The greatest open world fantasy game of all time the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (at least by yours truly’s reckoning), returned in 2016, in remastered form for PS4 and XBOX ONE. It added mod support, and a minor graphical overhaul. In this review, I will answer to the most important of questions regarding the game: Does it stand the test of time 9 years after original release?
I got Skyrim on day one on my xbox 360 back in 2011. At the time it was a ground breaking experience visually, in scope, and in content. I spent 150 hours exploring the game, finishing the main quests, and many of other lengthy undertakings. And yet, I had not really discovered everything there was to see in its world.
Bethesda would years later release Skyrim Special Edition, complete with all of the DLC. I actually played 50 hours of that (buggy) version before my PS3 died on me. So perhaps the greatest compliment I can give Skyrim, is the fact that after 200 hours of play time – I was giddy in anticipation for its remastered version.
To start, the remaster is the definite superior edition of the game. It looks like a dream, and plays at a constant 30 fps, at full 1080p on base PS4/XboxOne hardware. While the Witcher 3 was an impressive visual tour de force of the machines, and Fallout 4 runs on a newer/modified version of Skyrim’s engine. For what is worth, Skyrim out does Fallout graphically in terms of the environments, and provides a greater sense of scope and size in its game world than the W3 ever did – and even newer titles such as Horizon Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild – though the Witcher 3, and HZD are definitely the superior looking games (by more than a mile).
The previous paragraph isn’t really a critical shot at the W3, and HZD. The W3 on a surface level, has a larger world, but it is pretty restricted in comparison to Skyrim’s verticality. Simply put Skyrim has a massive underworld to explore in the form of caves, ancient ruins, underwater caves and grottoes. The W3, and HZD do not, mainly because they are story driven adventures, and that’s fine.
While newer titles have visually surpassed Bethesda’s masterpiece (mainly by virtue of stronger baseline hardware). Skyrim’s large wintery environments were always impressive looking, the remaster adds tons of foliage, new textures, water effects, and an improved draw distance. The character models while better looking are still stuck a generation behind everyone else. They look worst than Fallout 4’s already mundane models, and even the remaster of Metro 2033 – which manages to bring to life more realistic looking character models than Skyrim does.
After selling 25 million ( and counting) units of Skyrim, I doubt Bethesda really cared to improve much of the core experience, or push for the proverbial ‘extra mile’ in the improvement of the game, and it shows. The remaster is the ultimate version of Skyrim, but not the version of Skyrim that it could have been on current-generation consoles.
That being said, Skyrim, glitches aside was to me a 10 out of 10 game, and it remains so even if the character models look out dated.The game world will draw you in, and keep you interested…forever or at least for over 100 hours.
The first person combat is a bit clumsy while using one or two handed weapons, when using the bow though the shooting is tighter than it was in previous Elder Scrolls games. Skyrim is a refinement over Oblivion in almost every area of game play. Character progression isn’t as open as it was in Oblivion, a game in which you could jump your way into super hero like power (and that was a nice thing). Yet, the system is simple and with the proper amount of hours, and grinding; a god like character is within reach for the true completist.
What has made The Elder Scrolls the champion of open world gaming is the fact that unlike The Witcher 3, Skyrim’s main story is actually mundane, because there isn’t a strong main plot to keep you going the game actually encourages the player to go out of their way to do anything they want to do. Unlike Oblivion whose colorful yet repetitive environments would get tiresome after 30 to 40 hours of play (Every dungeon and Oblivion gate looked the same), Skyrim’s diverse world – full of mountain ranges, peaks, flowing rivers, under water caves and gigantic ruins – feels fresh in every play through. All of the dungeons and temples were individually crafted, and it shows.
The ability forge your own path, and create your own story by finishing any of the dozens if not hundreds of side quests was unprecedented in 2011, and still is the standard in 2020. Skyrim is a massive play ground, and the level of freedom is unparalleled by other games within the same genre.
