The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim ($19.99 at Humble Bundle)(Opens in a new window) is a sprawling open-world RPG to be reckoned with, even five years after its initial release. The world is overwhelmingly massive, and is chock full of monsters to slay, quests to undertake, dungeons to raid, and beautiful vistas to take in. Skyrim Special Edition improves the visuals, and makes the jump to 64-bit architecture, resulting in a slightly prettier and more stable video game than the original release. Unfortunately, Bethesda, the game's developer, made zero changes to the gameplay, interface, or presentation, so the same wonky AI, wooden NPCs, and laughable animations also appear in this game. To complicate matters, the 64-bit jump means that many of the complex, script-heavy mods created for the original release don't work in Skyrim Special Edition, leaving PC players with essentially a prettier version of the base game. Make no mistake: Skyrim is a great game, but it is probably not worth buying a second time; at least not until the mod community catches up.
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You are Dragonborn, a person born with the soul and power of a mythical dragon. The destructive dragon Alduin has returned to the mortal realm with a host of dragons in tow, and the realm of Skyrim finds itself in grave danger. This is the canvas on which you draw your adventures. After the introduction, you are free to explore the realm, slay dragons, raid crypts and dungeons, or take on more malevolent roles, as you so choose. Regardless of your path, you'll be fighting, exploring, and interacting with NPCs during your travels. Not only is Skyrim dauntingly massive on its own, but this Special Edition also incorporates the previously released DLC, so the vampire-hunting Dawnguard, home-crafting Hearthfire, and ashen wastes of Dragonborn are part of the package.
Skyrim Special Edition's combat is fairly simplistic, but offers just enough meat to sink your teeth into. Each weapon type has light and heavy attacks that you use to chip away at your opponent's health. You can block attacks to deflect incoming damage, or parry an incoming attack to open your opponent and deal critical damage. Magic is equipped much like weapons, and you can cast an array of destructive spells to destroy foes. Particular magic types, such as illusion and restoration spells, are used to supplement your offensive skills. The character-building RPG mechanics are what give the simple combat its depth, and it is through leveling that I had the most fun in Skyrim's realm.
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Why You Should Game on a PC
Like the original game, Skyrim Special Edition lets you build your character based on your own play style. If you make liberal use of archery, for example, you earn levels toward that field, which in turn nets you proficiency points. You then use these points to purchase more perks and enhancements for that skill. Once you level archery to 20, for example, you can unlock a perk that lets your arrows do critical damage to enemies that are unaware of your presence. Skyrim Special Edition offers 18 skill types to develop, including Lock Picking, Two-Handed Weaponry, and Destructive Sorcery. Not all skill types are offensive; Blacksmithing, Equipment Enchanting, and Alchemy are essentially support skills that are used to create useful equipment or items. Nonetheless, Skyrim Special Edition lets you develop your character very naturally and accommodates a wide variety of play styles, so it's easy to immerse yourself and build your character in whatever way you see fit.
As you explore, hunt, and murder your way across the game world, you come across NPCs and guilds offering work that befits a draconic warrior. The quality of these quests runs the gamut, from enjoyable to utterly tedious, depending on how you play your game. You will, of course, fetch random items, slaughter wildlife, and kill targets, which is standard fare in open-world RPGs. Most campaign and guild quests usher you towards the game's many dungeons to explore. As I thoroughly enjoy dungeon crawling, I have no qualms with this. Dungeons in Skyrim are labyrinthine, and are filled with loot to snatch up and pawn off, or dangerous boss monsters to strike down. Skyrim's quests are varied enough that you can easily find a few to enjoy as you play through the game.
Perhaps the oddest abilities at your disposal are Dragon Shouts, unique draconic spells that only dragons and the Dragonborn can use. You earn these by learning Words of Power hidden in shrines within dungeons. Once you acquire one, you must slay a dragon and absorb its soul to unlock the skill. Many Shouts are unique and interesting, but many are not very practical.
For example, Slow Time is a great Shout, as it slows down times for about fifteen seconds. You can even extend the duration of this effect with the right potions and perks, making it doubly useful. And Marked for Death is grossly overpowered, as it cripples your opponent's defense and damages them over time. On the other hand, I never utilized the animal-taming Shouts much, or the Shout that makes your enemies flee. The fire and ice-breathing Shouts are also seemingly useless compared to the others. Unlike spells, Shouts have their own unique cool down gauge, so you can use them to supplement your normal offensive skills.
Simulation Vs. Convenience
My previous experience with the Elder Scrolls series was with The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, a title that's part of the delightful Elder Scrolls Anthology ($129.99 at Amazon)(Opens in a new window) . I appreciated Morrowind's rich and alien realm, and how the developers sought to make it every bit as immersive and sim-like as possible. I loved that I had to follow directions to find key NPCs and learn where I needed to go. Reading road signs and getting lost was part of the experience. I had to make use of caravan transport to fast-travel between regions, which gave me a logical, in-game explanation for how NPCs and my own character got around. On the flip side, virtually every action in Morrowind is heavily stat dependent, so it plays more like a tabletop RPG presented in a first-person perspective. Basic combat became a chore, and my own ignorance on the leveling system compounded this until I couldn't bear to play the game anymore.
