Skyrim Special Edition Review: Shallow & Pedantic

What can be said about The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim that hasn’t already been said? Probably not a whole lot, but bear with me, because I’m going to try to give my perspective anyway. Much of this review naturally applies to the non-special edition, or, if you prefer:

  • Skyrim: The Mundane Edition
  • Skyrim: The Unfinished Edition
  • Skyrim: The “We Could Have Done Better” Edition
  • Skyrim: The Fuck You Edition
  • Skyrim: The Purchased Piecemeal Edition

One has to marvel at the audacity of re-releasing Skyrim in Fallout 4‘s graphical engine as a new product, but here I have to give Bethesda credit that they wholly deserve: the Special Edition of Skyrim is (was?) available for free to everyone who owned the PC version and all its DLC. What can I say? Bethesda knows where its customers are, and this is no small thing. I was a bit irritated when I learned that Skyrim was going to be re-released in Fallout 4‘s enhanced engine, and was supremely and pleasantly surprised to learn that it was going to be available at no cost to anyone who owned the original game and its three pieces of DLC. That’s shocking.

Kudos, Bethesda. In an age where publishers and developers are cutting their games into bits and pieces to squeeze every penny out of customers that they can, your actions stand in stark contrast, and I can’t praise you enough for this decision.

Now, all of that said, my review of the Special Edition is actually going to be pretty brief.

Skyrim: Special Edition

Why would anyone in their right mind go back to unmodded Skyrim? Maybe this is less of an issue with console players, but I can’t imagine any circumstances wherein I would choose to go back to playing Skyrim without the nine million mods that I’m accustomed to. It’s here that the Special Edition falls flat, and will continue to fall flat. The people who made the Skyrim Script Extender have stated they have no intention of releasing one for Special Edition, which severely limits what mods can do.

Additionally, the makers of SkyUI have stated they have no intention of porting their mod to the Special Edition, and all of this is certainly understandable. These people made these things for fun and as personal challenges to themselves. They’ve been there, and they’ve done that. They’ve climbed Everest and see no reason that they should climb it again. While they are willing to allow others to port their mods to Special Edition, it is looking increasingly unlikely that anyone is going to step forward to do it, and I can’t say that I blame them–not when Skyrim is as old as it is. That’s a lot of work to be doing on a game that is very old and not particularly exciting these days.

Without the SKSE, SkyUI can’t function. Without SkyUI, the Mods Configuration Menu can’t function. Without that, things like Warzones, Simple Multiple Followers, Companion Overhaul, Relationship Dialogue Overhaul, and many others either can’t function or can’t be easily changed. Moreover, I have to question Bethesda’s decision to make the mod menu much more like Civilization V‘s, in that it seems to happen primarily from the menus within game instead of externally. Maybe it’s because I’m a PC player, but I prefer to be in charge of the mod installation process. While I’m sure this is still possible, as it was for Civilization V even with its built-in mod browser and installer, it’s a questionable decision nonetheless to include this console feature on PC. It may be elitist, but if you can’t figure out how to Google and learn to install mods for Skyrim, then you probably shouldn’t be playing the game on PC anyway.

Take a good look at that image. It’s at the very beginning of the game, when Ulfric and Rolaf are about to be executed. This is the scene that is presented to the player. This is it. This is Skyrim: Special Edition. There’s a fucking horse’s schnoz taking up half the screen. And, needless to say, this is unmodded. This is the sort of slap-dash thing that can be expected from Special Edition–things added and implemented without much forethought or testing put into them. This image sums up better than anything I could say the entire Skyrim: Special Edition.

Back to Skyrim: Mundane Edition

So because anyone who has played Skyrim on PC before likely finds the idea of playing the game unmodded about as appealing as a root canal, and perhaps just as painful, I found myself almost instantly returning to what I’m going to continue calling Skyrim: The Mundane Edition. Why not? It’s not the Special Edition. What’s the opposite of special? Mundane. It’s a tacit admission from Bethesda that they released a mundane version of the game, isn’t it? Just like the Komplete Edition of Mortal Kombat 9 is an admission that they initially released an inKomplete version.

So let’s tear into the game.

Graphics

Unmodded, Skyrim is pretty. Modded, it can be among the most breathtaking games anyone has ever played. 4k retextures are common, and one of my all-time favorite mods adjusts the lighting so that it’s absolutely necessary to wander dungeons with a torch or the Candlelight spell. The mod I’m using for Serana makes her one of the most beautiful people in any video game ever.

Not to mention that I use a mod that causes snow to accumulate on clothes and bodies–because it only makes sense–and a mod that causes us to leave footprints in the snow.

