There are few games that have had the emotional resonance of Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Not only did 2011’s open world RPG opus light the world on fire with its intoxicatingly addictive freedom, exploration and role playing, but it also proliferated a slew of memorable memes and introduced an entire generation to its accessible and meticulously designed power fantasy.
“Welcome Home” were the words Bethesda used to market their last RPG Fallout 4, and it’s somewhat poignant to think that these words would’ve been even more fitting for this year’s remaster of Skyrim, dubbed Skyrim: Special Edition. For many of us this really will feel like returning home — its familiar embrace is akin to homely comfort food of the highest, most delectable order.
Chronologically, Skyrim takes place two hundred years after the events of Oblivion. The story brings into sharp focus the aftermath of a great sociopolitical conflict between the Empire’s Imperial Legion and the rebel Stormcloaks. The High King has been slain in a duel to the death and as a result, civil war has gripped the kingdom.
The elder scrolls prophesize that this great war will lead to the return of winged mythical beasts and their leader Alduin The World-Eater, who have all lain dormant, rumoured to be dead for many, many centuries. Fortuitously, your player character is a Dragonborn, a mortal born with the soul and power of a dragon who can devour their souls and defeat them for good. It is your job to become the ultimate dragonslayer and bring peace and stability to a land rife with wild dragons, civil war and a rich plethora of interesting, memorable side-quests.
There are a slew of extra features included with this remaster; a variety of graphical and performance boosts, mod support and the original base game’s Dawnguard, Hearthfire and Dragonborn DLC. It’s far from a simple spit and shine port and the effort that has been poured into this overhaul really does shine through brightly. Re-worked textures, a higher resolution, a more stable framerate, reduced screen tearing and improved load times all help to make this epic journey through the titular province of Tamriel even more vivid and beautiful — Skyrim has always been a looker, and these welcome accoutrements are simply icing on a freshly baked sweet roll.
As with all Bethesda games, some undesirable bugs and graphical peculiarities come along for the ride; players can still get stuck in the level geometry, occasional framerate hiccups rear their ugly head at seemingly random moments and character models still look a little stiff and awkward. Thankfully, these are just minor blemishes on an otherwise incredible experience. Taken as a whole, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition is still an absolutely stunning achievement, even in 2016.
There are a multitude of smartly designed gameplay systems here that synergize wonderfully and, for the most part, these design philosophies have aged rather gracefully. For instance, using weapons increases your specific skill proficiency in that category. It’s an intelligent system that helps give you a sense of ownership over your character. It’s also super clever how the game builds up your character around your style of play, which ultimately leads to a wonderful sense of reward and progression as you level up.
When levelling up, perks can be unlocked through a convenient, easy-to-pickup skill-tree and range from increased weapon damage to more effective blocking and more efficient spell casting. There’s a ton of potential to build a character to fit your very own, personal play-style; a ninja Argonian archer, an all-powerful Khajeet fire-mage conjurer, a lithe, dual-wielding Wood Elf walking tank, these examples are just the tip of the Nordic iceberg. The personalized levelling system that worked so well in Bethesda’s last Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion, works equally as well here.
Unfortunately, some elements of the game have understandably lost their lustre. Though there is the option to dual-wield weapons and administer power attacks, for the most part, melee combat is strongly tied to one-button. With such a limited pool of inputs, combat occasionally lacks nuance, something that’s more pronounced through modern eyes. Despite this though, combat still often feels rewarding and satisfying thanks to the game’s flexible, levelling system and each weapon’s array of dynamic, reactive audio — these immersive audio cues really gives the melee combat a weighty, crunchy bite to the impact of steel on monster skin, scale and bone. The game’s expansive menagerie of monsters is impressive, too, with giant reptilian ice-dragons, hulking skeletal daedric demons, swirling elemental storm atronachs and ancient, automated dwarven machinery, all waiting patiently to see you pushing up the virtual daisies.
Tying everything together is an incredibly smooth and well-designed UI. Being able to switch between magic spells, favourite weapons, handy potions and specialist powers on the fly is snappy and intuitive by virtue of the game’s clever hotkey system — there’s none of the fluff and confusion that weighs down other RPGs of a similar ilk. Its UI is as nimble and elegant as a dexterous Bosmer Wood Elf.
One of the coolest extras included in Skyrim Special Edition are the integration of fan-made mods. This is one of the first games to feature mod support on consoles and the potential here is massive. At the time of writing there are just over 100 mods available for download on Xbox One.
It did take some time to install the desired mods though, as the connection to Bethesda’s servers kept timing out. However, this is probably due to overloaded servers as a result of the busy launch weekend rush. Hopefully these connection issues will be ironed out over time, as repeatedly typing in your username and password into Bethesda’s website is as frustrating as it sounds.
Despite this, the studio have made mods accessible and straightforward to download and install on consoles. It’s all rather well curated, with the option to narrow down the selection from highest rated, to most popular to the latest uploads etc. One thing to note, is that enabling mods disables all achievements and trophies for that specific save — if you want those virtual pieces of silverware, you’ll want to experiment with mods on a mod-free save file.
There are a handful of mods that really stand out. The Unofficial Skyrim Patch fixes hundreds of gameplay, quest, NPC, object, item, text and placement bugs and is pretty much essential. The Forgotten City, meanwhile, adds another 6-8 hours to your epic adventure with a tantalizing murder mystery set in an ancient underground city. Finally, Alternate Start — Live Another Life is a useful mod for those tired of seeing the same opening sequence in Helgen time and time again. This mod provides an alternative opening act along with a more personalized origin story for your player character. Ever wanted to begin the game shipwrecked on the other side of the Skyrim map? This mod is for you then.
It’d be remiss of me not to mention the incredible orchestral score that envelops your senses as you explore Skyrim’s beautiful world. My forlorn pilgrimage up the steep, weathered rock face of The Throat of The World to seek the council of the Jedi-esque Greybeards still remains a ruminative, meditative experience like no other thanks in part to its marvellous orchestral score and exquisite sound design. In its quieter, more pensive moments, Skyrim really has the unique contemplative power of a high art gameplay experience. Achingly subtle and gorgeous one moment, and hypnotically catchy and warm the next, Skyrim’s score is an absolute aural treat.
When all is said and done, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition is a terrific entry point for those who didn’t catch the game the first time around. It’s a liberating canvas that embraces and celebrates freedom, exploration and adventure and ties it neatly together with a satisfying and memorable narrative. As power fantasies go, this is one of the best that the gaming world has crafted, as there’s not only a ton of things to do, but there’s a ton of interesting and meaningful things to do.
For those who have embarked on its journey before, I’d say that this isn’t necessarily an essential purchase. However, like a great film or a great book, this may be a reason to hunker down and partake in some crucial and much needed comfort food. Sometimes familiarity doesn’t breed contempt — sometimes, it’s good for the soul.
This review is based off the Xbox One version of the game.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition is a terrific entry point for those who were unlucky enough to miss out on one of the last decade’s best open-world RPGs.