Curiously, Skyrim feels like a step away from the, at times, overwhelming RPG aspects of Morrowind. You can fight effectively with any weapon you pick up, and statistical dice rolls no longer determine enemy evasion: In Skyrim, if you swing at a rat, you're going to hit the rat. NPCs don't give you detailed directions any more; instead, a black and white marker highlights exactly where you need to travel. You can fast-travel to any place you've been to, which trumps any other method of in-game travel.
It's clear that these changes were made so that Skyrim would be more accessible to general audiences, but at the same time it feels like the more immersive RPG-elements were thrown on the chopping block to do so. I love that Skyrim's combat is not nearly as stat-driven as Morrowind's combat, but the streamlined quest directions and bold arrow markers make me wish that the game did a little less handholding.
Cracks in the Façade
Bethesda has made no real changes to the base game aside from the new visual flourish. Water is much prettier than the shimmering pools of snot in the original Skyrim, for example. Occlusion is more noticeable, so rain and snow won't fall through overhangs. Z-fighting, the ugly texture flickering that often affected distant mountains and surfaces in the original game, is no longer an issue, either.
These are all nice improvements, but I would have liked to see more beyond visual tweaks. Menu scrolling is still a tedious chore, so a better user interface would have been welcome. Likewise, improved animations would have enhanced the Skyrim experience, since characters and combat look rudimentary at best, especially when you shift into third-person view.
The stupid AI, and wooden voice work, which might have been charming five years back, is highly irritating today. Why do NPCs with families and businesses, armed with little more than a table knife, opt to fight a dragon rather than flee to their home? This is especially awkward because cities have guards meant to protect citizens. Likewise, why do the guards that revere my Dragonborn status at one moment, patronize me the next? Mods may have addressed many of the issues of the base game, but considering Bethesda's long-standing relationship with the mod community, I thought the company would duplicate the improvements made by said community, rather than just offering the same game again with a new coat of paint.
On a related note, Skyrim Special Edition offers mod support, but there is one key issue that needs to be addressed. The game's move to a 64-bit architecture means that the more complex, script-heavy mods that became popular with the original title are trickier to develop this time around. In fact, Skyrim Script Editor, a crucial program for creating advanced mods, has not yet been updated to accommodate Skyrim Special Edition—and it may be a long time before it is. This limits the mods to simpler graphical enhancements, so the lack of the useful game-altering mods from the original Skyrim release might be a deal breaker for some. For example, the SkyUI mod radically improved Skyrim's default user interface by rearranging gear and items, adding new icons, and even adding a search function. But because SkyUI requires the use of Skyrim Script Editor, this mod is incompatible with Skyrim Special Edition at the moment.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition (for PC)
Performance and Fidelity
Skyrim Special Edition ran quite well on my Nvidia GeForce GTX 970-powered rig, although I have read on PC gaming forums that users are experiencing crippling performance related to the in-game Vsync option. Perhaps I lucked out in this regard, but I've played Skyrim Special edition at 1080p resolution—using a combination of Ultra and High settings—and enjoyed 60 frames-per-second sessions, with the occasional drop to 40 frames per second. The only performance issue I've experienced is the occasional stutter, but this doesn't happen often enough for me to be concerned.
The game offers numerous adjustable graphics settings, including shadow quality and distance, god rays quality, ambient occlusion, and various depth of field sliders, so you can tweak the game to run as optimally as possible. Bethesda also improved the water effects, snow shaders, and particle effects to make Skyrim Special Edition's environments pop. The move to 64-bit architecture results in a more stable and snappier game overall. The game makes heavier use of bloom and anti-aliasing, though Bethesda went overboard with these features; the in-game textures are better than the original game's, but they look much too soft, as if the game is being displayed through a Vaseline filter.
As a Steam game, Skyrim Special Edition supports Steam Cloud Saves and Steam Achievements.
A Grand Adventure for Newcomers
Skyrim Special Edition is basically the original Skyrim with a fresh coat of paint. If you already own the first release game, there isn't much incentive to make the jump, because in all likelihood you have already modified the original game to run as well, or better, than this game. But if you skipped out on the DLC, or missed the boat entirely, Skyrim SE is a great RPG that is well worth picking up.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition (for PC)
(Opens in a new window)See It$39.99 at Green Man Gaming(Opens in a new window)
Offers dozens of hours of open-world adventuring.
Includes previously released DLC.
Boasts improved stability and subtle graphics improvements.
Satisfying RPG development systems.
Lore-heavy universe is immersive and fascinating.
Too much handholding.
Skyrim Special Edition doesn't offer anything PC players didn't already have via the modding community.
64-bit support limits mod accessibility, crippling the greatest appeal for playing Skyrim on PC.
The Bottom Line
Skyrim is still a rock-solid RPG that's worth purchasing if you missed vanilla Skyrim. That said, if you already own and mod the original game, Skyrim Special Edition has nothing fresh to offer.
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