Somehow, I missed out on Skyrim for years.
The game first launched for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC six years ago this week. I remember bringing the game home from my local Blockbuster Video shortly after its release and enjoying the hell out of the introduction, my first dragon sighting, and escaping through the Helgen dungeon.
Then, the world opened up, I was immediately overwhelmed, and I almost immediately lost interest.
Years passed, and in 2016 Bethesda released the Skyrim: Special Edition for PS4 and Xbox One. I decided to give the game another chance, and this time around I was immediately hooked. I’ve still only put a paltry 40 or so hours into this version of the game (which is a lot for me), but for weeks after launch I was enthralled with this world, and nearly everything in it.
Earlier this year, Bethesda put me in a bit of a predicament. See, while others online are making memes and talking about how Bethesda is ‘beating a dead horse’ by releasing Skyrim again, I was busy trying to decide which version of the game I wanted to buy next (I’ve only purchased the game once in the past six years, which is apparently far fewer copies than everyone else).
Did I want Skyrim for the Nintendo Switch, complete with Zelda gear, in a format that I could play while at home or while on the go? Or did I want to return to the world of Skyrim in Virtual Reality… and only in Virtual Reality?
Today at Fan Expo Vancouver (which Sony sponsors, and thus has a hearty sized booth at) I finally had the opportunity to try out Skyrim VR just days before its launch next week, and just days before I needed to come to a decision, as Skyrim for both Nintendo Switch and PlayStation VR launch on the same day.
Before I talk about the game – a couple of quick notes (and oddities) about the experience at the PlayStation booth. I was a little surprised that the company wasn’t showing off the about-to-launch, more streamlined version of the PlayStation VR headset. The new version supports HDR passthrough (a feature sorely lacking from the original headset), better, thinner cabling, a new (and smarter) location for the headhone jack, and a much more comfortable looking headset with cabling build right into the device. Speaking of headsets, the strangest part of the entire experience was that, well, there weren’t any. Sony was showing off a rich, beloved, and familiar title on a beyond-immersive new platform (to an audience that likely has largely not experienced VR before), but half of the immersion (the audio) was missing. I think that there were a couple of small speakers somewhere behind me, but they were nigh-inaudible amidst the loud convention atmosphere.
You begin the demo en route to Bleak Falls Barrow… I guess that Bethesda decided freaking people out with a giant-ass Frostbite Spider could be a great introduction to VR (and just how much more terrifying things can be in VR). You begin with a bunch of gear (sword, shield, bow, a few spells, etc) so that you can spend your short time in Skyrim walking around and fighting instead of needing to collect loot.
Within the first moment, I realized just how brilliant an idea it was to bring Skyrim to VR, and especially to Playstation VR. As a PSVR owner, it doesn’t take long to realize that most of the games or experiences (aside from a few exceptions like Resident Evil VII) on the platform look and feel stylistically simpler, and in many cases simply don’t feel as deep as a typical gaming experience would.
With Skyrim VR, you’re pretty much just playing Skyrim… in VR. It’s an older game, and by today’s standards while it has some excellent art design, it looks pretty freaking dated. This makes it a perfect fit for PlayStation VR, as the PS4 seems to run the game swimmingly. The game looked no worse (or better) than Skyrim: Special Edition did last year, and it appears to run extremely smoothly, even with several characters in action and particle based weather effects (like snow) all over the screen.
I do have to say, it feels pretty magical to be able to freely look around this world. I found that while on my way to Bleak Falls Barrow a multitude of things were catching my eye, from different plants to grazing animals, to the surprisingly immersive change in weather effects (you almost expect to feel cold when you notice the first flakes of snow), to the always incredible vistas of the world around you. I found myself actually taking the time to see it, rather than just running by it. I’m sure it’s a feeling that won’t last, but at first it feels pretty incredible.
At no point during my 15-minute stint with the game did I feel any motion sickness (though at times running down stairs did make my stomach drop). Movement felt smooth and natural, and by default the game incorporates the ‘pie chart’ turning method that has become popular with other first person VR games (turning the right stick will jump your character about 30 degrees in the relative direction). While using the DualShock 4 controller (the only option available at the booth, unfortunately) aiming ranged weapons felt natural, as in this version of the game you’ll simply move your head to move the crosshairs.
The UI itself definitely had a couple of oddities. First, status bars like health and stamina are at the bottom of your screen and typically out of view unless you physically look down. I imagine it’s a means to keep as much information out of your viewing area as possible so you can absorb more of the world around you, and while simply walking around the lack of distraction was certainly welcome. During combat, however, this becomes annoying as hell, as you actually need to look away from your current enemy to see if you’re really in any sort of danger. Second, when information (text) does appear on screen, unlike on a traditional display where you can simply glance your eyes towards it without turning your head, the text in the game (like pretty much any PlayStation VR title, is only really clear if you’re looking right at it. This isn’t really an issue, per-se, but it can be pretty jarring at times.
Again, this is freaking Skyrim. If you loved it six years ago, discovered it later, or bought it again last year, this is Bethesda’s brilliant, immersive, spend-your-whole-life-in-this-world fantasy RPG. I was enthralled with this demo, and this is before I ever got to explore any of the giant cities, before I got to see a single dragon, before I even got to talk to the arrow in the knee guy, I did nothing. It was 15 short minutes, but that was more than enough time to have me ready to hand in my $80 come Friday morning.
Yeah, I still have some questions. I don’t want to play the game with a DualShock. The PlayStation Move controllers bring another new dimension to the title, and it’s the only way that I want to experience this game. The 1:1 swordplay, two-handed archery, aiming a spell from each hand in two different directions – these are all things that I haven’t experienced in VR yet, and they’re all things that sound freaking awesome. At the same time, how does one go about efficiently moving around this giant world that was never built with VR in mind while holding two glowing wands that don’t have any analog sticks on them.
I guess only time will tell. In any case, I can’t wait to jump back into Skyrim when it hits PlayStation VR on November 17th.