Few games have grabbed us for as many hours as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. For many, this is still Bethesda's greatest masterpiece, a fantasy RPG where almost anything is possible. You can be a noble mage or a thief with a penchant for poisoning. You can be a werewolf, a vampire or a vampire hunter. You can marry and adopt children, or you can join a league of assassins. Skyrim is a fantastic game, and when it came out in 2011, it was rightfully claimed as one of the best ever made. But now we are in 2016, post Dragon Age: Inquisition, Divinity: Original Sin, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Dark Souls, and other high-quality RPGs (including Bethesda's own Fallout 4). So, with this in mind, can Skyrim still be relevant today? Yes it can, but not to the same degree.
Skyrim is still a superb game, but some elements have not aged well, while others can no longer be as easily overlooked as they were back in the day. Even worse still is the the fact that this remaster failed to impress us, especially considering it's one of the most expensive old-gen updates to date (more expensive then collections that include several games, including Bioshock and Batman: Arkham). For all these reasons, Skyrim Special Edition was a bit of a let down, but that doesn't mean the game itself has lost all of its charm.
As an RPG, a true role-playing game, this is still one of the best. Unlike games like Witcher 3, where you are stuck following Geralt's adventure, or Dragon Age: Inquisition, where you assume the role of the Inquisitor, here you have almost complete freedom to do whatever you want. This is also reflected in the gameplay, which is not limited by pre-defined class archetypes. You can evolve into a magician that uses heavy armour, or a master assassin with illusion and vampiric powers. You can be a warrior that shoots lightning bolts from their hands while carrying a shield. You can even be an archer that raises the dead. There's an incredible sense of freedom, but it comes at a cost.
As there are so many possibilities that the player can explore while playing, you can easily evolve a character that is unbalanced, one that's either too powerful or too weak. The issue becomes even more problematic considering the different difficulty settings, which reveals it to be a great game that pulls off a very poor balancing act. For example, a wizard can have great difficulty during an adventure because it's much easier to get new weapons and improve them than it is to find new spells. Playing as a stealthy killer is actually some of the best fun to be had in Skyrim, but the game is not all designed around that, so you will face situations in open combat where you will be at a big disadvantage.
Another major imbalance is related to the way the game attempts to match some enemy levels with that of the player. For example, you can break into a stronghold and fight relatively easy bandits, because they are low level, but when you find the leader of the group (who levels up with the player unlike the grunts) it will be a lot harder do deal with. It makes for an absurd difficulty spike.
The gameplay itself also shows signs of ageing. Playing in third-person is possible, but not practical, and the combat system now feels archaic, especially when casting and melee. It still works, and it can still be fun (playing with a bow seems to be the most suitable option these days), but the gameplay is now far behind that of some of the most modern RPGs.
Where Skyrim still shines is in the game world. Besides being massive, the world of Skyrim is full of interesting characters, great quest-lines, and there's many mysteries to uncover. From a village whose inhabitants are being affected by terrible nightmares, to a group of noble werewolves warriors, you will find some of the best questing we've ever seen in an RPG. The dungeons, cities, and the world design in general is also superb, especially considering its size. Regarding the quality / quantity ratio, very few games can rival Skyrim. These factors become even stronger if we consider the included Dawnguard and Dragonborn expansions (Hearthfire involves housing and construction).
Dawnguard introduces a whole campaign around vampires, where you can either join a group of powerful and ancient vampires, or join forces with professional hunters. Dragonborn on the other hand adds a new island, and a story campaign that explores the lore of the Dragonborn even further. If Skyrim alone is worth well over one hundred hours, the expansions add plenty more playtime to the mix.
And then there are the mods, something that PC gamers have been enjoying for quite some time, but have only now become available on consoles (though not equally, we should add). While the Xbox One mods are a real added value, on the PS4 they have considerably less impact. This is due to the restrictions imposed by Sony, limiting space to 1GB limit for mods on PS4 (against Xbox One's 5GB), and the requirement whereby mods only use the assets already included in the game. This decision makes the list of mods available on Xbox One a lot more attractive and varied.
As for the PC, you may think that this version is not relevant in terms of mods, but it actually is. The original Skyrim runs on a 32-bit engine, which limits what you can do with a mod without causing problems in the game. The new version runs a 64-bit engine, which hugely increases the limitations available for future mods. In other words, the original Skyrim could use a maximum of 4GB of RAM, while the new version has no restriction on the level of RAM allocated meaning we could see more complex additions in time. Excellent news for those who appreciate the community that has built around Skyrim mods.
But now the most important part of this Special Edition: the remastering itself. This version has several improvements compared to the original version, especially if we're comparing console versions (the impact on PC is smaller). The shadows were drastically improved, lighting is vastly superior, textures have better quality, resolution was increased, loading takes less than half the time, there is more detail in the scenery, and the game keeps up a solid 30 frames per second, while last gen versions suffered from significant frame-rate issues.
But does all this really make a big difference? Well, not really, no. It's easy to notice that this version is superior to the previous one, yes, but it's not an impressive leap. If you don't actually go in looking to see the details and compare it with the original, most will only find the game slightly more beautiful and stable. If you're playing on the PC, it's even worse, since there are mods that have long allowed people to play Skyrim with superior graphics to what we can see even in this special edition.
It's a decent remaster, but no more than that, and it certainly isn't worth the asking price of £39.99 / €59.99 (and that's for a game that has been on sale many times). Something lower would have been fairer, especially considering other remastered collections and the value they offer for less. On the PC, the situation is different. In addition to the game being cheaper (£29.99 / €39.99), it will be free for those who bought the original version of the game and its expansions. It's a good deal for PC gamers, so we can't really understand Bethesda asking so much from its console-based community.
The ultimate question is therefore: is it worth returning to Skyrim? For the full price, we'd have to say no. The differences are not significant enough for us to recommend it to someone who spent 100 hours with the original. Maybe once the price has gone down it may be more tempting, but for now it's just too expensive. This, however, does not apply to someone who has never played the original. If that's the case, and you like fantasy and RPGs, then The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition becomes an essential purchase, even if some elements now feel a little dated.