It’s already been half a decade since Skyrim launched, but it feels like I only just yesterday intimidated Louis Letrush into handing over Frost, the finest steed in all of Skyrim. I rode that horse everywhere, mind you, until a dragon unceremoniously incinerated my fellow mammal 50 levels later. A few minutes after that, I somehow stumbled upon Louis again by chance. I wasn’t too happy to see him; after all, he had been sending assassins after me for stealing the horse that had just died. I figured I would make his day a lot worse, but as it happens, another dragon swooped by and burned him, too.
It was those random little moments that made Skyrim so special. Granted, there were few open-world RPGs in the first place to rival the ambition of Skyrim, but even today, a lot of that magic remains. Few games have allowed players such an unparalleled sense of freedom to immerse themselves in just about whatever they want. You could be the slayer of dragons, a mercenary, thief, vampire, werewolf, merchant, assassin, or a family man who incessantly adopts kids. Hell, you could be all of the above. And if there was ever something you couldn’t do, mods always had an answer.
That’s not to say Skyrim hasn’t aged at all. The landscape of open-world RPGs has changed dramatically in the wake of Skyrim. Games like Dragon Age Inquisition and The Witcher 3 have raised the bar considerably for the genre, adding a cinematic flair and refreshing focus on character development. It was hard not to feel a little spoiled by those other games the longer I played The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition.
On the one hand, it felt great to roam around Skyrim’s wilderness again. Getting ambushed by bandits, only for a dragon to swoop down and ruin everyone’s day is the kind of unscripted joy few other games have been able to replicate. It’s also fair to say that no one else has quite nailed exploration the way Bethesda has in its games.
But as dense as the world was, it now appears comparatively shallow and morally unambiguous; its quests and stories feel nowhere near as intricate and nuanced as the ones crafted in games like The Witcher, for instance. Of course, there are standout quests in Skyrim, too. Who could forget the night gone wrong at the Bannered Mare? Or the Forsworn conspiracy in Markarth? Yet, for every interesting quest, there’s a lot of busy work and a truck-load of fetch quests that I’ve repressed from memory, followed by a strong lack of emotional attachment to the world, thanks in large part to average voice acting and stiff dialogue.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love Skyrim. What it lacks in narrative or character depth, it more than makes up for with player agency. You can be the hero who goes to Whiterun to solve everyone’s problem, or the dirt-bag who robs them blind in their sleep and turns the entire town against him. It’s a game where players have to find their own meaning in the stories they themselves told. That alone makes Skyrim worthy of coexisting with other RPGs of today.
It’s just that this “Special Edition” doesn’t try hard enough to justify returning to Skyrim, especially for players who have already logged those 200 hours. None of the underlying problems of Skyrim have been addressed. Combat still feels weightless, animations still look janky, and the interface still royally sucks. The result feels like a minimum of thought and effort was put into sprucing up what is otherwise a classic dearly loved by fans.
Even the main selling point of the Special Edition – the graphics – leaves a bit to be desired. Some areas do look genuinely better, thanks to improved shadows, draw distance, foliage, more realistic water, and a much more pleasant skybox. Other areas look like someone turned up the bloom and gamma way too high. Worse still, a yellow filter has been applied to the game, and it sticks out like a sore thumb. Whether you actually like the new aesthetics comes down to taste and preference, although it doesn’t help that many of the textures and meshes remain virtually unchanged. At the time of writing this, there were already some mods that helped mitigate some of these deficiencies for me, but it’s lazy of Bethesda to let modders do most of the leg work for a Special Edition five years down the line.
For the hardcore graphics enthusiasts, there are some other neat additions like depth-of-field, but the nicest thing one could say of the Special Edition is that the game now runs on 64-bit, which is a boon to both PC and console players because it means things are generally speaking more stable, resulting in fewer crashes. It also means the game now handles a lot more simultaneous action on screen at minimal performance loss. Console players get the benefit of now being able to play the game at 1080p (albeit at 30fps), but it’s difficult to recommend the Special Edition to players who already thoroughly explored the original on last-generation consoles, given that the visual improvements don’t quite justify another purchase. If you do decide to upgrade, do it for the mod support.
Although the game appears to be more optimized than the original game, there were still some jarring framerate drops at the most curiously quiet moments on PC. Turning off vertical sync in the configuration file helped smooth things over, but at the cost of physics freaking out more than usual.
At the end of the day, despite some minor improvements, it’s hard not to feel like the whole thing is more of a side-grade than an upgrade. While the inclusion of mod support for console players is a very nice touch, PC players who decked their Skyrim out with mods may want to wait before making the switch, given that the selection of mods currently available is limited. In time, however, it’s safe to assume we might see some pretty epic mods, thanks to the 64-bit support. The scale modders will be able to work with should allow for some more ambitious projects, including large battles featuring numerous NPCs on screen at once.
If you’ve never played Skyrim at all, the Special Edition is as good a place as any to start. But if you already had your fill of guards reminiscing about taking arrows in the knee, then the Special Edition won’t do much to convince you to come back for one more adventure.
A special game with a not so special Special Edition
Although the underlying game remains a classic, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition does little to give it the facelift it needs.