Like it or not, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim remains a landmark role-playing game. When it first arrived in 2011, it's no exaggeration to say that the last-gen version introduced a whole new audience to the genre. In many ways, developer Bethesda Game Studios had cracked it – Skyrim carefully walked the line between being an accessible action RPG and, well, a typical Elder Scrolls title. Without question, it was a streamlined experience – something that didn't sit well with many long-time fans – but at the same time, it managed to retain that magical, immersive feeling that's always at the heart of a Bethesda-made game world.
Unsurprisingly, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Special Edition is no different. A fully priced remaster that includes all of the original release's downloadable content, it's undeniably the best way to experience Skyrim on consoles thanks to improved visuals across the board, better technical performance, and mod support. However, it's worth reiterating that those who have already pumped countless hours into the original game will find nothing new here. Content-wise, this is the exact same adventure.
Although that's not necessarily a negative considering how dynamic Skyrim can be. In typical Bethesda fashion, you're free to wander the map and play however you want. A swordsman who relies on powerful magic when he's in a tough spot. A sorceress who can raise the dead but likes to carry a war hammer for extra protection. You could even choose to be a crazy cannibal who sneaks around swamps, stabbing innocents in the back before feasting. Your play style, whether you're two hours or 50 hours into your journey, is yours alone to shape and develop – and that's still one of the title's most compelling aspects.
The setting's no slouch either, though. Skyrim itself is still a fantastic region to explore, full of wonder and picturesque views. Despite its consistently wintery feel, the land of the Nords stands out as a reasonably diverse landscape. It's got rolling grassy plains, intimidating, jagged mountains, volcanic stretches of wilderness, and autumnal forests – every environment is a joy to investigate.
Skyrim is also home to many dangerous ruins and caves, as well as cosy towns and cities – but no matter what you find yourself doing, the game world always feels cohesive. This is mostly down to a great art style, which treads a fine line between realism and fantasy exceptionally well. Indeed, Skyrim's art direction is still what holds the game's visuals together, as the remaster's graphical overhaul can actually be a little hit and miss.
To start with, let's go over the good stuff. At times, the new volumetric lighting looks sublime. Both sun rays and shafts of moonlight cut through locations beautifully, with dawn and dusk being particular highlights as the sky and surrounding air turns a wonderfully warm orange. Likewise, the draw distance has been much improved, allowing you to see far off across the landscape when standing atop a crag or tower. What's more, the amount of grass and plant life has been increased dramatically all across the map, making for much richer scenery. On PlayStation platforms, Skyrim's simply never looked so inviting.
That said, there are times when the enhanced graphics can't quite mask the title's last-gen roots. While texture work in general has no doubt been improved, there's sometimes a jarring difference in quality. For example, character models looks crisper than ever, but large textures – particularly on big rocks and broad stretches of snow – look decidedly dated, and stick out like a sore thumb.
Speaking of dated, Skyrim's combat was janky when it launched five years ago – and it seems even more awkward now. Don't get us wrong, it's still a serviceable combat system for a game that offers as many options in battle as Skyrim does, but basic actions like swinging a sword and slinging fireballs feel stiff and very clunky by today's standards. Idiotic enemy behaviour is an annoyance as well.
Boosting the frame rate to 60 frames-per-second may have helped, but the PlayStation 4 version is capped at 30. Thankfully, though, unlike the original PlayStation 3 edition, the title manages to stick to that number more often than not, and only appears to drop frames in very specific locations for reasons that we can't quite comprehend. Fortunately, the drops that we encountered only lasted a few seconds at most.
By and large, Skyrim - Special Edition runs far better than the original release, as you'd expect. Load times have been hugely reduced, and, as far as we can tell, the game isn't starting to fall apart at the seams due to memory issues. We did, however, suffer a couple of crashes during our 60 hours with the remaster. An annoyance for sure, but they seemed to be caused by very rare issues, such as random encounters spawning on top of one another. Needless to say, that's a lot better than the title crapping out every 20 minutes due to limited memory, even if it isn't perfect.
Last but not least, we need to highlight the game's soundtrack, which is still superb. Composer Jeremy Soule's music is effortlessly atmospheric, and really ties the whole experience together. As far as we're concerned, it remains one of the best game soundtracks ever crafted.
Skyrim is still a great RPG – one that successfully submerges you in a fantastic fantasy world that's packed with things to see and do. The remaster is the best way to play the game on console thanks to improved visuals, technical performance, and mod support – even if the latter is disappointingly limited on PS4. If you've taken part in this epic adventure before, then you may want to wait for the price to come down, but if you're a newcomer who isn't quite sure what all the fuss is about, the Special Edition presents an immersive journey that's perfect for those cold winter nights.