Skyrim: Special Edition (PS4) Review

THE SHORT VERSION



It’s Skyrim. It’s on current-gen consoles. It’s much prettier (to an extent).

What more do you want?


STORY

Ok, in all seriousness.


You are the last of the Dragonborn, with dragon’s blood in your veins and the ability to shout enemies off of mountaintops with nothing but your Voice. Dragons have started returning to the icy realm of Skyrim, and it falls to you to figure out how, why and what you can do to stop them tearing the world apart. While you’re doing that, you might want to consider joining a Thieves Guild, becoming an assassin, allying with a bunch of werewolf mercenaries, studying powerful magics to uncover an ancient mystery, looting a few tombs, fighting some ice trolls, falling in love with a huntress, adopting some random kids, building a house, fighting against a vampire insurgency, and stopping for a rest if there’s time left in the day.

The classic, five-year-old story mode of Skyrim still holds up, largely because of the agency given to the player. This is the kind of role-playing that leaves narrative intricacies more to the player’s taste, rather than giving them a tailored experience the way The Witcher 3 might. Are you going to be a paragon of justice who seeks to curtail the dragon plague, or will you just be a dick and steal everything that’s not nailed down? Is your story one of a hero’s journey, as you advance from lowly prisoner of the Imperials to becoming the most powerful living figure in Skyrim’s history, or is it one of murder, theft, arson and skulduggery? Sometimes it’s nice to have some narrative latitude, a quality Skyrim still largely excels at providing.


GAMEPLAY

The control scheme is relatively unchanged from the original game’s mapping, at least compared between PS3 and PS4. Everything is still relatively smooth – running, jumping, sprinting, Shouting, swinging swords and stealing things – and handles well. Skyrim’s purest delight is still the ability to trek around the world and uncover caves, settlements and hidden clusters of enemies; even if you’re an expert at orienteering, and have every major quest location and Word of Power spot memorised, revisiting it all again has its own kind of exploratory joy amongst all of the current-gen upgrades the game’s received.

The big gameplay addition is mod support for consoles. Now, I couldn’t actually get this to run on my machine – apparently either the game or my PS4 does not like logging into my Bethesda account – but I’ve discovered that such support seems fairly minimal, especially compared to how well the PC crowd have had it for the last five years. One gigabyte is all you get, and apparently the full range of mods that have been developed are not readily available for all platforms. It’s not so much a bother to me since I tend to eschew modding in general, but for those of you who prefer turning the dragons into Thomas the Tank Engine and exchanging your swords for some lightsabers, you may want to take that into account. The three major DLC packages for Skyrim – namely Dragonborn, Hearthfire and Dawnguard – are also included; I didn’t get far enough in my playthrough to start any of them proper, but they appear to be pretty similar to their original console counterparts.

In sum, gameplay is largely unchanged – and, as you might see further in this review, that might not be an entirely good thing.


VISUALS/SOUND AND VOICE ACTING

I said it up top: Skyrim is much prettier now. That’s kind of like saying your chocolate mud cake is now also adorned with Ferreros. But that change comes with its own issues.

A lot of the visual overhaul is subtle at first glance, most notably in the skybox, the terrain and the amount of texture pop-in. The latter’s been drastically reduced (at least it was in my playthrough – I’ve heard about a few issues with framerate dips and lacking textures from other players, but my experience was pretty fine), while the first two are sharper, clearer and more distinct. The ground now shines with snow when you look at it, making it look less like someone slapped white paint on the mountains and more like there is actual snow falling around you. The mountains themselves are still the jagged formation of angles that players experience either fun or frustration (or both) in scaling, and some of the fine details on armour, fires, weapons, dragon hides and water have been made clearer (the water, in particular is much more fluid, no pun intended).

Despite all that, it has to be said that I found the visual changes to not be worth the price of admission. This is something I’ll discuss more in Wrapping Up, but I was not knocked over my Skyrim: Special Edition’s changes in the same manner that the original tripped me up and planted my face in a river of wonder. My reaction may stem from the sheer number of man hours sunk into my original Skyrim playthrough (something in excess of two hundred and fifty hours), but I still think not as much has been done to the visuals to justify a completely new release with the price point it’s gouging out of everyone’s wallets. The map is pretty much the same with some graphical upgrades; the same thing goes for the existing janky NPC movements. To return to my earlier metaphor, having the Ferreros on your cake might make it a more delicious cake, but it’s not a significant alteration; you can still see the original cake under all those nutty chocolates.

I lump the sound in here too, because it’s in a similar boat. The audio clarity is sharper, and it definitely still immerses you in the world (especially if you’ve got massive headphones), but it’s still largely the same soundtrack and voice acting that Skyrim had to begin with. Of particular note is the sheer dearth of voice actors, meaning many characters, both good and evil, have exactly the same voice (and, in some cases, almost exactly the same dialogue). I was hoping they’d at least throw a few new voices into the mix – I mean, it’s jarring to see a bandit running at me with a bloodied battleaxe gunning for my throat, while he’s speaking with the voice of my dear friend Jarl Balgruuf – but apparently that wasn’t on the cards. Skyrim’s sonic qualities are still relatively fine, but they have the same issue as the visuals; I don’t think they were changed enough to justify the re-release.


WRAPPING UP

I want to be clear that I like Skyrim: Special Edition, quite a lot, especially since my Xbox 360 is packed away and I can now easily throw it on the PS4. But my central gripe – which you may potentially think should have no influence on my review, but it does anyway – is the price.

Bethesda, in addition to preventing anyone from securing a review copy more than a day before launch, have put this game out at full price for consoles. This is a game that is half a decade old, which regularly goes on sale on Steam, which you could pick up for last-gen consoles in most second-hand stores (and quite a few first-hand ones, too; my local JB Hi-Fi still has new Skyrim: Game of the Year copies for both 360 and PS3). It’s not an anthology of games the way Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection is, nor is it adding anything materially new to the experience beyond some updated visuals and sound. It’s a literal re-release in every sense of the word, almost point for point what we all had on our systems back in 2011.

That price has really soured part of my time with the Special Edition. The graphics are nice, but they’re still built on a lot of the original visuals. The sounds are still great, but they’ve just been sharpened rather than redone. The game, the story, the sidequests, the characters, even a few of the bugs, are quite literally unchanged. Yet, in order to experience everything old that is new again, you’ll need to shell out the same coin as you would for Titanfall 2, or Final Fantasy XV, or Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (if you’re into that sort of thing, in the latter case).

Ultimately, I enjoyed Skyrim: Special Edition. I don’t think it was worth the price or the hype to get to here, and nothing in it is groundbreaking enough for me to urge you to go pick it up for anything other than nostalgia or convenience; even then, I’d suggest waiting for the Boxing Day sales. It was a ton of fun revisiting the best realm of Tamriel, battling dragons and Shouting dudes off cliffs. It just wasn’t fun that was worth the overinflated price of admission.

- Chris 



SKYRIM - ORIGINAL VERSION SCORE


SKYRIM: SPECIAL EDITION SCORE


Skyrim: Special Edition is available now on Playstation 4 and Xbox One.

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