There’s Serana in her Forsworn Armor–because what else would that gorgeous woman wear?–acting rather more naturally than companions do in the base game. I’m also using a mod that replaced PC skeletons so that females run and walk more like females. I even downloaded and installed a mod that served no purpose other than to put pigeons in Whiterun. I also use a mod that allowed me to marry Serana, because she’s probably the best crafted NPC that Bethesda ever made. Who wouldn’t want to marry Serana?

To be clear, neither I nor Serana continue to wear Forsworn Armor. Instead, I’ve used a mod that makes female armor a tad more revealing–Chainmail Bikini in full effect. My only gripe with it is that, as the Dragon Age: Origins mod that I use did, it went way too far. I think the Forsworn Armor should be used as a guideline as the most revealing piece of armor in the game. Instead, these mods take it and run with it, making the Forsworn Armor look positively conservative. I like half-naked women, I will not lie, but something has to be left to the imagination.

All that said, between the plethora of mods available and the naturally good graphics–although they weren’t really that much better than those of Gothic 3, which released long before Skyrim did–the graphics in Skyrim aren’t just great: they’re whatever the player wants them to be.

Aural Experiences

The default sounds of Skyrim, like the graphics, are good. It’s easy to get pumped up by some of the music and find yourself charging headfirst into a dragon, only to be bitten in half like the guards who once adventured until they took an arrow in the knee stopped adventuring. However, mods again come to the rescue and turn the Skyrim: Mundane Edition into the Skyrim: WHAT IS THIS EVEN HAS ANYONE EVER BEEN SO FAR AS DECIDED TO EVEN GO LOOK MORE LIKE Edition.

From sounds in the wilderness to lightning strikes during storms, wild animals, and ambient creepy noises in dungeons, mods take the ordinary Skyrim experience and turn it into something that borders on marvelous. In fact, Skyrim: Mundane Edition comes off more like a community-made game by the end of it, with Bethesda doing little more than providing the framework for everyone to add their own things to it. Sure, Skyrim: Special Edition has a better base to work with–in theory, at least–but the best have already moved on. I can’t belabor that point enough. There will never be a SkyUI for Special Edition. It’s not “in the works.” It’s not “check back in a few months.” It’s not happening.

All in all, Skyrim: Mundane Edition does a fantastic job of communicating information to the player. This is the job of graphics and sound, after all, and everything from distance detail to surrounding enemies to atmosphere are conveyed adequately and expertly. There’s not much to complain about. Everything else, however, takes a sharp plummet into shoddy territory.

Gameplay A: Quests

I hate Quest Systems. They were invented by MMOs in order to give the player something to do while minimizing the effects of the player’s actions. That’s what they were designed to do, and that’s what they do. The advantage is that the player can do a task for someone and be rewarded; thus, the player will feel as though they have achieved something. Additionally, the limited nature of the quest means that the only thing that changes is that NPC’s dialogue. It’s easy to see why MMOs need this: we can’t have players in MMOs all actually being the Chosen One and saving the world, after all. If players could impact any sort of meaningful change to the world, then the server would be horrifically unstable as it tried to figure out which of two players actually did something, and tried to adjust the world accordingly. Besides, if the game world changed, then those ten kobolds that Player A killed would mean that Player B would never be able to do that quest.

Blizzard has attempted to solve this problem with phasing, a point I bring up only to highlight that it is a problem with the Quest System. Players never see the impact they are having on the world. No matter what they do, those kobolds will respawn. The player is incapable of having any meaningful effect on the world, and the Quest System is the reason why. In MMOs, this is both important and critical. That single-player RPGs have borrowed it is nothing short of lazy and tedious.

If I took it upon myself to clear out every Bandit keep in the game, it wouldn’t matter. Skyrim would never react to my having done so. No NPC would ever remark that there don’t seem to be many bandits running around these days. Not only will bandits respawn–another feature typical of MMOs–but some of the keeps can’t be permanently cleared. There is an infinite number of quests in Skyrim, in fact–questing for a Jarl in a hold will ensure that a dragon or group of bandits is always respawning, and that the player can never actually do anything to change the world.

*Spoiler Warning: Dark Brotherhood*

Skyrim takes this and runs with it, becoming the most shallow game I’ve ever played. After going through the Dark Brotherhood questline and killing the Emperor, nothing happened. And I mean: nothing happened. The Emperor died, but that was it–it was no different from killing any other NPC in the game. While fighting the Civil War with the Stormcloaks, I, the mighty Dragonborn, killed the freaking Emperor! Talk about an instant victory in the civil war, right? No. Nothing happened. I don’t think that it was even mentioned when we wrapped up the civil war. It was like I hadn’t even done it. A few NPCs remarked from time to time about the Emperor’s death, but contrast it to the Emperor’s death in Final Fantasy VI to see what I mean. That had consequences–huge, incalculable consequences. The game world changes in Final Fantasy VI rather drastically as a result of Emperor Gestahl’s death. In Skyrim, nothing changes as a result of the Emperor’s death.

