Nobody expected that Skyrim would be so popular. Sure, in hindsight it’s easy to see how all the elements for success were already in place. The much-anticipated fifth game in the critically acclaimed, fan-favorite The Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim profited from having an already fleshed-out setting and an experienced team that had been making more or less the same game since Morrowind in more or less the same engine.
But the biggest advantage Skyrim had was its firmly established fanbase, which skyrocketed after Oblivion and Fallout 3. With more than 30 million units sold across various platforms, TES V joined the ranks of such all-time best-sellers like Grand Theft Auto V and Minecraft. What followed was a series of re-releases and ports to other devices, even handheld gaming consoles, such as the Nintendo Switch and the PlayStation VR.
Then, in 2016, five years after the original came out, Skyrim: Special Edition was released. Touted as the all-encompassing, definitive version of the game, many are still unsure which version to get. So, to help you decide, here’s an examination of Skyrim vs Skyrim Special Edition – the differences, pros, and cons of each.
First Things First – Skyrim as a Game
The fifth installment in the ongoing Elder Scrolls saga, it could be argued that Skyrim hit the perfect “sweet spot” between Morrowind’s alien backdrop and esoteric plot, and Oblivion’s tamer generic fantasy. Taking place in titular Skyrim, the northernmost province of the Empire, gone were the lush fields of Oblivion’s Cyrodiil, replaced with a boreal environment full of snow-capped mountains, blizzards, and coniferous forests.
The skill, advancement, and many other gameplay systems were once again simplified (this stripping down of complexity with each new installment plagued the series ever since TES II: Daggerfall) in an effort to be even more accessible. There are far better RPGs and open-world games one can play, but something about Skyrim just seems to resonate with players and hook them in. Even people who think that the game isn’t all that good can’t seem to stop themselves from replaying it on a regular basis.
Perhaps the best way to describe it would be – addictive. Far from a perfect game, the various parts that comprise it come together to form a gameplay experience that makes you desire to play it for hours on end – just one more nearby location you haven’t been to yet, just one more little quest.
Skyrim – Only The Base Game
While it’s certainly possible that some players still have just the base game version of Skyrim without any accompanying DLCs, the Legendary and Special Editions have been out for ages, so it’s safe to assume that every passionate Skyrim player has long since upgraded to one (or perhaps both) of them.
Even before these two editions were made available, modders were using the new capabilities introduced by the DLCs to further push what Skyrim was capable of at the time. Gamers were, by and large, eager to get new content, so they bought the DLCs in droves as soon as they were made available for purchase. These are, in order:
The first DLC to be released, Dawnguard sees you taking on a looming and apocalyptic vampire threat – either as a member of the vampire hunting Dawnguard organization or allied with the vampires as a powerful vampire lord.
The second DLC focuses on letting the player customize their own home. You will be able to purchase a plot of land in one of three holds (but only after you become a Thane there) and build a new house, complete with furniture and servants. The option to adopt orphaned children is also introduced.
The final DLC is a nostalgic throwback to the Bloodmoon expansion pack for Morrowind. According to the Elder Scrolls timeline, shortly after the events of Oblivion, much of Morrowind was destroyed in a catastrophe. This forced the remaining native Dunmer (Dark Elves) to relocate to the island of Solstheim, which borders the province of Skyrim.
There, the player character encounters another Dragonborn and gets entangled into a millennia-long feud between gods and mortals.
Skyrim – Legendary Edition
When talking about “regular” Skyrim, this is the edition that most players refer to – and have in their respective libraries. With all the DLCs bundled together in one package, it is the equivalent of most other games’ GOTY (Game of the year) editions.
The Legendary Edition was released in 2013, and until the Special Edition, it was considered the easiest way to get the complete Skyrim experience. When you install it, all three DLC will also automatically be installed. As one of its (rare) advantages over SE, you can run ‘regular’ Skyrim on the highest settings using only a budget gaming PC.
For all intents and purposes, the LE is no different than if you had separately bought every DLC as they came out, but you can no longer buy it on Steam in the form of this edition. The base game, as well as the DLCs, are technically still available for purchase on Steam, but they have been unlisted from the store and you will only be able to find them by googling. This has been done so that players will only buy the newer Special Edition, which Bethesda considers the better, improved, and “proper” version of the game.
