedly, better on Xbox One than PS4) means what’s old is now new again. Plan your time accordingly.