It has been just over a year since PSVR’s launch and we have received some fantastic and memorable experiences. However, there are certain types of games and genres that were lacking in this continuously growing library. In terms of games, PSVR really hadn’t had a true atitle drowning in content, and in terms of genre it lacked an open world RPG to lose yourself in for hours. Bethesda decided to tackle both of these concerns head-on and bring one of its most beloved titles to the new medium.
If you have been living under a rock licking your arrow-inflicted knee wounds for the last six years, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has been one of the most influential open world RPGs giving players unprecedented amounts of freedom, hundreds of quests to steam through and an immersive world to get lost in. Although it’s been ported and milked to death, hearing the Dovahkiin theme music at Sony’s E3 2017 conference was nothing short of a surprise to PSVR owners. Putting aside the fact it is on almost every platform, it almost seemed impossible a year ago to imagine a game like this running in virtual reality. Yet here I am, raiding people’s houses, stealing their food and fleeing from giants, and it’s almost surreal. I say almost, because there are a few caveats to let this miracle happen, as well as a few missed opportunities.
If you asked me less than a year ago that we’d be getting Skyrim in VR, I would have dragon shouted at you in disbelief. It’s almost beyond belief but Bethesda has managed to fit the whole game, including all of the DLC into VR. Not just a game that was never designed to be built for VR, but on the weakest of the high-end VR devices. While concessions had to be made in other areas, users can rest easy knowing that content-wise, this is the full Skyrim experience. This fact alone is quite the achievement. In terms of other VR games on the market nothing comes close to the number of hours you can spend and the staggering amount of activities to partake in. While most VR experiences only last a few hours, Skyrim promises over 100 hours, and this in itself is an attractive reason to add this to your library.
I think today, I will be Emperor Palpatine
The first thing that instantly smacks you in the face is how incredible Skyrim’s surroundings are in VR. A lot of my time with the title involved me simply standing in one spot, looking around and immersing myself in the environment. Looking up at the Throat of the world while surrounded by elks and trees with the ambient soundtrack lilting away in the background is unbelievable. I tended to lose myself in those moments, feeling like I had been transported to a distant world on a long and epic adventure. In fact, given the beauty of the world of Skyrim and its hugely varied environments, I would buy Skyrim VR even if it only allowed me to walk to all its locations and do absolutely nothing.
In terms of presentation, the game is more aligned with the PlayStation 3 version of the game. It is perhaps slightly worse with its draw distances when out in open lands, and some of the mountains in the background appear to be bare until you get close to them. This is not so much of a problem in VR due to the immersion aspect and the fact that your focus is generally a few meters in front of you. Having said that, the beautiful art direction and overall visuals remain intact. While Skyrim hasn’t aged well graphically since its 2011 release, it stills looks beautiful and is sufficient for VR. Interiors and dungeons look really good and provide more detail than outdoor areas. While there is some aliasing and pixilation (which are common in the VR space), Skyrim does a relatively good job of cleaning this up, especially when you’re close to the asset.
While bugs and performance issues are a given in any Bethesda-made game, it is a revelation that Skyrim VR manages to maintain a solid 60fps on Sony’s headset. While this is a necessary requirement for all VR titles, it’s amazing for a game that struggles to meet its target framerate of 30fps on most consoles is able to successfully do it in VR. Have no fear, the traditional elephant appearing in the sky glitches were kept for that nostalgic kick.
Skyrim, where all your giant spider and height phobias come to life
The gameplay mostly remains intact and while the transition to VR adds some new reasons to play the game, other factors do not. I suspect this is because the game was not originally built with VR in mind, as most of these are in relation to combat. Firstly, the way the AI behaves in Bethesda games usually involves the enemy running vigorously towards you with one thing on their mind, death. This is well and good for traditional television gameplay, but in VR, where movement isn’t as flexible, it makes the combat feel slightly clunky. This is especially evident when using move controls due to the lack of sticks and the teleportation feature, which almost breaks the game as you can simply teleport behind enemies.
The other thing I noticed is how the motion controls alter the original design of the combat. In Skyrim, different weapons offer different stats and behaviours. Daggers are quick but deal light damage as opposed to warhammers which are slow but produce the heavier hits. With motion controls, weapons swing as fast as you can physically move your arms, so two-handed weapons swing just as fast as lighter weapons, which sort of defeats the purpose of having them separated by class. There was even a moment where I killed half a dozen spiders by hitting them with my bow (no, not with arrows… literally beating them to death with my bow). Ironically, these awkward implementations can be hilariously fun if you just want to play like a douche. The bow situation I mentioned earlier had me in tears. Swinging my warhammer at rapid speeds like nunchucks felt like I was a dragon-killing ninja from the future. If you can take a moment and embrace the silliness of it all, there is some incredible comedy gold to uncover. Messing up people’s houses by throwing their cutlery across the rooms and teleporting to odd places brought back those nostalgic feeling of playing Grand Theft Auto has a kid. It’s just dumb fun, and is a totally different way of playing the game compared to how I have played it on traditional platforms.
