Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition

Five years ago the newest Elder Scrolls game took players to Skyrim, which ended up becoming one of the best RPGs to come out of the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 era of gaming, and also not a too shabby entry in the list of great PC games.  Skyrim was huge, both in terms of the physical game world and in the amount things that can be done.  Completionists can easily spend a couple hundred hours trying to accomplish everything there is to do, so now is about the time most of them have finally exhausted all available activities.  The reward for such tenacity is that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition is available, which means all those achievements and trophies can be earned again in an improved version of this title.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition takes place in Skyrim, which is on the continent of Tamriel, roughly 200 years after the events of Oblivion and during a civil war between the Imperial Legion and the Stormcloaks.  The adventure begins while the character is being held prisoner in the back of a wagon being taken to their execution.  As luck would have it a dragon attack saves the day, for during this chaos while the area around you burns, the player is able to make the daring escape.

After successfully escaping the failed execution, the player is free to begin roaming about the massive open world.  There is some direction given to seek out people in certain locations such as the Jarl of Whiterun, but whether or not that is followed is entirely up to whatever the player wants to do.  There is a main story to complete, but that can be done in whatever time frame the player sees most enjoyable.  There is an abundance of optional side quests to take on and dungeons to conquer.  On top of that, there are potions to craft and those require the harvesting of many ingredients.  Why buy weapons and armor when you can craft your own?  Go hunting to gather leather and mine some rare ore and build up your blacksmithing skill.  The main quest isn’t going anywhere, take some time to see everything the world has to offer.  In addition to being free to do just about anything your heart desires, there is a lot of freedom with designing your character.  The usual variety of Elder Scrolls races are present such as Nords, Redguards, Elves, and so on.  Each race has some bonus attributes or ability, like Khajiit are able to use night vision and Argonians can breathe underwater.  Appearance can be customized as well but being as this is a first person game the allure of that feature might not be as strong as in other RPGs.

Beyond character design the character will level up by increasing their skill with certain abilities, which is done by using them.  For example, wearing heavy armor and using a two handed weapon will increase those skills, but magic abilities will remain weak unless spells are regularly cast.  Basically Skyrim tries to add an element of realism to the leveling system by making specific gains coincide with what skills are actually being used.  If you skip leg day, Skyrim will ensure your chicken legs stay puny.  Since there are no specific classes restricting skill and equipment use, it is possible to build up a very diversified death dealer.  A character build I was using during the review playthrough wore heavy armor but tending to dual wield spells and melee weapons.  Usually it was a spell in the left hand and sword in the right, but sometimes just for fun blasting the enemies with fire and ice from different hands was a nice twist on the standard battle formula.

When the player levels up, they are awarded a perk point that they can spend in a number of areas.  These cover different types of weapons, schools of magic, and other attributes and skills.  For example we will examine the blacksmith skill tree.  Players with a low skill level in blacksmith are limited in what materials they can work with.  If the player wants to make their character an expert at making arms and armor, they need to construct weapons and armor to increase the blacksmith level.  On the blacksmith skill tree perk points can be spent to allow the player to work on enchanted items, or work with stronger materials such as obsidian and dragon bone, but in order to unlock those perks they need to have reached a certain level in blacksmith.  Spending perk points is not something to be done without consideration, it is best to examine what each ability has to unlock so they are spent in a way that fits the play style for that character.  These perks can do a variety of things like reduce the cost of casting certain spells or increasing damage with certain weapon types.  Making heavy armor weightless has always been a favorite.

is a vast open world RPG with no shortage of activities or player choices.  Its graphics were among the best of what 2011 had to offer with some gorgeous environments to explore, especially with the snow covered mountains.  The soundtrack is great from the opening Dragonborn remix of the Elder Scrolls theme to the ambient music that occurs intermittently during the game.  The sheer abundance of dialog is mind boggling, and the same can be said for the amount of things to do.  Just playing through the main story and ignoring all side quests will take a few dozen hours, but staying on task to complete the main story is tricky because so many distracting side quests are everywhere.  And just in case someone says the game isn’t big enough, the three expansions of Dragonborn, Dawnguard, and Hearthfire are also included in Skyrim Special Edition.  Skyrim was a phenomenal game when it was released, and this reissue is the best version.  The question at hand is despite how amazing this reissue is, was it necessary or is it worth getting?

The visuals are the same basic graphics we saw five years ago, but they have been upscaled and polished.  I fired up my Xbox 360 and put in the original disc and their difference in graphic quality is not night and day but it is noticeably better.  It should be noted that this review was played on a standard PlayStation 4 with 1080P output.  Skyrim Special Edition does have native 4K resolution so if played on a 4K TV with a new Xbox One S or PlayStation 4 Pro.  Personally I am unable to vouch how much better it looks in 4K, but considering the difference between 7th generation and 8th generation consoles is noticeable at 1080P I imagine a 4K display will not disappoint.

For console gamers the addition of PC mods is a great feature.  Mods can be accessed after the player makes a account.  Save files that use mods will be marked with an [M] in their title.  Playing with mods will disable trophies and achievements for that particular file with the original, unmodded file will still be saved and available to return to at any time.  The addition of mods is of no interest to the PC Skyrim players because they have had access to them for years but they will be able to transfer unmodded save files from the original Skyrim to Skyrim Special Edition.

Skyrim Special Edition causes somewhat of a conundrum as far as recommending it.  It is great on every level, but with the exception of the mod support nothing really significant was done to the special edition besides making it prettier.  It looks better, but the original version doesn’t exactly look bad.  The expansions are a nice addition, but those are also included in Skyrim Legendary Edition for a cheaper price.  If you’ve never played Skyrim or sold your old copy and want to revisit it or want to tackle a fresh trophy/achievement list this is the way to go.  If you still have a copy for the 7th generation machine and still play it, this is an unnecessary addition to the game collection unless you want the absolute best visuals or care about adding the PC mods to the console.  In the case of the latter, for whatever reason the Xbox One version currently seems to have more mod options available than the PlayStation 4.

Closing Comments:

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition is a visual improvement over the original, but beyond that, it’s still the same old game.  Skyrim was and still is a great game, but for people who have already completed it or are still working on completing the original, there may not be enough new content to justify this purchase.  Adding PC mods to the console versions is the only significant content update, but the reworked visuals do look nice.  This special edition is excellent, but whether or not PC mods, improved graphics and previously available DLC content is enough to warrant a second playthrough and purchase is going to be up for each individual to decide.  If you like first-person RPGs but never got around to Skyrim, this version is a great excuse to finally experience this wonderful game.