James Stephanie Sterling
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition Review – Dragonborn Again
A sweet roll, but not the sweetest roll.
Developer: Bethesda Publisher: Bethesda Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One Released: October 27, 2016 Copy provided by publisher
Five years is a long time in videogames. In that time, Bethesda has remained a critical darling but public opinion on the company as both a studio and publisher has become more divided. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has, itself, gone from a beloved production to one that has a loudly vocal base of detractors – especially in a post-Witcher 3 world.
Some may argue the game has not held up over the past half-decade, but while it may be dated in a technical sense (and wasn’t exactly cutting edge in its day), there’s something magnetic about it that I just can’t shake.
While it may not be the game I’ve replayed the most, it certainly holds that distinction within its genre – rare is the time I’ll ever return to a roleplaying game of this nature to try different builds and alternate story routes, but Skyrim has kept me coming back over the years. I’ve made conjurers, illusionists, armored tanks and a designed-by-committee mess… and I love it every time.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition is little more for me than an excuse to have yet another go, and if you’re a previous fan of the game, that’s the best way to approach it – while there are definitely improvements, you’re still paying for the same old Skyrim, warts and all.
Or rather, bugs and all.
I needn’t go into the gameplay and story of Skyrim, though you can check my almost embarrassingly glowing review here. I stand by what I said about the original, even if I wouldn’t be quite so flowery (or lengthy) in my writing style these days.
As far as enhancements go, Skyrim has benefitted from a number of visual improvements, with art and effects getting a pleasant bit of remastering. Bethesda itself boasts about volumetric god rays, screen-space reflections, and weather shaders, though not all of this work will immediately jump out at the player.
Nevertheless, the game does look better when comparing the last base game to the new base game, even if the improvements are subtle. As someone who modded the hell out of Skyrim to enjoy superior colors, effects, and technical details, returning to a basic game does not yield quite the same results as it might if someone jumped from a last-gen console version to the PS4/XBO edition.
There are downsides to the visual improvements, ones common to remastered versions of older games – the higher resolution and visual cleanup does not flatter the original character and object models. Getting right in the face of an NPC often reveals an unimpressive countenance, flat and lacking in crucial detail.
It’s a classic drawback to remastering – sometimes you just provide a better lens through which to see how dated things look.
Of course, Skyrim Special Edition includes all of the downloadable content previously released, providing Dawnguard, Hearthfire, and Dragonborn. Delivering some of the more interesting stories and items, they’re worth digging into if you only ever played the basic game, giving you a pretty little home, some vampiric action, and a trip to Morrowind all as part of the base package.
More interesting – though only for the console customers – is mod support for both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Unfortunately, while Sony relented on its previous mod embargo, the withdrawal comes with caveats.
Unlike the Xbox One version, the PlayStation 4 copy I was provided with only allows mods that use in-game assets, meaning truly inventive work or improvements will not be available. At launch, the difference between the two versions’ mod support was damning – there were only 38 mods to browse on PS4 compared to the XBO’s 119.
Having experienced how far mods can go on Xbox One with Fallout 4, it’s disappointing to see the frankly pathetic offering on Sony’s console. There are still some useful mods but they mostly consist of the boringly practical kind – no Jason Voorhees costumes or content from other Bethesda properties, more simple tweaks to the gameplay and NPCs or new locations built from pre-existing content.
Though not as inferior as it would have been with zero mod support, Sony’s restrictions have undoubtedly made Skyrim Special Edition a less complete game that I could only recommend you ignore in favor of the alternatives – if alternatives are an option for you.
Again, my review copy was a PS4 version and my assessment will reflect this – still a good game, but not what it should be.
On PC, however, Special Edition shouldn’t be passed up. It’s free to anybody who owns the base game and DLC (or the Legendary Edition), so if you’re eligible, you’ll be getting a decent upgrade for nothing.
[Correction: the free upgrade was an extremely limited-time offer. If you did not get it by October 28, you can’t get it. Apologies for that!]
By far the biggest bone I have to pick with this dovahkiin-flavored rerelease is that, even five years later, well-known and cataloged glitches remain.
Bethesda enjoys a privileged level of forgiveness for the bugs in its games – I’m not exempt from offering that forgiveness – thanks in part to hype, but also to Bethesda’s entertaining worlds and ambitious sprawls. However, this is a five-year-old game and in that time it would be nice to see at least some nefarious problems fixed.
It took hardly any time at all for me to find a miscellaneous quest I couldn’t complete because the correct dialog wouldn’t appear. I Googled the issue and there it was, an old bug that has been talked about dozens of times. Something like that should be resolved, and it isn’t. In fact, while Bethesda boasts of the improvements made to the game, it has neglected to mention bug fixes at all.
As much as I adore the game, to the point where I gave its original release a rare full score, I’m disappointed no additional QA was performed on a game that’s always needed it. I suppose Bethesda just leaves it up to the modders now.
Skyrim is still a blast to play, and while I appreciate many have gone off it, or weren’t on it to begin with, there’s still an arresting quality to the world Bethesda built, a world full of individual places that feel like home.
At this point, playing The Elder Scrolls V is like putting on a comfortable old pair of sweatpants. It’s not exactly stylish, it’s frayed around the edges, it’s showing its age, and there might be a few old cumstains, but it’s warm and familiar and it just feels good to have around.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition is that same pair of sweatpants put through the laundry.
That’s about all I have for that analogy.