As I stated before, the Skyrim Remaster runs at 1080p 30fps, which is a true improvement over the original installment. The horizon, and distant places look sharper and cleaner than ever. The Mornings and Evenings, are now more glorious than before thanks to the inclusion of ‘god rays’ aka volumetric lightning. Still, new whistles aside, Skyrim offers a crisp, and clean presentation of Last generation graphics at 1080p. The character models are ugly in comparison to newer games, and it is possible that GTA5 ( in its remastered form) as a whole, is an all around visually superior package.
Bethesda has never been known for pushing the graphical limits with their games (except for the irony of all ironies the original Skyrim Release), and Skyrim the Remaster does nothing to change that fact. It is the scope, and the mountain ranges, that still make the game a visually pleasing experience against all odds. The game now runs at a steady 30fps which is a huge improvement over the original version, but one gets the feeling that had Bethesda worked a little harder the graphical package could have been stellar instead of merely being good.
While the draw-in distance has been improved there is still plenty of pop up, so yes, foliage pops in accordingly as you move towards it when traversing through the land. Again, there is nothing wrong with Pop up. The Witcher 3 suffered from it, and so does Horizon Zero Dawn (that title does better in that regard) but those two games are graphical power houses that tax the newer systems so it is excusable. Skyrim looks too much like the original to excuse the fact that most of the original’s technical short comings found their way into the remaster.
It is the somewhat outdated visuals, especially the character models that might keep new, and younger players away from it.
Where Skyrim hasn’t lost its touch is on its unique style of gameplay. The game controls wonderfully in first person, and it is one of the few games out there (aside from Zelda Breath of the Wild, HZD, W3, and Red Dead Redemption 2) that truly gives the player the feeling that they are adventuring inside a living breathing world simply because of all the freedom the player is granted from the get go.
Horizon Zero Dawn pulled the feat by looking spectacularly good, Skyrim pulls it off by being spectacularly open. You can enter every building, read every book, kill (pretty much) every NPC (except some key ones), wear any type of armor and clothing (which you can take or steal from your NPC victims), you can choose to do any type of mission, or not to do any mission at all. GTA 5 offered an impressive gigantic world full of Buildings and Houses you couldn’t enter thus breaking the illusion that you could do whatever you wanted. Skyrim never breaks the illusion because you can in fact for the most part do whatever you want.
Quests pop up in surprising fashion, even in the most remote places, and not just run of the mill quests. Important quests that lead to excellent items and equipment. For example 60 hours in (into the remaster) I was casually strolling through a tree filled area in Solstheim (the island included in the expansion pack). When I over heard two NPCs having a strange argument. I hid from their view over hearing the discussion, and I watched as they began to fight. Their melee suddenly ended when one of the NPCs put an arrow through the other NPC’s back. Which prompted me to jump in and kill the survivor who held a map that lead to a treasure. It led to a magnificent, optional quest, that most people won’t find, but I did. The random nature of the events in Skyrim make it a more enjoyable, and immersive experience than any other open world game that I have ever played. That last sentence was true in 2011-12, and today in 2020 it remains as true as it ever was.
In fact, a lot of the bugs that turned people off from the original versions (especially the PS3), are a by product of what makes Skyrim such an enthralling experience even after 400 hours of play. The AI has little restrictions, and very little scripting in comparison to other games.
So the AI, whether it is the NPCs, or the Wildlife, will at times do unexpected stuff. Some of its actions will be stupid (which might turn people off), and some of it will be amazing. For example, during my PS3 play through I remember running away from a dragon in an open field. As I ran away, I witnessed as another dragon joined the fray, and began fighting my original pursuer.
Most games wouldn’t allow for such a thing to happen, in fact my PS3 version of the game slowed to a crawl at that point (Clearly the hardware wasn’t equipped to handle the two dragons fighting in smooth fashion), the game probably slowed to 10fps, it was bad, everything stuttered. Then as the two dragons collided in a massive battle filled with slow down, the improbable happened; a third dragon joined in…Video gaming nirvana! Or at least it was, for a few seconds before the game crashed.
Some people would be turned off by that, but I wasn’t. I was amazed at the fact that every playthrough had a potential for many unexpected events happening. Since the remaster doesn’t crash, and runs smoothly at 30fps, all of the random mayhem is much more enjoyable, though I have yet to run into another epic 3 dragon battle.