The menus and UI are in a similar situation here. Some of the menu options work incredibly well in VR, others not so much. The compass is now below you and facing the camera at all times, which is especially useful in allowing you continually have your bearings and also ensures the tracking lights do not leave the camera area. There are a number of VR titles where I would subconsciously turn my whole body to view parts of a UI, which would put everything out of the camera’s sight, so keeping it all front and centre is a welcome feature. The overworld map now places you above the clouds where you get a top-down view of the whole region, and simply pointing and selecting your destination feels slightly more thoughtful and interactive than the traditional map. Similarly, the skill-tree menu places you in the stars rather than a flat 2D image, and it’s these little neat ideas that make Skyrim VR more than a simple port job. However, inventory and quest management are still finnicky with the Move controllers. Most of this comes down to the Move controllers themselves. Not having sticks to navigate the menus is annoying considering you have to deal with large quantities of quests and items, and the button layout also makes things very confusing. For example, left-circle for me brought up the menu and right-circle turns my camera. This wouldn’t be so bad if the buttons were a diamond shape rather than in a square shape. I know triangle is the top button of a Dualshock but on the Move controllers it is top right, which makes things slightly confusing.
Although draw distances take a hit, there were moments where I would stop and stare at Skyrim’s beauty
I have talked a lot about the controls so far as they are probably the most important and challenging aspect of VR development at the moment. While no one control method trumps the other, it is appreciated that Bethesda does offer a range of control methods. I have talked about the issues with how the motion controls can break the combat and make selecting actions and navigating menus annoying, but I haven’t talked about how immersive they are to use. Swinging your sword in different motions feels authentic (despite the hit detection and lack of haptic feedback), firing arrows from your bow feels satisfying (and surprisingly accurate for me), picking up cabbages and throwing them at the town dog makes you feel cruel, and dual-casting fire spells independently is a lot of fun. I even placed my hands in a Kamehameha motion before sending my enemies into oblivion. Brilliant
In terms of movement, Bethesda offer two methods: teleportation and direct movement. Teleportation is offered for those who experience motion sickness and many will appreciate its inclusion; simply pressing the Move controller in your left hand brings up an arrow which you can point anywhere and promptly teleport. However, as I said earlier regarding the AI behaviours, this method can make things feel slightly overpowered. In contrast, direct movement offers the traditional locomotion solution. Holding the left move button projects your character forward, and using X and circle turns your character in either a ‘snap’ rotational method or a gradual smooth turning method. FOV shaders are also implemented to reduce motion sickness when moving or turning. All these settings have sliders too, which can be altered to your preferences. I decided to use a direct movement approach, with gradual turning and turned off the FOV shaders, and received little to no motion sickness.
I was surprised at how much I ended up enjoying the Move controllers with direct movement, especially considering the fact I was certain the Dualshock would have been my preferred control method. For all the issues involving teleportation and clunky menus, Dualshock solves all of them. Playing with the Dualshock more or less feels like playing the original Skyrim with the added immersion and head-tracking offered in VR. However, having the Move controls to independently control your hands felt a lot more fun and satisfying for me. The Dualshock tends to have your hands locked in an inward position, making you feel like your hands are bound, and feels a little boring by comparison to flailing your arms about. It’s such a shame Sony hasn’t come out with updated Move controls, because there are strengths and drawbacks to both control methods, and neither one is 100% there just yet.
Overall, despite many little annoyances and issues, Skyrim VR is an incredible experience and a big deal for VR owners. It takes one of the greatest RPGs of its time and makes it work surprisingly well in VR. Walking through Tamriel and being immersed in its surroundings is without a doubt a defining and memorable experience. While the combat is slightly broken due to the transition to VR, the player actions feel authentic and fun. Despite the fact that no control option offers the definitive best way to play the game, there are a plethora of options to cater to your playstyle. Skyrim may not convert a non-VR believer to fork out the cash and get one to play the game, but PSVR owners are going to be flocking to it and praising it for months. If you do buy it just promise me one thing… you will play it like a comedy. It’ll change your life.
Reviewed on PSVR using the PS4 Pro