*End Dark Brotherhood Spoiler*

Nowhere is the shallow nature of Skyrim more evident than with marriage, another reason that I choose to marry Serana: by the end of the Dawnguard questline, she and I have forged a genuine bond. We’ve stood together and fought together, and even the most jaded of players will probably have to admit that there is genuine chemistry and emotion between Serana and the Dragonborn. Yet canonically Serana can’t be married; it takes a mod to fix that ridiculousness.

Generally, marriage in Skyrim works like this. You do a quest for someone, and then you go the Temple of Mara in Riften and tell the dude there that you want to get married. He sells you an amulet. You wear the amulet and talk to the person for whom you did the quest, and this gives you the dialogue option to propose to them, regardless of their sex or your sex, because everyone is bisexual–which I’ve talked about before. They say “Yes” and you’re married the next day. That’s it.

The official guide lampshades this by saying that, because of how dangerous life is in Skyrim, people tend to live for the moment and are eager to get married and have a partner. The Hearthfire addon adds the ability to adopt children–but one can’t actually have children, presumably because getting pregnant and spending 9 months with an avatar that is gradually growing larger was too much depth for Bethesda, even though even The Sims has managed to do it without much complication… And that could really add an interesting dynamic, especially if the Dragonborn is the one pregnant, since the Housecarl and allies would then be critical in protecting the Dragonborn while she was seven months pregnant. So many possibilities.

Adoption is also shallow–awkwardly and embarrassingly so. If players see a child they want to adopt, and the child is eligible, the dialogue goes like this:

Dragonborn: “How would you like to be adopted?”

Child: “That would be great!”

Dragonborn: “Well come along, daughter/son.”

Child: “Yay, momma/daddy!”

That’s seriously it. The hamfisted way that the Dragonborn says “son/daughter” toward the end of the dialogue is so awkward that I’m genuinely embarrassed for whatever poor sap wrote it. Not only is it painfully expositional–and stupidly so, since we literally just adopted the kid and probably haven’t forgotten that already–but it happens way too quickly.

That’s Skyrim‘s modus operandi, though. Speed, speed, speed! No time for development! It was jarring to join the Companions the first time and find myself as the leader of their order less than one in-game week later, after doing only three or four quests for them. I hadn’t even met some of them, yet this random person out of nowhere was suddenly their leader. The Dark Brotherhood, Thieves’ Guild, Mages’ College, and everything else follows that same pattern. There’s no time to form a genuine relationship with any of the characters or organizations; before the player knows it, they’ll be totally in charge of that organization.

It’s why the Dawnguard expansion stands out so much. Being devoted almost completely to one single questline, it’s able to show off what Skyrim could have been, if Bethesda had opted for quality instead of quantity. The gameworld does change as a result of what the player does in Dawnguard–the vampire scourge that annoyingly harasses the player after nearly every fast travel comes to an end, for one. Serana’s mother returns home, and they have some semblance of a happy family again. It’s not much, but it doesn’t have to go full World of Balance / World of Ruin for the player’s actions to actually have an impact on the world.

Another good example is the main quest, which I must confess I’ve never bothered to complete. Because of the player’s actions–but only because the game is player-driven, really…–dragons begin appearing all over the place. By moving forward with the quest, the player changes the world by unleashing all those dragons.

*Spoiler Alert: Civil War*

And then the Civil War questline totally drops the ball. By far, the most disappointing part happens directly after the Battle of Whiterun–which has its own problems. After taking and defeating the center of the entire region of Skyrim, the player is told to just kinda “do their own thing.” What the hell sort of military is this? There was so much potential here to take on a sort of simplistic Civilization or Age of Empires type of thing, where the player directed military forces here and there to hold off the Empire’s counter attacks and to gain territory.

I’m almost positive there is a mod that does this, by the way, but Bethesda should have implemented it. Having to choose between dispatching a unit to protect supply lines or risk that unit flanking the enemy and cutting off the Empire’s support… None of this would have been hard to do. Instead, the player is relegated to some sort of solo strike force, attacks a few holds, and then that’s it. Skyrim gains its independence, Ulfric is appointed High King, and… that’s it. Nothing changes.

