8.0
REVIEW: Skyrim Anniversary Edition
Reviews

REVIEW: Skyrim Anniversary Edition

Ten years and several re-releases later, The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim returns yet again with its Anniversary Edition. . Even if you haven’t played it, you probably know somebody that has, and if neither applies to you, I suppose Patrick Star’s rock is pretty comfy. Despite the gargantuan amount of content compiled here, Skyrim Anniversary Edition mostly appeals to people that have played it to some capacity. Whether you’ve revisited the Norse-inspired open-world yearly or only played it once, what relevance does Skyrim Anniversary Edition hold in 2021?

The Experience of Playing Skyrim in 2021

Bethesda definitely delivered on its promises in terms of content. Additions such as fishing along with the existing suite of creation club content slot so seamlessly into the experience that you’d wonder how the game ever released without it. There aren’t clear breaks in the world design or player’s flow state that delineate when and where new content was added. If you aren’t intimately familiar with Special Edition’s base game content, you could wind up experiencing new content without knowing it.

As an example of a person whose most intimate experience was the original Xbox 360 version 10 years ago, only briefly dabbling with Special Edition, I found myself googling quests and enemies to see if they were always there. After stumbling upon an early cave guarded by some low-level bandit, I snatched the fishing rod in his inventory. Not too far from this spot, I discovered a fishing location and put that rod to use, unlocking the new fishing questline. It’s that constant stumbling that Skyrim still succeeds at on a holistic level. As dated as many elements of its presentation and design are, it still nails that sense of discovery in a manner that modern AAA titles aren’t capable of matching.

You aren’t bombarded by dozens of map markers from the outset. Even with Far Cry 5’s more organic attempt at tying icons to in-world interactions such as highlighting fishing spots by reading fishing magazines, the world became cluttered too easily. Skyrim is different. You begin with only a few icons highlighted on the map, many of which are part of its post-launch content such as the Tundra Homestead. Points of interest show up on the player compass during traversal, remaining absent on the map until they’re discovered. Even when speaking to NPC’s, you’ll only be fed one major location—one which you might have already discovered on your own by wandering because the allure of some loot or ingredients was too sweet to resist.

Skyrim’s greatest asset is its ability to craft a large world with so much content that doesn’t feel overwhelming. It avoids the contemporary trappings of overloading players with different types of content to the point that choice paralysis may kick in. The drip-feeding fueled entirely by player curiosity makes the world feel more connected than its contemporaries. Maybe you talk to three random NPC’s in a new village and they have nothing important to say, but that fourth one initiates a conversation that opens up a new quest or activity. Nobody told you to talk to that person. Even the aforementioned fishing questline doesn’t get introduced until players stumble upon a fishing spot themselves and catch their first fish—just one example of player curiosity driving the game’s progression rather than the progression forcing players into specific paths.

This organic progression is aided by Skryim’s semi-free form gameplay. No, it isn’t truly a sandbox in the traditional sense that you can literally do anything. Story and side quests are very linear in terms of player direction. Dungeons aren’t going to offer vastly different experiences/avenues for exploration based on your build, for example. What it does offer is a sense of progression that isn’t contingent upon completing core content. You can spend hours just stumbling across points of interest, looting, killing, and selling things without taking on any quests and you’re still able to level practically every skill tree from lockpicking to smithing to speech. This prevents you from feeling the overwhelming sense to complete anything and everything immediately. It’s designed in such a way that’s conducive to playing at your own pace without feeling like time is being wasted.

While this feeds into the series’ adventurous side, its streamlined RPG elements don’t provide as much to latch onto. There are tons of skill trees but each is very simple with few difficult decisions. Even in the cases that necessitate making a difficult choice between a perk point here or a perk point there, Skyrim is designed to enable player experimentation. That means any build is viable. There is no wrong way to play Skyrim. That’s great in some ways, but it also eliminates the consequence that often makes RPG’s engaging.

A decade later, many glaring cracks are showing in a game that wasn’t exactly pushing technical boundaries even at the time of release. Large worlds such as this are bound to suffer from bugs, but it’s been ten years and multiple official re-releases, therefore, enemy AI that gets caught in running cycles or forgets what it was doing shouldn’t be as common as it is.

On just one of many occasions, an enemy was alerted to my presence, causing her to run in place. After a moment of this run cycle, she’d begin repeating lines such as “where are you” and “you can’t run from me forever” until her AI deactivated and stopped seeking me. She was staring straight at me the entire time.

On its own, artificial intelligence is a let-down, as poor AI does impact the engagement level of encounters. Unfortunately, every other aspect of combat feels equally deflated. Whether conjuring the undead, using destruction magic, swinging a melee weapon, or using a bow and arrow, Skyrim lacks weight. There isn’t any impact on anything you’re doing. Enemies rarely react convincingly to attacks. In fact, shield enemies that block physical attacks are the most reactive AI ever get in combat.

Outside of blocking, which actually plays back a decent deflection animation, it feels like you’re wailing away at thin air. Enemies hardly flinch or show any sense of being impacted by the damage inflicted upon them. Upon death, they just fall over in place rather than reacting to the direction or strength or speed of the finishing blow. The impact of a sword or mace smacking against a shield is the only time the game ever encroaches upon satisfying combat.

Next-Gen Upgrade?

On its official FAQ, Bethesda claims Skyrim Anniversary Edition features “enhanced graphics, loading times, and more” with the arrival of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X support. While the new content is the package’s main draw, the supposed next-gen enhancements are an additional selling point.

As it stands, I question the validity of Bethesda’s claims. I’ve done in-depth graphics comparisons in the past. However, due to time constraints and the nature of smart delivery erasing access to the last-gen code before I knew I’d have access to this release, I couldn’t perform intensive testing in this case.

