Welcome to Skyrim Mondays! My weekly feature I created as an excuse so I could finally play through Skyrim Special Edition! I’m also doing a Fallout 4 series right now, if you want to read that.
I took too many screenshots for this article.
Skyrim Special Edition came out last year, on PC, PS4, and Xbox One. It’s an updated version of the 2011 original, complete with all of the DLC integrated and improved visuals thanks to the newer rendering engine behind Fallout 4.
I’m a huge fan of Skyrim. I’ve completed the game a couple of times, and I bought all three versions of the original game, and all three versions of the Special Edition (thanks to discounts).
Because I’m insane.
I never played through the Special Edition though. It fell victim to that thing called life. So I thought it was time to change that.
I’ll be playing through the game on PC with the settings cranked up all the way. It’s not a super-demanding game…although the visuals received a nice bump in the Special Edition.
That’s the first thing that always strikes me in the brief sessions I’ve spent with this newer version: it’s very pretty. Most of my memories of Skyrim are from the countless hours I spent playing the original game on older hardware, so seeing its new form impresses me every time.
It doesn’t look quite as good as most other modern stuff, and some of the character models are pretty weedy compared to Fallout 4…but the enhanced environments really stand out. There’s way more foliage. The ground is much bumpier and more detailed. And all the new lighting and environment effects give it much more atmosphere than it ever had before.
I feel like I want to go there.
This is my character, Eleniara. She’s a High Elf. I picked High Elf because of their magic bonuses. I decided that I should play the game as a battle mage, with a sword in one hand and a spell in the other. I feel like the game was designed to be played that way, a la the Bioshock games. The entire combat system in Skyrim feels like Bethesda played a whole bunch of Bioshock and said “We could do that!”
Maybe that’s a little reductive.
I gave Skyrim’s tutorial some crap in my last Fallout 4 article. It has some weird pacing issues. I’m a prisoner in a cart with one of the main figures from the game world, Ulfric Stormcloak. He’s killed an important person and now the empire wants him dead. He’s also voiced by Vladimir Kulich, one of my favorite actors and the star of The 13th Warrior, a movie you should watch.
So there’s this civil war going on…and then BAM there’s a dragon run away! The coolest moment in the intro is that you get to choose between two characters to go through the first dungeon with. You can go with a Stormcloak guy or an Imperial guy, and this helps to reinforce the main plot thread about a civil war, and gives you a slightly different opening.
But the actual dungeon you go through is the definition of “blah.” It’s low key. It’s designed to teach you the mechanics. If you stand around for a bit, your buddy will just do all the fighting for you.
I know that sequences like this are necessary, and it’s not the worst one ever. But when you’ve played through it a million times, you start to really just sprint through it and wish it was over. Bethesda has gotten better at this opening in every one of their games, and I know that it’s hard to make something that appeals to both new players and veterans…but I only truly enjoyed this the first time I played it.
Fortunately, the rest of the game is still great.
When you get out of the first dungeon, your companion immediately tells you that it’d be better if you split up…but if you follow him you quickly find the first Standing Stones in the game, and the first town.
These are important things!
I don’t know why Bethesda decided he should tell you to go away and then simultaneously had him run right to some very interesting and helpful things. Maybe they assumed most people would follow him?
It’s a little bit clumsy.
I always follow him. The Standing Stones give out bonuses and are the closest thing the game has to class perks. I chose the Mage stone, to get a bonus to my magical skill growth. The dude you go with always expresses displeasure unless you pick warrior, which is funny.
I breeze through the first town. I collect the main quest. I help the blacksmith out at his forge to get some good free materials…and have to reload the game three times because I keep accidentally stealing his merchandise that’s sitting right next to the blacksmithing stuff I need to use. I don’t want to have any thefts on my record.
I solve the issue of my clumsy theft-clicking by dragging a bunch of his merchandise down to the river and hucking it in there.