* End Civil War Spoiler*

A mod can’t fix what is fundamentally broken, and Bethesda’s zeal for quantity over quality is Skyrim’s biggest problem. Now that I’ve completed Dawnguard and Dragonborn, I find myself not really having anything to do. Oh, there are plenty of quests that I could do–hundreds, perhaps even thousands. But they’re all functionally identical. They’re MMO quests. Kill these people, collect this thing, collect ten of these, go explore this place, deliver this message…

It’s true that a few of them are sequential chests, but these, too, are shallow and ultimately meaningless. “Ooh, I found Meridia’s Beacon and need to deliver it to a temple… Holy shit! She’s a daedra! Oh. She wants me to clear out the undead in her temple. Yeah, that’s new. I’ve only done that nineteen times since Bleakfall Burrows… Oh, look, druagr. Those are new. Neat. A legendary weapon that I don’t need because I can craft better stuff. And that’s the end of the quest. Hooray.”

This is 99% of Skyrim, these meaningless, trite quests that are identical to every other meaningless and trite quest in the game. The worst offender is the Thieves’ Guild quest, which ends with the forced option to sell one’s soul to the daedra Nocturnal to join the Nightingales. Let me reiterate: this role-playing game doesn’t provide the player the option to refuse to sell their soul and take their chances fighting someone. This is indicative of Skyrim as a whole: the only choice is to do a quest or not to do a quest. Quests happen exactly as Bethesda wanted, or they simply don’t get done. That’s disgusting for a role-playing game.

Gameplay B: Emergent Gameplay

Aside from my various adventures with Serana, one of the most memorable experiences for me was when Lydia and I stumbled across a keep of bandits. This was before I was using a mod to give my followers a mount–honestly, how did Bethesda not include that in the core game? We wandered into the keep mostly by accident. Archers killed my horse. I turned to flee, knowing that we were outnumbered and outmaneuvered, and I looked just in time to watch Lydia fall to the ground, dying. I rushed to her with Healing Hands equipped, but I wasn’t fast enough. An arrow pierced her heart, and my weak healing magic was no match for the steel-tipped projectile.

I was furious. I took my Werewolf form, and I went on a roaring rampage of revenge. I killed everyone in that keep, and then I ate them for good measure. I stormed through that keep like a maniac, ignoring the arrows they were firing at me, and slashing wildly. I smacked them into walls, tore them limb from limb, and then devoured their hearts. I exacted my vengeance decisively, and when it was over I was left with a sort of empty feeling, knowing that Lydia and my horse were still gone, and were never coming back.

Revenge had felt good, but it offered no long-term satisfaction.

But the memory has always stuck with me. I felt Lydia’s death and wanted vengeance much more powerfully than I had when Sephiroth dropped in from above and killed Aerith. I think this was because Aerith had to die–Lydia didn’t. Lydia’s death wasn’t the plot’s fault; it was my fault. I was the one who brought us to that part of the woods, not the story. I was the one who chose to take on the bandits instead of fleeing the moment I realized we were attacking a defended fort. Lydia, who had been with me through many adventures, right by my side and tanking for me while I threw spells and fired arrows from a distance, was dead.

Because of me.

She died doing her duty to her thane.

That sort of thing can’t be scripted, and stories like that aren’t uncommon when people discuss Skyrim. The only gripe I have is that the Quest System puts too much script into the game, and those scripts get in the way of emergent gameplay. This is also something that developers are aware of–it’s why Notch has explicitly refused to put any sort of quests into Minecraft, which, of course, is a game that thrives solely on emergent gameplay.

For reasons surely psychological in nature, if you give players a checklist of things to do, they don’t wander off that checklist. Consider The Legend of Zelda versus The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. How many players spent any serious amount of time exploring dig caverns and side passages in Twilight Princess? If you give a player a list of things to do, then they’ll simply do the things on that list. They’ll hesitate to go into a new, unexplored area before the game gives them an item on that list to go there, because in the back of their mind, they’ll know that somewhere in the game is a person who will add that item to their checklist, and so there’s no point in exploring it now–they’ll just wait until someone tells the player to go explore it.

People like to say about Skyrim that you can just pick a direction and go explore it, and eventually you’ll find a cave or some dungeon or something. That’s true, but how many people have actually done that? And how many players actually do it routinely? I’d wager that fewer than 10% of players have “picked a direction and started walking” and that fewer than 1% of that 10% actually do it regularly. Why go and explore Cave A when you have a quest to go and explore Cave B? Why go and explore a cave of your own volition when you can talk to a few people in a town and get a quest to go explore a particular cave?

So what’s the grand result of all this? Skyrim: Mundane Edition is a great game, but it has some serious flaws with the gameplay–without even getting into how broken and unbalanced it is. Destruction magic is a joke, even with mods that make it better, and I’d venture the guess that everyone ends up playing a sneaking archer by the end of it. Meanwhile, Skyrim: Special Edition brings with it a host of new flaws and carries one major caveat that makes it look pale when compared to Mundane Edition: a lack of mods.

Skyrim: Mundane Edition – 3.5 stars

Skyrim: Special Edition – 2 stars