Does Not Have a Great tale…
The nature of the Elder Scroll games, has prevented the series from soaring in the “Engrossing Tale” department that both, the Witcher 3 and HZD have excelled at. Skyrim is no different from its forefathers. Quite simply the game has too many side quests, too many random events going on, and it offers too much freedom for it to have a coherent tale.
Horizon Zero Dawn for example has a Story that it wants the player to experience, therefore its open world takes a supporting role in allowing the story to flow while offering some freedom here and there. Guerrilla games really wanted you to finish the story because that is the entire point of Horizon Zero Dawn ( the same happens with the Witcher 3), it just wants to tell Aloy’s amazing story.
Skyrim has an open world that it wants the player to experience, the main quest lines and story line take a secondary role to its world. Bethesda could care less if you finish the main story as long you spend 100 plus hours in the game world. In Skyrim you forge your own path, and thats adds unlimited replay value to it.
Do I think Bethesda could do better? Yes, Oblivion actually had a slightly more engrossing tale, but considering the Elder scrolls series is more about its world, and lore than any particular plot line, it is hard to deduct much from the overall score of the game, for its pedestrian story telling. Quite simply, if you want a great story set in a sword and sorcery world get the Witcher 3, but if you want to forge your own path, and the freedom to explore at your whim a sword and sorcery world, then Skyrim is your game.
However, the lore present in the game in the form of texts, and books that are scattered all over the world is unrivaled. Some of the tales described in the books, found in the game, are much more engrossing than the main story in the actual game. So if you like to read, you might come away more impressed with Skyrim’s literary prowess than most. Tamriel is a rich world in terms of history and lore, and Skyrim has only helped to enrich it further.
The gorgeous music
The music and sound effects found here are 10/10, even today. The musical compositions wouldn’t be out of place in a Lord of the Ring movie. At 400 hours, I still enjoy the music, and thats probably the highest compliment I can give to the score.
On the down side the voice acting is pedestrian, but such is the nature of the beast. The voice acting doesn’t really bog down the experience as the story isn’t dramatic enough for it to matter. There are very things in gaming (even today) as exciting as hearing a dragon roaring in the distance, and in terms of the type of game that Skyrim is, the game hits all notes when it comes to the aural experience.
Where the game takes over…
Skyrim is a refinement of the Elders Scrolls formula. You are trust into an open world, with a main story to follow…but only if you wish to do so. Numerous guild, and side quests are at your disposal at any time. The remaster includes all of the DLC content which is substantial and almost as meaty as the main game itself. The Vampires vs Werewolves gigantic quest, to me, was one of the more memorable quest lines I have undertaken in any game. You can take a side, and even turn into a full fledged Vamp (Or Werewolf) complete with the “Underworld” (film series) like winged transformation, which opens a whole new branch of skill sets for the Vampire Lord class. Being a Vampire fan, I couldn’t have been more pleased with Skyrim letting me live my fantasy out in a virtual world.
The Vampire-Werewolf quest can easily take 20-30 hours to complete, and it is only but a small part of what the game has to offer. From the moment you set out into the world, you will find that some skills are more useful than others. I am a melee combat guy, so I always pick a character build suited for such a style of play. However, I found Archery to be the most useful skill for me. Some of the over world monsters including Trolls, and Giants are actually very difficult to kill early on, especially in head on combat. But Skyrim isn’t a polished experience, it is its biggest detriment in its critics eyes, and at the same time one of its bigger strengths. In most games, I would have to grind, and level up my stats in order to take down a stronger enemy or beast…in Skyrim I can hop my way to the top of a large rock, which seems to confuse some of the enemies, in this case a troll. The troll tried to get to me but couldn’t really find its way because it couldn’t quite get a grip on the rock that I climbed on. So, I just shot the poor frustrated enemy to its death with dozens of arrows from atop my safe place.
Just as enemies can sometimes break some rules in Skyrim, so can the player. It adds to the immersion of the game, it fosters creative thinking on the player’s part in order for him/her to succeed. Some of these instances can feel cheaper (or more cheat-ty) than others. For example: Shooting a dragon and going into a cave (the load screen helps) once inside healing and going back out (The dragon still keeps the original damage taken) and shooting the dragon again, and repeating the same process over, and over again until the dragon is defeated.