As you’ll find out, though, maybe a comparison wasn’t necessary. Examining Skyrim‘s file info denotes the console type as “XboxOneGen9Aware” with the “Durango” designation, which was the codename for the Xbox One development kit. Properly native ports for the new console should be designated as “XboxGen9” running under the “Scarlett” SDK.

What does this mean? It means Bethesda isn’t optimizing this title as it claims. Skyrim is running a form of enhanced backwards compatibility, in which developers have some access to the game’s codebase. Tweaks can be made, but they’re limited to the old GCN architecture as opposed to the newer RDNA architecture.

For an example of what this looks like in a real-world scenario as opposed to a hypothetical, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order received enhanced backwards compatibility support before it got native applications for Xbox Series X/S and PlayStation 5. Under this enhanced backwards compatibility layer, these were the metrics for both consoles:

PlayStation 5

  • Fixed 1200p resolution at 60 fps
  • PS4 Pro’s toggle between quality and performance were lost with this patch

Xbox Series X

  • Dynamic 1080p – 1440p at 60 fps
  • Dynamic 1512p – 4K at 30 fps

Let’s contrast these with the native next-gen patch metrics:

PlayStation 5

  • Fixed 1440p at 60 fps
  • Native 4K at 30 fps
  • Both modes feature enhanced texture quality and shadows

Xbox Series X

  • Fixed 1440p at 60 fps
  • Native 4K at 30 fps
  • Both modes feature enhanced texture quality and shadows

Notice the dramatically improved resolution targets, particularly in the case of the quality mode along with improved assets across all modes. While far from the most optimized game in existence, it highlights the extra performance you’re able to squeeze when running a native application. Developers will have lower-level access to the hardware.

With that information in mind, Skyrim’s presentation on Xbox Series X begins to make more sense. It already ran at native 4K on PS4 Pro with Xbox One X adopting dynamic resolution scaling for a more stable 30 fps lock.

As for visual features, the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X did enhance some settings over the base consoles. The PS4 Pro improved foliage draw distance with Xbox One X matching that while using a tweaked form of ambient occlusion. Even with the Pro and One X patches, the consoles still fell short of the PC maxed experience in many key areas such as shadow quality, volumetrics, and geometry draw distances.

The promised next-gen optimization was the opportunity to match or even exceed those max presets, rolling that additional bling to PC as a free update. It’s an already remastered title so it’s not like I’m asking for them to dramatically overhaul character models or polygon counts. With that in mind, so many areas could have benefitted from refinement.

The supposedly next-gen optimized iteration still suffers from geometry pop-in. The extent to which you’ll notice this depends on your visibility of the surroundings. Geometric draw distances even impact indoor dungeons, which are separate loading areas from the open world. Even in these enclosed instances, you’ll sometimes see interactive objects materialize within feet of the player character.

There’s even texture pop-in, but it doesn’t manifest normally. When viewing certain hills and rocky formations from a distance, you’ll notice a low-resolution asset even when staring for several minutes. Once you pass a threshold, the full texture resolution loads in. Unlike traditional pop-in, however, stepping back behind the threshold doesn’t revert to the previously soupy texture. The intended texture resolution remains as you back away.

Notice the proximity at which the items on the desk fade in. This game is two generations old, Bethesda.

There are other oddities. The last-gen consoles’ lower resolution shadows remain in place. This includes the funky shadow cascades, with a clear cut-off between the higher and lower resolution shadow maps as you walk forward and backwards. Beyond the cascades, many shadows, particularly foliage shadows, render within meters of the camera. You’ll be walking along the path behind the Companions Guild in Whiterun and see shadows materialize out of thin air.

Volumetrics were a major addition to Skyrim Special Edition as the engine didn’t properly support the effect until Fallout 4. This feature was retroactively added to Skyrim and while it adds to the atmosphere, it’s a bit chunky in motion. A higher resolution implementation as seen on PC would have been welcome.

The only real benefit is the 60 frames per second update and even then, that’s pretty inconsequential. PlayStation already had access to a 60 fps mod. Along with that mod, Xbox also had FPS Boost, pushing in the territory of 60 fps without disabling achievements. To Bethesda’s credit, this update does clean up performance. Pre-update, it suffered from occasional stutters. Without concrete framerate analysis tools, it does at least seem to hit that 60 frames per second target more frequently.

All in all, the advertised next-generation console enhancements don’t exist outside of a more stable 60 fps target. Further improvements to character models, textures, and geometric density were unreasonable to expect, but there was still plenty of room for refinement. Improving effects such as draw distances, shadow quality, and volumetrics are relatively simple tweaks, especially when many of these settings already have higher quality presets to pull from the PC version. This is ultimately down to Bethesda not putting in the effort rather than the capabilities of the hardware as evidenced by it running under an enhanced backwards compatibility layer.

Skyrim In Conclusion

Each Bethesda game progressively improves combat while simultaneously simplifying the RPG elements, leaving Skyrim in an awkward spot. Combat still isn’t satisfying, but the role-playing elements aren’t engaging enough to offset that. At the same time, though, its sense of freedom does fill a specific, indescribable mood. It’s the kind of game that’s perfect to shut your brain off to and lose a couple of hours in. Its sense of place and intelligent content drip-feeding makes it addictive even in the face of its glaring flaws.

[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review]

8.0
Score

Pros

  • Organic sense of discovery
  • Still provides a sense of ownership over your save file
  • Anniversary Edition content slots seamlessly into the experience

Cons

  • Still many frequent bugs
  • Combat and RPG elements aren't up to snuff
  • Bethesda basically lied about the next-gen optimizations
  • Some additions like fishing aren't that interesting

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