Lots of folks like to give Bethesda crap over their game engine, but I kind of love it. I particularly enjoy that every object in the game is a physics object, and that there’s a button that lets you drag them around. You can make a complete mess out of every table and shelf in the game. Battles are dynamic because stuff flies around. You can lose access to a really cool sword if you end up knocking the guy you were fighting in to a ravine.
It’s a perfect design choice Bethesda made all the way back in Oblivion, and I’m so happy they had the courage to stick with it in several other games. The only thing I dislike about Bioshock Infinite is that it got rid of the dynamic objects from the first two games. Bethesda is the last bastion of putting physics objects everywhere, and it makes the game world feel fun and alive.
I grab the quest in the shop in Riverwood to go to Bleak Falls Barrow, the first proper dungeon in the game. Unlike the tutorial dungeon, I love everything about the barrow’s design. You have to go here anyway as part of the main quest, so it’s cool that this early side quest leads you there too.
This is my favorite room in Bleak Falls Barrow, and it’s a perfect example of how nicely-designed the dungeons are in Skyrim. Oblivion and Fallout 3 didn’t really have any design to their dungeons…they were just strings of rooms that were connected together somewhat at random.
When you approach this room, it’s gorgeous. There’s a waterfall and a little bridge, and the lighting draws your eyes to the left. Then you naturally scan to the right, and you see that coffin box thing in the center of the room. A draugr (zombie) pops out and you fight him! Then, the flow of the water naturally draws your attention to this grate.
You pull the chain to the right, and the grate slowly rises, allowing you to continue on into the next room. There’s no need for this chain or grate, but it’s really satisfying to open the door this way. And it rises slowly enough that if you somehow ran right here without fighting the zombie, you’ll be forced to deal with him.
This type of careful design permeates all the dungeons in Skyrim, and I love it. I also love that the lighting engine allows all objects to cast shadows in the game world, something that was promised for Oblivion but ultimately cut when the Xbox 360 turned out to be less powerful than Bethesda guessed it would be.
The shadow quality got a big bump in this Special Edition, and that’s cool.
I cut my way through the rest of the dungeon. I solve the two puzzles that seem cool until you realize they’re the only two puzzles in the game and you’ll repeat them many times over the next 80 hours. They’re still fun, but not as cool when you realize how many are in the game.
This is the boss room for Bleak Falls Barrow. I grab the dragon word thing off the wall, and turn around. A coffin explodes open and out comes the boss!
Bosses in Skyrim are somewhat dynamically generated, based on your character level, your strengths, and your weaknesses. This is so cool! It means that each boss fight will challenge you to think tactically and use everything at your disposal.
Some folks hate this sort of scaling with a fiery passion, but I think it was absolutely the right choice. In a game with such a beautiful world, I want to be able to go anywhere and know that I’m going to get just the right amount of challenge. I don’t want to be limited, and the devs didn’t want me to be either.
If you don’t like the level scaling, I’d advise you to turn up the difficulty. Then you’ll find that Skyrim can really bring it. In Fallout 4, they even included gear bonuses for turning up the difficulty.
I crush the boss with a mix of spells and sword strikes, and get some pretty good loot, including a fire staff. So now I can shoot fire out of my left hand and fire out of a stick in my right hand, if I want to. Or vice versa!
The most impressive thing to me is how well Skyrim still holds up in spite of its age and the fact that I’ve played a couple hundred hours of it in its previous incarnation. I still have fun doing all the things.
At E3 this year, Bethesda talked about Skyrim a whole bunch, which is wild considering it first came out 6 years ago. It’s getting VR support, and coming out on Switch. The Switch version is going to include all the DLC and also a Link outfit. It’s unclear whether it’ll have the newer Special Edition visuals…but I’m going to guess it won’t. But it’ll still be a hell of a portable game.
I’d love to play the Switch version of Skyrim this fall if I could find a Switch near me to buy. One of these days!
Now that I’ve finished the first dungeon, I plan to go turn in the Golden Claw to the Riverwood trader and load up on some new spells and gear. Then it’s off to Whiterun to really get the quest going.
Assuming I don’t get distracted along the way.