The landscape of console gaming is not what it once was; cold, bleak and overcast, it is a land where few rays of light are able to permeate beyond the grey-scale canopy that reigns over all who claim residence within the confines of its corporate controlled borders. Fearful of the future, enslaved by ill met business practices, the consumers of the world look to the past in hope that a hero will rise. Freed from the shackles of hype culture, micro transactions, and spurious P.R narratives that plague the land that hero has arrived, its five-year hermitage finally at an end. Ready to brave the winter wilds one final time? Then clear your throat and patch up that knee: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has returned.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition: Xbox One [Reviewed], PlayStation 4, PC
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: 28 October 2016
Price: £34.99 (Retail) £49.99 (Download) [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Publisher]
There isn’t an awful lot about this legendary tale that, in one way or another, hasn’t already been said: 2011’s uncontested (…) game of the year, Bethesda’s masterstroke won commercial and critical acclaim across the board when it launched five years ago. Elder Scrolls fans and gamers alike united in celebration and for the PC community that elation continued long after the game’s launch and months of success due, in no small part, to the seemingly endless stream of mod support that followed in its wake. A clear distinction between the console and PC iterations of the game became apparent and the sobering reality of such a distinction was that – at some point or another – console gamers were inevitably going to have to leave Skyrim’s snow-sheathed shores, questions surrounding the game’s additional content and longevity lost to the annals of history: much like whispers upon the wind.
Well, the winds of change have swept over Skyrim: what once were waning whispers weaving through the air have matured over time and now they come back to us, the console gamers, as barks and bellows, shouts if you will, that have irrevocably changed the topography of Bethesda’s open world. Not only are these changes more than welcomed additions, they also serve to veil Skyrim’s age (cosmetically) and add to it a regal air of majesty, mystery and renewed disbelief.
This isn’t to say that Skyrim hides its age – it does quite the opposite in fact – the game wears it with pride: recognising its previous gen heritage, loading screens remain intact and provide a constant reminder of just how good looking this game’s assets are now. Not that you’ll have time to see them of course as loading times- alongside save times- have been drastically reduced. Back to the open world: here the game’s improved visuals explode before the player, instantly forcing you to double take again and again and again as you’re met with scenes, images, characters and locales that simultaneously stir nostalgia and new-found wonder upon each discovery. The game bolsters improved God rays, ambient lighting, particle physics and textures that culminate in truly dazzling scenes of beauty. Honestly, the never ending cave crawling that comprises the majority of Skyrim’s side quests are made so much more palatable and atmospheric thanks to the time, effort and care that Bethesda has spent polishing this game. It feels like you’re dancing with a beloved memory; mysterious yet familiar, you’ll constantly be questioning how you overlooked such beauty and elegance as you continue to go through the motions. It is the very definition of surreal.
This sense of familiarity and Skyrim’s age, unfortunately, are not mutually exclusive and do unflatteringly come to a surface. Combat is still as clunky and cumbersome as it ever was, with engagements quickly descending into mad, uncoordinated flurries that ask nothing of a player’s spatial awareness and instead demand that you fervently strike your R trigger in the hopes that you’ll execute a finishing move before your opponent: whilst the dynamic camera does conjure moments of sweet relief that try – in vain – to lend some fluidity to the fighting, animations witnessed through it grow repetitive resulting in the most visceral coup de grace, over time, becoming another tedious, technical trope. One you’d rather avoid.
On the subject of technical tropes I’d rather avoid in Bethesda games, let’s talk about those accursed Bethesda Bugs or, as I’ve come to affectionately nickname them, Bebugs. When I said Skyrim: SE doesn’t hide its age I meant it. Yes the graphics are resoundingly superior to its latter generation forefather and the game’s lighting, voice acting, textures and soundtrack still offer an unbridled sense of immersion that I have yet to see toppled outside of the fantasy/ RPG genre, with that in mind it’s genuinely saddening to see a game that takes surrealism to such heights only to have those gains almost completely erased by the exact same ailments that appear systemically over Bethesda’s titles time and time again. Lazy sound design, texture pop-in, framerate drops and issues regarding draw distance, the game is riddled with Bebugs that, when encountered (to be fair, the frame rate dipped more than it dropped and these instances were rare) simply stretch the seams of Skyrim’s otherwise well-woven immersive whole.
And make no mistake, this is the whole game. Not only are all three pieces of DLC; Hearthfire, Dawnguard and Dragonborn, included at launch, console players also get to finally sample the legendary mods that the PC elite have long held in such high regard. Whilst the inclusion of community created, game altering patches do provide a smorgasbord of seemingly infinite gameplay experiences, the developers are quick to point out that those among the game’s mod community “play with mods at your own risk”. Both the DLC and the plethora of mods are easily accessible via the game’s main menu, with the mod selection interface resembling the Steam store and allowing for simple and easy access to the aforementioned content almost instantly – provided you set up a Bethesda.net account first. Even Skyrim has to adapt to the changing face of video games.
And that’s where the true beauty at the heart of Skyrim is, its ability to remain faithful – for better and for worse – to what it was a generation ago. It may well be a compelling and evocative love letter to the last generation – a staunch, fearsome reminder of what games used to be – but it is in no way a meaningful addition to the current one. Instead Skyrim: Special Edition brings with it a historical dimension: where once it provided the shoulders upon which smaller titles stood, now it re-joins the world – still able to meet its peers on eye level – just with less weight to carry than what it had in the past. This version of the game functions so harmoniously at times that it’s almost melodic: the union of each of its refined elements unfurl unto one another in ways that seem almost lyrical in their execution.
So Skyrim: SE doesn’t bring anything new to the table: that doesn’t prevent it from taking my breath away.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition
- Graphical update is stunning, particularly the lighting
- Mods and DLC add hours of replay value for console owners
- Load/ save times are notably quicker
- As deep, involving and immersive as ever…
- …That being said there’s nothing new here
- Dreaded ‘Bebugs’ make an unwelcomed return
- Combat is clunky and betrays the game’s age