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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim VR Review

When VR headsets became a reality, I made a list of games I wanted to experience from that perspective. It was primarily games with fantastic worlds games like BioShock, Half-Life 2, and, naturally The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Since then it’s become clear that adapting conventional first-person games to VR wouldn’t be easy, and Bethesda’s Skyrim VR is an example of how many of those challenges remain unsolved. It’s definitely great virtual tourism in a familiar land of dragons and magic, but this perspective doesn’t do the famously clumsy combat any favors.

I never really appreciated the size and scale of Skyrim until I was standing on the Throat of the World, or seeing a dragon up close. Creatures looking big on screen because is one thing; towering over you is another. I don’t have a particular hangup about spiders, but seeing the huge Frost Spiders in the early dungeons come at me sent chills down my spine. It’s an absolute joy to see this world from this perspective for anyone who’s spent a lot of time here.

It does inspire some significant awe when you first put on the PlayStation VR headset (the exclusive home of Skyrim VR for the time being), though it’s hard not to be distracted by all of the dramatic sacrifices in graphics quality that had to be made for Skyrim VR to run at the necessary 90 frames per second on a PlayStation 4. For perspective, the Special Edition struggles to maintain 30 frames. The lighting and shadows are barebones, and the environment is low-polygon models and blurry textures as far as the eye can see which isn’t very far, thanks to a short draw distance that creates some drastic pop-in as you approach a detailed area like Whiterun.

All the problems Skyrim has historically had are exaggerated, too. Character models and animations were never a strength, but when they’re standing right in front of you with these textures they can look positively awful.
And yet, Skyrim is still majestic, in an abstract sort of way. Coming across a waterfall in the forest is striking despite the jagged, polygonal rocks and pixelated water splashes. Part of my appreciation of it is likely from my brain filling in some details with memories of having seen it look better in past playthroughs.

What’s more of a constant inconvenience is the awkwardness of the controls, which is where one of the biggest challenges of converting a conventional game to VR springs up. It’s good that Skyrim VR’s settings give you the choice of whether you want to use the default short-hop teleportation or free movement, since a lot of people have nausea issues when using the latter. But if you can stomach it, I highly recommend smooth movement. Teleporting around feels immersion-breaking (unless you’re a wizard, I suppose) and immersion is the whole point here. In either case, turning beyond what you can do with your neck is done in jump-cut increments of about 30 degrees triggered by buttons on the controller in your dominant hand, which is certainly better than getting tangled in the cord or blocking the camera from seeing the Move controllers with your body. On the other hand, after a while I found I gave up on turning my head much and relied mostly on the turning controls, which reduced the feeling of actually being there.

No matter which control setup you use, combat is a mess. To be fair, it’s not as though Skyrim’s simplistic melee combat is renowned to begin with on any platform, but making it difficult to control makes it full-on aggravating. In typical Skyrim you survive by striking and immediately retreating to dodge the enemy’s counter attack, but that kind of agility is tough to pull off in Skyrim VR. Moving backward is done by holding the movement button (the thumb button on your off hand) and pointing the Move controller back at your chest but you’re already using that hand as part of Skyrim’s two-handed combat system, so good luck using a shield or targeting a spell while you do that.

Ranged combat feels much better (which, again, it does in every version of Skyrim). Drawing a bow works just how you’d expect it to, giving archery a much more active feel. Sniping a distant target is tricky, though, because the PSVR’s low resolution reduces them to a blob of pixels pretty quickly.

Blasting spells out of your hands is by far the best way to engage with Skyrim’s locals. Seeing a stream of fire shoot from your hands is an empowering feeling, and thanks to individual hand tracking you can even zap two different things at once, or hold your hands together to intensify the attack. Still, it’s hard to move and shoot at the same time, at least when trying to use that second hand. It can feel like trying to fight with one hand tied behind your back.

Another thing that doesn’t translate terribly well to the Move controllers is the constant pausing of the action to change equipment or use potions in mid-battle. The menus are actually very readable, so that’s not an issue, but navigating them with the Move’s motion controls is unreliable and frustrating. Also, because the menus pop up as two-dimensional displays floating in space in front of you, when an enemy gets up close and personal (which they often do) they can actually get between you and the menu, making it impossible to see the potion or spell you’re trying to use to heal the damage they’ve just inflicted.

Using the Move controllers to directly interact with the environment by picking up or throwing items around feels much less precise than it does in something like Job Simulator or Superhot VR, but it does usually work in a satisfying way when throwing pots and pans around someone unsuspecting villager’s house. It’s a little off-putting that items hover about a foot away from the model of your hand (or the controller), though. And the big disappointment is that you can’t drag or manipulate corpses (I’d speculate the ragdoll physics might cause frame rate dips when abused), which kills a lot of possibilities for macabre fun. And weirdly, you can’t use Move controllers to pick locks like in the Switch version.

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