At this point The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has been released for a multitude of platforms, whether that be the first iteration back on PC, PS3, and Xbox 360 or the more recent Switch version and Special Editions, but now it's moved into totally uncharted territory: virtual reality. At long last Skyrim VR has now launched for the PlayStation VR, being teased by Bethesda for quite some time, and this project has no shortage of ambition, moving the whole expansive RPG (including all previously released DLC) into the world of VR, with some big changes to boot.
When we say the whole RPG, we mean the whole thing, because this is exactly the Skyrim you remember. Now for those with a glass half empty kind of attitude, it's true that this means it's all stuff you've seen before and know very well, but for those on the other side of the scale you can now experience this in a totally new way, as the dragons, the shouts, and the arrows to the knee are all in this new immersive space.
We've never seen Skyrim in this medium before, so the first few moments are going to be a little hard to adjust to. It's indeed a weird feeling sitting on that cart as a prisoner and having to swivel to make sure you're facing the right way, looking around and surveying the land as you hear the mumblings of your criminal companion, but soon you find the sweet spot and you'll get into the swing of things. In fact, the first opening section doesn't even introduce movement, as you are teleported from place to place until (spoilers for those who haven't played Skyrim), a dragon attacks and distracts the guards from removing your head from your shoulders.
Once things really heat up (pun intended) you're then given the reins of your own movement. We started the game out on controller, so for us, this was simple enough, but there are other movement options for those using Move Controllers. For instance, if you like the teleportation movement options seen in other VR games, you can do that by pointing at where you want to go (this is the default for Move Controllers, but not available at all on DualShock), but there's also the choice to walk as you would with the controller too, so there are plenty of options to tweak your preferences.
Speaking of options, there's a number of other VR adjustments you can make, one of the most important of which is the peripheral FOV filter, which slightly narrows your view when turning or moving quickly. This can be turned on and off, but personally we found this to be very useful, as without it on we had a lot of stomach lurches as we weaved our way around the world, but when we reactivated it again (since it's the default) we found our bellies right where they should be.
In fact, we found next to no motion sickness issues throughout the entirety of our experience. Other reports suggest differently, and of course this won't be the same for all players since different people have their own tolerance for the issue, but we were impressed with how optimised it felt. With the number of options available as well, like snapping your turn at different angles, this should help players customise their experience to suit their needs.
Going back to our experience, once we figured out how to move (all in first-person we should add, with no third-person option we saw) and found our way to safety, we were unshackled from our bindings and allowed to interact with the world. In this way the game gradually introduces the different parts of the VR experience to you, stopping things from getting too overwhelming, all of which is helped by consistent tutorials to help you work your way around the world. With our hands free, then, we did what any budding adventurer would - looted anything that wasn't nailed down, equipped a weapon, and went on our merry way.
At this point we were introduced to inventory management, achieved as you would normally on DualShock, while on the Move Controllers this involved holding the trigger in your left hand to drag the menus up, down, left, and right, while selecting items with either hand to equip, i.e. two swords in each hand, or a shield in the left for instance. All of this, again, took some getting used to and applied to shopping as well, but it all worked as expected.
Those of you familiar with Skyrim will know that your escape from the opening section takes you down into a cave with more loot to find, and although we weren't scared of the spiders when playing the game previously (despite being very afraid of them in real life), in the world of VR the spiders in the cave definitely had a lot more of a fear factor. This just attests to the power of VR in terms of immersion, as it was a terrifying experience seeing giant spiders jump into your actual face, rather than the face of your avatar on a TV screen.
The most impressive part, the biggest wow factor of the Skyrim VR experience for us, was when we emerged from the cave and out into the open world. This is when it dawned on us that the entirety of Skyrim's snowy peaks, sprawling plains, and bustling towns were available to us in VR. People often talk about the moment you emerge from the sewers in Oblivion, but this had the same effect on us, and at that point, we were let loose to see the world at our own pace.
Since we'd picked up a bow we went to town trying this out on some unsuspecting elk first of all, but here is where one of the biggest problems revealed itself: the tracking on the Move Controllers. Using said controllers, aiming a bow comprises of lining up your arrow with your bow, holding the trigger on the arrow hand, pulling back, and releasing, and while this was really cool when it worked, we often found it incredibly hard to aim, and the controllers sometimes just moved with a mind of their own.
This wasn't just confined to the bow, though, as we found some issues with the Move Controllers during melee combat too, as quick swings with our weapon sometimes made the weapons transform into Move Controllers in-game (which is how they appear when nothing is equipped, as opposed to hands, which would have been nicer). For the most part, though, this worked much better than the bow and arrow did, and spells worked best, providing this awesome feeling of immersion when you aimed your flames at an enemy and engulfed them with your left hand, before setting on them with the sword in your right.
Combat as a whole then is very satisfying, and although it can feel a bit strange setting about hitting someone with a big old weapon in-game without the feeling of feedback when hitting their body, when things got hot and heavy everything worked as it should, and once you get used to turning and using your shield you can find yourself in some exhilarating duels, especially with the Move Controllers.
Another point with the Move Controllers is that this is a game that needs a really good camera setup, so it can see as much of you and your controllers in the game as possible, as you'll often be needing to point at stuff around you in multiple directions, so the more you can do to help the camera track your hands the better.
As mentioned, using the standard controller will feel familiar to everyone who's played Skyrim or any other Bethesda RPG, and although the Move Controllers take some getting used to, you can still do the same things with them, except now you use your weapons as you would in a real fight, point at the stuff you want to open, and throw all the items you want in the world (as you did before, by picking them up and placing them where you wish). Be careful though, as you can go from unequipped to brandishing a weapon with one swoop of your hand, and this can lead to dire consequences if you happen to smack a guard with your sword accidentally.
Speaking of guards, the NPCs and AI in the game are still as flawed as they've always been. Companions at times will make baffling decisions, and the same comic effects that Bethesda RPGs have provided us with over the years are still there, but that wasn't too disappointing given that we've come to expect a bit of silliness from the people of Skyrim.
As other VR games like Resident Evil 7 have proven, the shift into VR needs to come with a major graphical downgrade, including textures and the like, and that's especially evident here too. Everything feels undoubtedly Skyrim, but here everything looks that bit worse (perhaps made even more noticeable by the recent release of the Special Edition on current gen consoles), especially if you were to look at the finer details. This is more a point about VR as a whole, as here the visual fidelity has been reduced in order to produce an incredibly smooth frame-rate. In fact, we didn't notice a single blip, and that helped greatly in terms of comfort.
The UI looks polished, however, although be prepared to move your head a lot, as your sneak indicator is above you, your compass is below, your objectives are on the left and right, and the menus show up in front of you when changing settings. A lot of head movement, sure, but this made sure that nothing got in the way of where you were actually looking, allowing you to keep on top of combat and get great views instead.
Overall we walked into Skyrim VR sceptical as to how Bethesda could recreate their RPG in the medium, one that's only seen what many have referred to as 'tech demos' in the past, but we came away stunned and surprised. The scale is all there, and the control schemes work a treat. Sure, the Move Controllers aren't great in terms of tracking sometimes, but the feeling of immersion is fantastic, especially when you get into your stride and start throwing out spells and attacks like you're actually there. The graphical tradeoff was worth it for us, and we can't wait to dive back into the world again.