The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim doesn’t need much of an introduction. Chances are, as you’re reading this review there are still people playing Skyrim on Steam, where the community has flourished thanks to Bethesda's support of the modding scene. For the uninitiated, Skyrim is a sprawling sword and sorcery roleplaying game that allows the player to be who they want, see what they want, and do what they want. There are no restrictions based on character class or ability as the game gives you the tools to blaze your own trail without restriction. Skyrim’s staying power helped make it a critical and commercial success after its release five years ago. An open policy towards mods breathed new life in the game over time, keeping it afloat despite how crowded the open world genre has become.
With that in mind, it’s a little strange to see the product on the shelves despite being a poorly kept open secret. The game’s isn’t that old and, like I said, still enjoys an audience. It’s a $60 cash grab, to be honest. But to be even more honest, Skyrim is a damn fine game - blemishes and all. What makes this a notable release is the increased visuals and mod support, a first for the platform. Skyrim: Special Edition receives a good face lift on the Xbox One, as increased lightning effects and texture tweaks make an already pretty game more alluring. It’s the mods, however, that gives the game a new lease on life.
Skyrim casts the player as a prophesied hero who will defeat Alduin, an evil dragon who commands a legion of his flying kin. In the face of this great threat, Skyrim faces an internal threat as the native Nords see the incursion of the Empire as a means to control, exploit, and dilute the culture. As the Dragonborn, you’ll find a way to unite the humans against Alduin while taking on the odd job or two from mostly non-essential inhabitants. As grave a threat as Alduin poses, he’s obviously in no hurry to rain on your parade. This is one of the great mocking jokes about Skyrim: it never wants to get in your way. Like Oblivion, it’s entirely possible to skip the main story altogether without repercussion. The world is presented to you on a platter and there are no impatient, passive aggressive waiters hovering over your shoulder. Such freedom is fantastic because Skyrim’s side content is far more fulfilling and amazing than the main quest. Fighting dragons is one thing, but being an agent of change for various citizens, unearthing long forgotten treasures, and rubbing shoulders with a pantheon of gods make for some of the best narrative experiences you’ll encounter.
Not only are you given the freedom to decide your own journey, but your actions directly influence the molding of the player character. The game provides the tools necessary to develop your Dragonborn into a mage, thief, assassin, or Conan the Barbarian’s body double. I really enjoyed the ingenuity of the game’s level up system because it bucked the trend of having to spend points into different attributes. Every swing of a two-handed sword or cast of a magical spell increases your experience with such skills. When you reach a character level, you can choose to boost Strength, Health, and Magicka as well as working your way through numerous skill trees such as Restoration, Smithing, Alchemy, Archery, and Two-Handed Combat. With so many character archetypes available at all times, the game does a good job of maintaining balance through good (and subtle) difficulty scaling. Enemies grow along with you which means opponents always pose a challenge whether you’re level 5 or 35.
Skyrim: Special Edition takes advantage of the power boost of the Xbox One to paint a prettier picture than its Xbox 360 counterpart. Draw distance has been improved and it can handle a lot more elements on screen, such as more flora and fauna and realistic water effects. Lighting has also been tweaked to create more realistic shadows and “god rays.” It’s a nice hop from the 360 version, however those playing on PC will argue that the visuals do not come close to what the modding community has done to make Skyrim look photorealistic in every possible way. For years, console players could only admire a modded Skyrim from afar and gaze in awe at the wonders of the community’s creations, be they ultra high resolution tractors or reskinning the dragons to look like giant Thomas the Tank Engine monstrosities.
The Skyrim re-release comes packaged with mod support which gives everyone else a chance to see what the fuss is about. Unfortunately, the Xbox One version comes with a curated library of mods as opposed to the great wild west of the Internet. The in-game browser is suitable for searching and browsing for mods that can be easily added and removed. While you won’t find many graphical enhancers, you’ll instead get a variety of weapon and armor re-skins, an unofficial patch, updated sound effects, and useful items (such as a ring that removes Encumbrance). User-created expansions like Falskaar are available, turning an already large game into a massive feast.
The Skyrim: Special Edition will set you back $60, a price that seems a bit high even though it does come with all three official expansions. You can get the same game, and a larger library of mods, on the PC for about half that price. On the other hand, there is a lot of game to be had. For any of its faults, Skyrim represents one of the largest, most believable open worlds I’ve had the joy to play through. It’s large but it never feels gratuitously so. It encourages exploration and while the statement “you can walk to the top of that mountain!” feels trite, it highlights the fun of exploration. There are prizes at the end of every path, be they treasure or small visual vignettes about those who came before. Even if you scale that mountain and find nothing, chances are you’ll find a breathtaking view behind your back. The game holds lots of secrets, some of the best being found inside the abandoned, yet functional, ruins of an entire Dwarf-like race.
With dragons to fight, weapons to craft, a home to make, and children to adopt, Skyrim: Special Edition represents the better gaming experiences I’ve had from Bethesda. Their fantasy games are more visually and narratively interesting to me instead of the the cynicism and nihilism that lives in the Fallout series. And because of its wintery locale, Skyrim is a really cozy game to play on a cold, rainy day. Unless you’re still playing it, picking up Skyrim: Special Edition is a good enough excuse to enjoy the video game equivalent of comfort food.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.