In the early days of the Special Edition, a big point in favor of the Legendary Edition was the mod support. Because of the vast differences between regular Skyrim and SE, mods have to be repurposed in order to work on SE. Here is our how to mod Skyrim guide if you are unsure of how to add and manage mods.
In the meantime, all major mods – and most smaller mods besides – have been adapted to work on the Special Edition. Also, many of them have ceased to be updated for the Legendary Edition versions of the game. This is a common case with games where a newer edition has, in effect, superseded the old one.
Another important difference between the two is that regular Skyrim (or “Oldrim”, as it is affectionately referred to now) was made for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, while the Special Edition was released on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Skyrim – Special Edition
On the surface, Skyrim’s Special Edition can seem like an underwhelming facelift that borders on a callous cash grab. But there are other things to consider here, many of which the average player probably isn’t even aware of.
To start with, the biggest change between regular Skyrim and the Special Edition aren’t the graphical changes, but the one made to the engine – the game is now 64-bit instead of 32-bit. In practical terms, this means that the game will no longer stutter as much from constant frame drops (since it can now utilize more RAM when not confined to outdated 32-bit architecture) and mods are more stable and should run smoother.
It’s true that you can easily get a better look by employing the various graphics mods (many of which made our best Skyrim mods list), but for people who don’t like to mod their games, there are several noticeable improvements over the regular version.
These are: DX11 support, volumetric god rays, enhanced water shaders, better shadows, screen-space ambient occlusion (SSAO), temporal anti-aliasing support, dynamic depth-of-field effects, higher resolution trees, improved lighting effects, rain and snow occlusion (they will no longer “clip” through certain surfaces they shouldn’t have, such as roofs), more grass and similar vegetation, and, perhaps most importantly – the game loads much faster. In order to take full advantage of these options, you will need a great gaming PC.
The improved engine means that the game can now handle more characters on screen than before (in the old version, it would regularly crash if this amount was exceeded), and Alt-Tabs better. Several additions from Fallout 4 have also been included – saving is now separated by character (this will make it a lot easier to find the exact save you were looking for, especially if you are in the habit of playing several characters at once), and to sprint, you only have to press the sprinting button once to toggle it on, instead of having to hold it down like before.
It also came with its own set of usual Bethesda bungles – there were issues with the audio compression on the PC and Xbox One versions (the PS4 version was unaffected by this) and bad upscaling of textures (for example, from 2k to 4k). And, of course, they didn’t bother to fix the bugs leftover from the vanilla version – trusting that modders will find and remove them in a fan patch.
The next big difference between the two is the addition of mods for consoles. To do this, you will first have to make an account on Bethesda.net, where you will then be able to see and download the available mods. This is a bit different than how it works on the PC.
Because of a rule imposed by Sony, only the assets that are already in the game can be modded. This effectively narrows down the modding capabilities of the PS4 version quite a bit. To illustrate – at the time of writing, there are over 10.000 mods for the Xbox One, and less than 5.000 for the PlayStation 4. Another problem is the storage space reserved for mods on both consoles – 5GB for the XB1 and only 1GB for the PS4. Sadly, taken in conjunction, this means that some of the biggest (and best) mods out there simply aren’t available for the PS4.
But even limited modding such as this is a great step forward for consoles compared to their previous lack of modding.
Conclusion – Skyrim or Skyrim Special Edition, Which One to Choose?
If this question was asked a mere year or two ago, there would have been a lot more to examine and discuss – mainly to do with the state of the modding scene and which essential mods still hadn’t been ported over to the Special Edition.
But, as it stands now, the Special Edition is simply the better choice and a more up-to-date technological standard than the old Skyrim. Like any Bethesda game, it certainly has its issues, but the pros (such as not being limited to 2GB of virtual memory, console mods, and the modding scene adopting it as their go-to version of choice) outweigh the cons.
In short, when comparing the advantages and disadvantages of the different aspects of Skyrim vs Skyrim Special Edition and which one you should choose over the other – unless there is an old mod that hasn’t been updated for the SE, but which you simply have to play with, the Special Edition is an overall more polished and easier to play (and mod) gameplay experience.