The story of the Dragonborn is one endlessly retold. Quite literally, in fact – this is the third time that The Elder Scrolls V has released on a PlayStation platform in little over five years. But unlike last year’s strong yet safe PlayStation 4 remaster, Skyrim VR represents a seachange for Bethesda Game Studios’ gigantic role-playing game: it’s presented entirely in virtual reality. The name was a bit of a giveaway, eh?
The results are really quite surreal, though. While this re-issue includes the original campaign and its trio of expansion packs unchanged, revisiting familiar locations like Riverwood and Whiterun with the PlayStation VR headset strapped to your face makes for an extremely unique experience; the architecture and layout of the world remains identical, but its scale is elevated to an unprecedented new level.
Given that Skyrim already has one of gaming’s greatest ever open worlds, experiencing it anew like this is simply astonishing. Take the cathedral-esque Dragonsreach, home to Jarl Balgruuf and a key destination as part of your quest; on a television screen it appears grand and temple-like, but strutting down its hallway in virtual reality reveals the true magnitude of its structure, as extravagant pillars reach up towards the heavens and smoke gathers ethereally overhead.
While the visuals have obviously been dialled down in order to ensure the game operates with PlayStation VR, the distinct ambience of the title remains intact. And it’s not like the compromises to lighting or texture quality result in an ugly game – quite the contrary, overlook the odd aliased edge and even small details like dust particles dancing in the air add enormously to the atmosphere in virtual reality.
Of course, all of the immersion in the world would be futile if the game didn’t control competently in its new environment, but fortunately Bethesda’s done a good job in this department, too. While the PlayStation Move wands never quite feel at home, there’s an inherent novelty attached to manually notching your own arrows or physically swinging an axe. A generous selection of customisation options gives you a surprising degree of control over how the motion controls work as well.
You can, for example, opt for a turgid teleportation option that's a little too slow in the context of a colossal sandbox – or you can toggle on direct movement, initiated by a push of the Move button and pointing where you want to go. Snap turning can be adapted depending on the size and speed of the increments that feel comfortable to you, and you can even enable (or, indeed, disable) blinkers which help to reduce motion sickness when you’re on the move.
The problem with the PlayStation Move support – despite a valiant effort from the developers – is that Skyrim was never designed with motion controls in mind, and thus the game’s never able to justify its convoluted button mapping with a tactile world that truly feels like it can be touched. DualShock 4 is the way to go, then – and again this option is augmented with an array of personalisation options that allow you to find a comfortable setup for you.
That said, considering the amount of care and attention that’s clearly been invested into the controls, it’s a bit disappointing that the same treatment hasn't expanded to the audio presentation as well. Sure, the title’s timeless score soars as strongly as it ever has, but the fact that the sound hasn’t been remastered to take advantage of 3D audio is unfortunate, as binaural sound would really add to the immersion of a world that’s already been given new depth.
But it’s a small gripe in the grand scheme of things. There are other minor issues worth highlighting: the game’s infamous bugs seem ever more pronounced with PlayStation VR, as chickens clip through cliff-faces in the most nightmarish of fashions. And the interface never quite feels right in virtual reality, appearing as a flat overlay on top of the world rather than something more tailored. But the issues ultimately pale into insignificance when you’re waltzing beneath the stars.
Virtual reality breathes new life into an already excellent campaign. While you’ll have probably seen everything that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim VR has to offer before, you’ll never have seen it quite like this: vast, varied, and like an actual living, breathing place. Bethesda’s proven that blockbusters can make the transition to PlayStation VR – and on this evidence, it’s something we’d like to see happen more often.