Again some might have a problem with this type of freedom (which some would call ‘broken gameplay’) but I didn’t, it just makes Skyrim much more immersive and unique in my view. I usually don’t have a problem with glitches as long as they are not crashing the game or egregious (a dragon stuck on a wall), but after 150 hours of play in the remaster I am happy to report that my game hasn’t crashed.
The Remaster has addressed most of the glitches, frame rate issues and load times. It is a wonderfully smooth experience especially in comparison to the original version on last generation consoles. The combat still is a bit wonky at times, but the shooting is much more accurate than it was in Oblivion (for those who have never played Skyrim in any form), and the gameplay generally more tighter, you will find yourself at times swing your sword at empty air even with an enemy in front of you, but it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it did in previous entries.
The progression system has been streamlined, and I do feel it was step down from Oblivion in terms of possibilities and ways to earn levels, but in truth, it is much easier to grasp and understand the simpler system for someone new to the game. Skyrim is – by no means – a dumbed down experience, it is just a simpler, and more streamlined one than its predecessor was. By most standards Skyrim remains a deep and complex beast to master, especially for magic and alchemy users. I have met some people who have had trouble getting into the game because they found themselves overwhelmed from the get go. These were W3, and Zelda players… so most complaints about the game having been ‘dumbed down’ come from old time fans of the series.
The 3rdperson mode has been greatly improved, and it is enjoyable when traversing the land, and inaccurate – if somewhat clumsy – when in combat. Skyrim was made as first person experience and it shows. Even visually the world is more engrossing, and just plainly looks better in first person, something other games such as GTA 5 and even RDR2 have struggled with (as they are primarily 3rdperson adventures).
The Map system is easy to follow, and as long as you keep watch of it during the early hours it is hard to get lost. The sense of distance and view of distant landmarks remains somewhat unparalleled even by newer, ‘larger games’. The inventory system can be a bit of hassle to scroll through after a few dozen hours, as there are 100s if not 1000s of things to store, and it is weight based. Over cumber yourself and your movement is impaired, but generally depending on which parameters are leveled up (Health, Magicka, Stamina Etc.) you can potentially carry all that you really need to carry.
Leveling up works through the usage of certain skill during combat, book reading and game world interaction. If you want to be a great archer for example; keep using the bow and arrow during combat as it will level up that particular skill. You want your lock picking abilities to increase? Keep picking locks, even failed attempts garner experience. Improving you armor (damage taking ability) is all about absorbing enemy hits. It is a simple but effective and dare I say straight foward progression system.
I got through the game as melee expert wood elf (I know wood elves are better at sneaking and bow shooting), but the over usage of two handed axes and swords in the end leveled up my character enough that he became a respectable if almost godly like powerhouse.
The are no limits to what can be accomplished in the game no matter what character build you choose, certain armor sets and parts grant the user usable skills, not only in combat but in exploration. For example I found a helmet during two of my play throughs that allowed my character unlimited underwater breathing. A very handy skill in a world where the sky, and the bottom of the ocean are the limit. Sunken treasures and under water caves filled with…well… more treasure, await those bold enough to explore the deeper, and more remote corners of the game world.
What a wonderful world…
Perhaps, Skyrim might have also benefited from the Game of Thrones fever that lasted for the past 8 years. It was a perfect storm of sorts for Skyrim, that a series (Perhaps the greatest TV series ever) that eventually became known for its Dragons, undead wights, and Wintry environments would co exist with it during the game’s early years where it sold the most copies.
Basically if you wanted to fight, or ride dragons (yes you can ride dragons in this game, though with limited control), fight the undead wights in wintry environments, then there was no better way to do so than Skyrim. Some would say that the Witcher 3 was the better choice for a GoT experience, because of the sex, equally wintry – if eerily similar villains – and well, you know; the dark fantasy world.
