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'Skyrim VR' for PC Review – a Dragon-sized Feast for the Eyes – Road to VR

Skyrim VR (2017), Bethesda’s premier virtual reality port of the hit open-world RPG Skyrim (2011), has finally made its way to PC VR headsets after its November 2017 launch on PlayStation VR. Unlike the studio’s recent release of Fallout 4 VR (2017), it appears being an older title, and having to squeeze into the lower graphical confines of PSVR, has done it a literal world of good, as it both looks and feels more like the Skyrim we know and love. Barring some imperfections, Bethesda has successfully opened up the giant region of Skyrim to a platform that can boost the pixels where it counts, giving you that immersive mountain vista you always craved, or the moody evening in the tavern reading up on the world’s ancient lore.
Note: It’s been a while since I played the original Skyrim, but I’ve had the opportunity to put in nearly 100 hours of questing across the flatscreen game’s vast terrain over the years. Time limitations only allowed me a fraction of that in the VR version, so for the purposes of this review, I’ll be focusing on the mechanics specific to the PC VR release, and try my best to balance my appraisal of the game for both new and returning players. I’ve also never had the chance to play Skyrim VR on PSVR (our review here), so this is an entirely new review specific to the PC VR platform.

Gameplay

An open world rife with possibilities; the chance to step into the boots of the Dragonborn, a foretold hero who appears once in a millennium who can speak the language of the dragons, a magical species woven into the world’s mythos. Thought long-dead, the winged overlords of the world of Tamriel appear just as you enter the scene as a prisoner on the chopping block. I won’t spoil it any further in case you’re new to the game.

Offered the choice of a variety of races, each with their own proclivities to magic, strength, enchantment, etc, you set out into the world’s sword and sorcery narrative. The entire avatar creator is here from the original Skyrim, replete with nose, eye, head, hair, complexion, and scar modifiers—something I don’t waste my time on since you never see yourself again anyway. Unlike the original, there is no third-person view, because, after all, this is a first-person VR game.

image captured by Road to VR

This is where you’re given the first of your moral choices, the ones that help shape your expectations of the world, and the world’s expectations of you. Do you start the game as a shiftless thief, sneaking into homes and taking everything that isn’t bolted down? Or are you a reserved, honorable warrior who doesn’t boast pridefully of your accomplishments, never taking anything that isn’t owed to you? Many of these moral choices are decided through the game’s text-based dialogue system, which admittedly isn’t ideal in VR, but it’s really the only way of inserting your opinion into the game’s narrative.

Skyrim VR plays very well on PC, and it’s really no wonder why. As a seven year-old game that first found life in VR on PSVR, I got it to run on max settings, supersampled via SteamVR’s automatic tuner at 176% with only minor hiccups on our test rig, the Exemplar 2, which is admittedly a step above the game’s recommended spec of an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 8GB and Intel Core i7-4790. Thanks to a bevy of options, lesser VR-ready systems should be able to chew through Skyrim VR on lower settings.

Perfectly rendering everything as far as the eye can see is an impossible task though; the max render distance is great, although rendering finer geometry is pretty noticeable in larger areas as you see grass and plants spring up in front of you to fill out the ground’s basic textures. There are plenty of options including various render toggles, but the only choice for anti-aliasing is predictably temporal anti aliasing (TAA) which isn’t exactly ideal. I didn’t find any issue though visually, as there’s not much TASS-related blurriness to speak of. Some textures can ‘pop’ and glare at certain angles, but this is only a seldom occurrence. Generally speaking, Skyrim VR for PC is the Skyrim VR you were promised, and can bet all of these things can be finagled into working more smoothly with a little elbow grease thanks to the knowledge base of the game’s robust modding community (see note on modding at article’s end).

There are only two fundamental locomotion options: teleport and hand-relative direct movement. Neither are incredible in my opinion, but are still serviceable. Teleporting across the region of Skyrim is laborious and it feels a little too cheaty for my tastes, so I immediately opted for direct movement (also called ‘free locomotion’). I personally am not a fan of hand-relative free locomotion, and would much rather have head-relative movement, which better helps me make natural micro-adjustments along my forward path. You can choose between snap turning with a variable degree, or smooth turning with variable rotation speed.

I found all control schemes, including scrolling through the game’s vast amount of menus, to be much more simple on Oculus Touch than with HTC Vive motion controllers. When played on Vive, the game makes extensive use of the Vive controller’s touchpad, so selection is mapped to thumb swipes and not verifiable clicks of the touchpad itself. I never really got the hang of it to be honest, and found myself much more readily playing with Touch simply because of the ease of navigating the game’s menus with the thumbstick over the touchpad. It’s also a bit awkward to use the Vive’s left grip button to jump while resting your thumb on the touchpad to move forward. Many times I found myself confusing controls and accidentally crouching when I wanted to jump, or ‘Fus-Roh-Dah’-ing the townsfolk and guards because I depressed the right grip button instead of the left to sheath my sword. Oh, you can also play on gamepad, but where’s the fun in that?

