There’s something special about Skyrim. As I stand gazing into the distance, having escaped the Elder Scroll’s 5’s opening dragon attack and ‘tutorial level’, a number of emotions are already starting to wash over me. Fear – oh god, this game is too big and I have a job and a baby and I can’t spend 300 hours playing it, what the hell am I going to do? Elation – this world is mine, and I can go anywhere and do anything, within the game’s pre-defined limits. Intrigue – I wonder how this PS4 version really differs from the original. And worry – oh hell, did I really pick the right race? Should I go back? Hmmm… No. No, I’m committed now.
Chances are, you’ll feel all this and more when you start Skyrim Special Edition, even if you’ve played the game (several times) before. And only truly special games can make you care or feel this much about them. Skyrim was, and remains, special – even with competition from The Witcher 3, Dragon Age Inquisition, and Fallout 4. After five years, those emotions are sharp as ever, and it’s a testament to the way Skyrim is built that the overall sensation of being in its world simply hasn’t changed.
Ok, let’s get into the fine details. The initial cart ride that begins the game is distinctly underwhelming, as is the dragon attack on Helgen. You’re expecting to be immediately wowed by Skyrim’s current-gen visuals, but the opening sequence is snowy and shrouded in fog. Sure, the skies look amazing, but everything else is a little muddy and muted. Prettier than PS3/Xbox 360 Skyrim, for sure, but not exactly beautiful. Similarly, the opening sequence feels very creaky indeed. Animations are one thing this Special Edition doesn’t seem to have changed, so the whole scripted scene where you’re hauled off the prisoner cart and lined up with other NPCs is almost laughably wooden. I snorted a little when one of my fellow prisoners made a break for it because it was like a second-rate puppet show compared to the likes of Uncharted 4, GTA 5, or The Witcher 3.
Character creation was similarly stodgy. On PS4 there’s a noticeable pause between when you press up or down on the d-pad to select a race, and it actually appearing on screen, so navigating this feels awkward and ‘old’. Fiddling with facial sliders is a little slicker, but at this point I was feeling distinctly underwhelmed by Skyrim SE. Yes, yes, I know – it’s a 300 hour RPG and I’ve been in it for five minutes, but for a lot of players who have anticipated this game for so long, it’s a bumpy beginning to the inevitable love affair that follows. But first, more bad things.
I opt for a female Nord. I was a Nord when I played on PS3 (yes, I played on PS3, I suffered the caching bug, feel free to laugh at me liberally) and despite wanting to be something different, I just couldn’t shake my affinity with the race. I choose a female character to satisfy my need to try something new, and decide that I’m going to roll with a mace or war axe in one hand, and a powerful set of spells in the other. My back-up specialism is going to be an all-out, two-handed warhammer, but I’m currently too weedy and defenceless for such bravado. My character, who I called Faith because – while funny at first – joke names tend to wear thin after 100 or so hours of play, will be a loyal Imperial. None of your crusty Stormcloak business this time round, I’m backing the Empire and I’m taking no shit along the way. Flap your dreadlocks and trendy, hipster beard at me, young man, and you’ll get a mace in your face.
See, I’m already inventing a back story for my character in my own mind. She was an Imperial spy sent to gain the trust of the Stormcloaks, but her commander was killed when she was captured in battle, no-one knew who’s side she was really on, which is how she ended up in the prison cart. She’s got an eye for bartering and alchemy, she grew up in Solitude, and so on and so on. Again, more than any other game I’ve played, I’m already invested in making this character uniquely my own, which is something Skyrim caters for like no other. And that spirit of player freedom – not just in deed, but in thought – is still abundant and true in this Special Edition.
Ok, I’m out of Helgen. The ‘follow me’ elements of that training area are still really awkward, and I find myself waiting and muttering under my breath as the NPCs do their thing and eventually run to the spot I’ve been stood at for 30 seconds already. Scripted events REALLY aren’t Skyrim’s thing. Animation and speech remains as it was in the original ‘Rim, and it feels even more stilted now. Strangely, though, I don’t mind. While it would be slightly immersion-breaking in other games, Skyrim’s world makes up for it, because it’s such a believable, living place.
Upon exiting the cave, and staring at the vast world before me, I decide to immediately go ‘off-plan’ and find a side-quest or new area, or something. I pass a Redguard who insults me, but I’m not going to pick a fight just yet (I haven’t forgotten, and you’ll pay for that insult, asshole). Instead I pick the lock to Pinewatch house, discover that there’s a bandit treasure in the caves beneath it, and swiftly lose a whole hour to that. An hour. Oh god. What this does reveal is that the loading times are much improved from the previous generation. While not seamless, going between indoor and outdoor is a matter of brief seconds, rather than a noticeable pause. That’s going to make a difference when exploring cities later on (and that goddam Thieves Guild location).
The bandit treasure looted, I continue on to Riverwood. Because us Nords gotta stick together, I side with Sven in the love-note quest, and he gleefully follows me to Bleak Falls Barrow for more dungeon-exploring. As I see more of the world its beauty really begins to shine. Stood on the mountain outside Bleak Falls Barrow, I can drink in the scenery. The increased draw-distance means you can see further without it being a low-res mess, and the view is impressive – not postcard spectacular, but impressive. It’s the small details that benefit most from the remastering, however. Characters are more life-like, objects more realistic, and individual areas more distinct. To celebrate the small things, I use my fire magic to roast the living shit out of a nearby fox, and take its pelt for later.
I’m not as blown away by the visuals as I’d hoped, but that’s likely because your mind adjusts memories based on how it perceives current events. Meaning, I think old Skyrim is prettier than it actually is. Yup, a quick look on YouTube reveals that this PS4 is a big improvement. It’s Skyrim as I remember it with all my delusion sliders set to max. Ok, there’s still a little texture pop-in, and yes, some objects still float around weirdly or don’t quite fit where they’ve been placed – this is definitely a game that was made in 2011, wearing 2016’s slightly ill-fitting clothes.
The audio, however, is magnificent in this version (reports suggest audio is less than perfect on Xbox One, however). Fires really crackle when you’re indoors, the sound of wind whipping around you on a mountain chills you, and the sudden stirring of the soundtrack properly ramps up your emotions. Not enough people give sound the credit it deserves – it’s bloody great in Skyrim SE.
Finally, I head to Whiterun for some city exploring. Jarl Balgruuf is still as surly as ever, and it’s pretty jarring to hear American-voiced children in a world populated by Nordic accents, but hey. Whiterun looks beautiful, and the feeling of being inside a Game of Thrones set suddenly strikes and delights me. It’s here that the wonderful audio, which has been rich and pleasingly booming up to this point, skips a little. Nothing game-breaking, but it’s the first time I’ve felt that the world of Skyrim was creaking a little. To be clear, it’s a vast improvement on the original, which often felt like it was held together by sticky tape and muttered prayers from the development team. I chat to the Jarl, slay the dragon (which is a little trickier than I recall, probably because I’m tired and a little careless at this point), and soak up all its delicious soul-juice. My shout learned, I blast it at a nearby rabbit because I can. I am Dragon Born! Rabbit slayer! Fox burner! My journey has begun…
This is a review-in-progress: check back every day for more updates as I head deeper into the world of Skyrim: Special Edition, and discover just how good this remastered version is. This game is currently being played on PS4. And, if you’re playing Skyrim already and get stuck, here are some excellent guides we already have.
Here’s how to get Mods on your PS4 and Xbox One versions of Skyrim SE
And here are 5 Secret Bosses in Skyrim SE that you need to watch out for