But the Witcher 3 has a very focused character driven story, with many magical troupes and intricacies to really be its own thing. Skyrim because of its freedom and constant references both in its look, and the setting to Nord mythology, was just a better experience for those of us looking to live in a land of dragons and dark winters.
Skyrim has the most diverse and beautiful world of any ES game. It has the northern wintry environments and the southern warmer lands filled with vegetation, and different kinds of trees. The world is lush filled with green areas. Solstheim (the land from the DLC now included in the remaster), is very distinct and has shades of Morrowind. If anyone reading this review is a fan of the Viking series, then know, that pretty much the world of Skyrim looks and feels like it piece from that time period.
The game made a name for itself by offering vast and high mountain ranges (in fact Nintendo admitted that some degree BotW’s landscape was inspired by Skyrim’s sense of scale), the sense of scale has not diminished with time as the game remains a fantastic showcase of how to properly design a fantasy world.
The water bodies are gorgeous, from massive water falls, to the most tranquil of creeks. The vast oceans covered in frozen glaciers in some of the more remote regions offer an incredible opportunity for adventurers to explore. This was the most gorgeous open world in 2011, and time has taken some of its luster (especially when stacked against RDR2) away, but it remains a pleasing experience and a wonderful world to dive into.
One of the greatest games of the decade and perhaps of all time…
Ocarina of Time …in my opinion, the greatest game of all time, was an unrivaled, ground breaking experience at launch that also happened to be technically perfect ( or as perfect as the hardware allowed it in 1998) that’s the reason why it remains the highest rated Metacritic game of all time.
Skyrim, was to me (13 years later in 2011), the one other game that came close to matching that sense of wonder and awe that I first felt when I walked into Hyrule nearly 22 years ago. Unlike Ocarina , even the sturdier 360 version of Skyrim had a lot technical issues, and bugs (all that have been solved in the remaster for the PS4) but when it comes to games however, sometimes the good, especially when the good is such a fantastic experience, out weights the bad. In 2020 however, the Remaster is a polished experience, now weighed down by some out dated visuals, the most obvious being the last generation character models.
In 2011 Skyrim was a 10/10 experience, bogged down by bugs and performance issues which garnered a 9.5 from me. Today it remains a 10/10 experience, bogged down by out dated visuals. In good conscience, and as much as I love the game (my game of the decade behind The Last of Us) I can’t give the Remaster a perfect score or even a 9.5 because that would be rewarding Bethesda for one of the laziest Remaster works I have ever seen. GTA5 looks almost generation ahead on PS4 in comparison to the PS3/360 versions, considering it took 5 years for this game to be remastered I honestly expected a current generation coat of paint.
Anyone watching what the modding community has been able to achieve on PC while modding this game, has to wonder how Bethesda doesn’t feel a bit embarrassed by this lazy re-release. Considering that there was no ES6 this generation, I expected a larger effort in keeping Skyrim visually up to date.
All that told, Skyrim is a greater game than many 10/10 titles, and greater experience than most. It was a major factor in the booming open world genre that entered a golden age during this generation, and even the original open world action RPG; Zelda, took something from it in that series’s first triumphant entry into the modern open-world genre.
Perhaps the fact that after 400 hours of play across different platforms, I still look forward to every play through of it, is in my opinion, greater praise than the 94 Metacritic rating that it earned.
*Mod support for the PS4 is restricted to utilizing in game assets and as such the visual “enhancements” of some of these are null, mainly consisting in contrast and color changes that do not add and at times subtract from the original experience. As such I didn’t go much into this particular topic. Keep in mind that playing with any mod on automatically eliminates the trophy earning system.
Skyrim is the most tantalizing experience you will have while exploring a virtual world, that being said; the combat isn’t perfect. While Skyrim is a combat heavy game, success mostly depends on your level, and equipment therefore simply attacking targets is an effective way to get through most fights in the game.
If you are expecting the fast paced, polished combat of the Witcher 3 or the precision of Zelda you will be sorely disappointed. But if you want a good hack and slash romp in first person there is no better game (Ok Dishonored has Skyrim in beat in the first person fighting department.) The bow shooting however is very satisfying, and fairly precise. I had more fun with than I did with the W3 and BotW. Traversing the land is always rewarding and fun. Riding a horse speeds up the long walks, but horse riding doesn’t feel quite as tight as it should even though it works well in this game.
