So, let’s get this out of the way first: Yes, it’s prettier. If you’re coming from PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 to PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, you can see—and almost feel—the difference. Stuff up close has better texture. Stuff far away has less-noticeable pop in. Those newly added god rays make a wonderful difference in giving the daylight some weight. Those increasingly deep but diffuse shadows root you to the land more than ever. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was pretty much everybody’s game of the year in 2011, and it’d be difficult to convince me that Skyrim–Special Edition couldn’t pull off that exact same feat in 2016.
And so it begins—again. Starting with that slow wagon ride down into the doomed town of Helgen. Only this time with those thick sun rays cutting through the mist and the trees. This time with bluer than blue skies. This time with darker shadows, longer lines of sight, and a deeper color palette.
When you get outside, the wow factor just hasn't died down after all these years. Only this time you see more gravel strewn along the path to the town of Riverwood. More tufts of grass lay thickly across the plain. There are even new signposts in places there never were any before, pointing the way to major cities without making you pop in and out of the map screen as often.
I’ve also played last-gen’s Skyrim solidly for the past couple weeks. And let me tell you, Skyrim–Special Edition is a whole new world. I won't say it’s like Dorothy arriving in the land of Oz, but the desire to make the comparison sort of did come to mind.
You’re still the Dragonborn, a chosen one to come and save the land from the returning dragons. You’re still free to ignore the main story and pursue sidelong interests to your heart’s content. You’re still free to roam the land like no other game lets you do. When it comes to gaming in general, The Elder Scrolls series is the very definition of player freedom.
The temptation when doing a write-up like this is to turn it into a graphical-comparison A/B chart. More pixels here, fewer (insert needlessly tech-heavy terms) there. And this goes without saying, but if you’ve never been interested in Skyrim, or if the game just completely bounced off of you when you did try, then don’t sweat Skyrim–Special Edition. There’s nothing new here for you to discover.
But if you’re like me, and Skyrim long ago took up permanent residence in that soft spot inside your chest, then by all means, come back. Just come back. It’s still so good here, you guys. There are many gamers that would make reasonable, impassioned arguments in regards to The Witcher 3 being the new high water mark for role-playing games. I would not shout those people down. The Witcher 3 does incredible things. But for me, the pinnacle of fantasy RPGs, for now, is still Skyrim. It still the crown holder. I thought it would be nice returning to this land of ice and stone. I never predicted it’d be this nice.
I’ve played hundreds of hours of original Skyrim, off and on, for the past five years. Yet I’m still thrilled with the remaster. I’m wasting lots and lots of time just angling for screenshots in the peach-colored dusk. I’m stopping and staring at monuments and environments that I’ve run past a hundred times. I’m marveling at weapons and armor that should’ve bored me to death by '07 or '08. I’m running along roads that are at once familiar and now wholly fresh. I’m just breathing this place in again.
Look, I know you might not have bought tickets to hyperbole theater. But I’m enjoying the show. If you even have an inkling that you’d like to return to the land of Skyrim, do it. It'll do two things: It'll remind you just how very good Skyrim was in the first place, and it'll convince you of just how much better it could get. Full review to follow.