An adjustable height slider is available in the settings so you can appear taller in-game, something I turned to the max so I could sit down and still be at a reasonable height while running through the world and talking to the world’s six foot-tall NPCs. A physical ‘sneak’ is available, i.e. letting you physically bend down to ‘sneak’, although if you’re already seated, you’ll always be in sneak mode, so I tended to stick to the toggle sneak option which activates with the push of a button. One issue with that it sneak mode makes you physically shorter in-game, making your seated lower point of view even lower. To remedy this, I would physically stand in dungeons and activate physical sneak, so I could be the correct height and forgo the automatic height readjustment of the sneak mode toggle altogether.

Image courtesy Bethesda

Combat, while somewhat of a mixed bag, is serviceable. Melee combat isn’t great simply because your weapons, which are stuck to your hands, don’t really telegraph any in-game weight, so you can waggle what appears to be a 20 pound battle-axe as if it weighed nothing. Blocking with a shield isn’t really that great either, as it seemed to work only a fraction of the time I used it, making it basically a non-starter from the get-go. Archery and magic casting are really where Skyrim VR shines though, which should be good news for stealth archers and mages alike.

Image courtesy Bethesda

Immersion

Bad news first: one of the worst parts of Skyrim VR is the predictable (and entirely necessary) continuation of the base game’s menu system. On a standard monitor, these make absolute sense, but in VR you’re faced with a floating window where all of your things are displayed in text form, which takes away from the majesty of the world and replaces it with an ancillary task that just doesn’t fit in the rustic world of Tamriel. Even though I understand the confines of the game don’t allow it, ideally all items would be represented physically so you could holster them appropriately, and so you would ideally have the option of keeping a sword on your hip, a bow and quiver on your back, and a satchel of food and medicine by your side. Instead, you just go through a menu and equip or consume whatever you need at that moment, and in a paused state so you can scroll freely without fear or being attacked.

image captured by Road to VR

If the menu is any indication of how things are, then its obvious that object interaction just isn’t going to be a natural experience in Skyrim VR, as you’ll see a potion on a shelf and spirit it away with a single button press into your inventory where it will go never to be seen again. Hand presence is also null, as the models of your high tech VR controllers are rendered when you haven’t actively equipped something, which is totally out-of-place in the context of the world.

Despite these misgivings, I can’t underline enough just how awesome it is to look over a mountain vista and see the vast, explorable world ahead of me. And while graphics are clearly showing their age, it’s all rich enough to make it a cohesive and frankly still breathtaking experience for anyone starting for the first time, or returning to a lovingly remembered place like a well decorated house Breezehome, or the dank sewers of Riften.

Image courtesy Bethesda

Besides that, you can cook, blacksmith, enchant items, collect tons of readable books, hunt, ransack houses, and help every bratty child in the game without even so much as an afterthought for the main questline. And if you do, you’ll have a seemingly endless amount of time to digest the game’s world-building elements, be it side missions to uncover revelations of the past, or through the hundreds of books scattered throughout the game that detail Skyrim’s well-crafted history. The game is undoubtedly vast and rich—something which is precious and few in VR at the moment. Not only that, Skyrim VR includes a number of official add-ons including Dawnguard, Hearthfire, and Dragonborn, adding more questlines and flavor to the world.

Comfort

Both locomotion styles, teleportation and direct movement, are exceedingly comfortable ways of moving around. While you can run, turn and jump in-game, an adjustable FOV filter helps keep things feeling comfortable. You can turn this off for maximum FOV, although I found it both useful and non-intrusive at its default setting.

Because the game was designed first for flatscreens, the game’s architecture is littered with stairs, something that if not created with care, can possibly lead to nausea. Stairs are seemingly randomly designed to either let you glide smoothly upwards (good), or make your POV feel every bump on the way up (bad), which isn’t very comfortable in the short-term. Despite this, I still found Skyrim VR to be a mostly comfortable experience which didn’t hit any of those simulation sickness buttons in my brain I recognize all too well.

Modding: Mods should hypothetically work, although I wasn’t personally successful in getting any, either manually or through a few of the handy modding tools including LOOT, Mod Manager 2, or Nexus Mod Manager. None of these are tuned to recognize Skyrim VR currently, so easy mod installation isn’t likely until those services are expanded to include the VR version too, or cleverly tricked into working and correctly assigning boot load. Considering users cracked into Fallout 4 VR on launch day, I suspect similar results from other more familiar with manual mod installation even though I had no personal success. I’ll update this when more information is available.


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