Leveling up is done by gaining levels in specific professions and allocating points towards skill in each separate skill branch. Skyrim was 2011 the King of open worlds and in someways it remains so 9 years later.
You want to slaughter an entire village? You can. You want to buy a house, get married, have children? You can. You want forgo the main storyline and just live a virtual life in the game world at your own pace? You can. You want kill Vampires? Become a Vampire? Or maybe join a Werewolf brotherhood? That’s a resounding ‘yes, you can’ to the three questions. Basically in Skyrim you are free to do things that other more story driven open world games can’t let you do.
The original game was the genre defining game of its time in terms of visuals in an open world game. The environments remain some what beautiful, even if newer games like W3, and RDR2 have since, with the help of more powerful hardware delivered better looking worlds. The character models however, are ugly and feel out of place in today’s gaming landscape.
Bethesda was very lazy in the visual enhancements added to the remaster (Occasional new texture work and volumetric lighting) and it shows. The PS4 and even the base Xbox One are capable of so much more.
I can’t say enough good things about the sound track. From the moment the title screen loads the game let’s you know that you are in for a special once in a lifetime ride on the music alone.
Here is where things get interesting. If we judge Skyrim based on its main plot lines, and dialog, the game would get a 6.0 in this category. The writing can be bland (a fact further accentuated by the pedestrian voice acting), the plot itself is uninspiring, the NPCs that you meet are mostly lifeless avatars. There is a civil war, that frankly I didn’t care about. An evil dragon that frankly I also didn’t care much about, but this game is about you, and the world around you.
Just like Dark Souls a game whose world felt ancient, and full of historically important (if hidden) lore, Skyrim feels like a real place, with real history. Its lore is not hidden, but readily available in the form of books scattered everywhere, in shelves found in homes, castles and even caves.
Some of the stories in the books are even more enthralling than the main quest, and it makes you appreciate the work that Bethesda has put into building Tamriel as a real place, rich of history and historical persons.
The Lore present in the five ES titles amounts to a work that could come close in the near future of rivaling Tolkien’s Middle Earth, if not in its complexity at least in how much material there is for the passionate scholar to read through in order to piece together a decent amount of the History of Tamriel. Skyrim perhaps does an even better job than Oblivion in bringing the series’s lore to the forefront, and that has to count in the story telling score.
Skyrim is rich in history and literary works, you just have to make an effort to seek the books out and to read them. At the end of the day, Bethesda understands that presenting an engrossing (and cinematic) main tale would have probably taken away from the amazing world, and questing system that they built. If there was ever a game where you sought out your own story, this is it!
400 hundred hours, and counting. Need I say more? Nearly endless customization options, right down to particular strengths and weaknesses of each character race available at the start. The freedom to go in any direction and finding quests in any order that you want. Dozens if not hundreds of caves, dungeons and ruins waiting to be discovered.
There is no game that I have played more – in 31 years of gaming -than Skyrim (Perhaps OoT from 1998-till this day) the game doesn’t really end, and it is the gift that keeps on giving. Breath of the Wild might be the one other game that offers a similar level longevity in its first play through.
Skyrim remains a 10/10 experience, but this Remaster could have been better. Bethesda could have brought Skyrim into the current generation with real visual improvements, especially given the fact that in 2021 it will be full decade without a successor to it.
Skyrim has been a massive commercial and critical success. Perhaps Bethesda not being able to produce a sequel that can top it, has been the reason for the extremely long wait. The landscape now is much different than it was in 2011. In those days the open world genre was just beginning to take off, aside from GTA and Assasin’s Creed, both game series that really didn’t have anything in common with the Elder Scrolls (other than their ‘open-world’ nature) there wasn’t much competition (Except the pedestrian Two Worlds).
Now, in 2021, the next ES installment will have to compete with the W3s, and BotWs of the world. Perhaps even more importantly, it will have to live up to the legacy, and expectations set by Skyrim, and that will not be an easy task.