The day “virtual reality” became an idea, people clamored for immersive, interactive fantasy worlds with which to could escape the hardships of life. Virtual worlds have been a staple of science fiction stories and pop culture, from The Matrix to Sword Art Online. I remember when virtual reality reached its first fever pitch in the 1990s as something with a lot of promise but without the technological means to make it succeed. However, with the rise of consumer VR headsets, the dream of immersive virtual reality edges ever closer to, well, reality.
Representing the first step into the all-VR future is Bethesda’s Skyrim VR. A harbinger of the Sword Art Online future, I can’t think of a better game that lends itself to the platform than The Elder Scrolls V. Already a massive video game to begin with, tweaking it to work with the PlayStation VR makes the land of the Nords feel even larger now that you can literally stand alongside Jarls, dragons, and get high off Skooma.
Skyrim VR comes with the whole package: the (humongous) base game and its expansions Hearthfire, Dragonborn, and Dawnguard. To make the game work in VR, and it works well enough, Bethesda made some tweaks to the system. For obvious reasons, the camera is locked to the first person perspective which is an issue whenever the game used to force the camera to a third person view (such as mining for ore and chopping wood) and in-game cutscenes, like the opening march to the player character’s execution in Helgen. In this case, the screen fades to black as a means to hide transitions. Situations such as these aren’t a deal breaker and, in the long run, makes a lot a sense.
The game accommodates both the DualShock controller and the PlayStation Move controller. If you want the best possible gameplay experience, I strongly recommend sticking with the DualShock setup. Not only does it use the same exact control scheme as the last two console iterations of Skyrim but it’s a lot more comfortable to use. The Move controller add immersion with caveats. You can swing swords around, block with shields, and fiddle with lockpicks by moving the controllers appropriately, however, character movement is tied to a crude teleport system. Turning is done by pressing the face buttons. For a game like Skyrim, where things can happen all around you at any time, it's just easier to use the DualShock. The wands just aren't as elegant as they should be. Whether you use the wands or not, you’ll free aim arrows and spells by turning your head in the direction of your enemy. This works extraordinarily well with archery because it welcomes a good degree of precision.
Many songs of praise have been written over Skyrim’s graphics. Unfortunately, this is one area where the transition to VR caused some problems. A lot of Skyrim’s natural beauty has been lost on the PSVR and the lower resolution fidelity can often be an eyesore. Textures and 3D rendered assets (like trees, rocks, and buildings) visibly load and pop in as you walk up to it. In the world map, text presented from a distance is incredibly difficult to read until you zoom in. Up close, though, you can see the diamond shining from underneath the mud. The game runs better with indoor environments, which makes sense considering they don’t have to render objects and textures over a hundred feet away. As a result, exploring homes, caves, and dragon lairs are much more immersive and realistic than anything you do outdoors. Creepy and foreboding locations, such as the Falmer caves, Dwemer ruins, and dragon tombs take on a better sense of scale and danger. However, I couldn’t help but think, “Boy, I bet all this looks amazing on the Vive.”
The UI is really good and tries to stay out of the player's way at all times. Skyrim VR smartly moves all on-screen indicators, compass, health, magic, and stamina, just out of your periphery (meaning you’ll have to physically turn your head down to see them), which gives you a nice, uncluttered view of the action. Action bars appear and as they are used or drain by magic effects and disappear once combat ends, just like they do in the non-VR version. Without having a visible compass, I was able to enjoy the freedom to wander on and off the beaten path.
If you can look past Skyrim VR's visual downgrade on the PlayStation VR, then there’s absolutely no reason not to dip back into the well. It's not perfect, as you can definitely see the limitations of the PSVR compared to the higher end VIVE and Oculus, but Skyrim's award-winning gameplay and storytelling, which is brought in completely intact, survives the transition completely unscathed. It's also a really great VR game to show off to people and let them explore a well-realized fantasy world. Skyrim VR also represents a good first step towards future VR ports of open world Bethesda games.
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.