If you asked me a year ago when high-end VR devices entered the market if the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim would be playable from beginning to end, I would have rolled my eyes and called you a dreamer. Turns out the joke was on me though, as we are now one month away from playing the title on PlayStation VR units across the world. Bethesda is really utilising their large resource pool and experience, as well as cleverly exploiting a gap within the current market to really push their franchises into this new and exciting medium. Announced at Sony’s press conference this year, Skyrim promises to bring the whole game (DLC included) and to make it work in virtual reality. So how were Bethesda able to bring a game known for its shaky framerates and bugs onto a platform where those types of problems become magnified? How were Bethesda able to bring an open-world RPG with over 100 hours onto a platform where most AAA titles don’t even break the 10-hour mark? Well to answer these burning questions I went hands-on with the game at Sony’s booth at this year’s EB Expo in the Gold Coast. While some aspects were super impressive and surprising, others need a little bit of work, and I’ll try and hit the highs and lows of my experience for this preview.
Despite reservations, Skyrim holds up well visually in virtual reality
The first thing I noticed when putting on the headset is that this is the real deal. It’s Skyrim in VR. I can look at the surroundings, judge distance and feel the scale of the environment. Things like looking up at a dragon flying past while its roar echoed across the mountains was phenomenal (hopefully we can still mod dragons to be Thomas the Tank Engine as this would be next level in VR). I have a phobia of spiders and seeing the rep laugh at me as I had my head down swinging my sword like a madman was entertaining to everyone at the expo but me. The immersion alone that makes this game worth buying. You tend to pay closer attention and appreciate the environment more in VR than on a traditional screen, so VR might have you appreciating the finer details of Bethesda’s creation.
One thing that’s fairly incredible is the fact that the game doesn’t actually look that bad in VR. Let’s be honest, Skyrim has aged and it doesn’t hold up against current titles (unless you’re a member of the Aryan mustard race with mods). Couple that with the fact that the game needs to run at a constant 60fps and render on two screens and I went in with super low expectations. I am happy to report that the game looks exactly like the Skyrim you know and love (a game which is now six years old by the way). Admittedly, if you had the game side by side with the Special Edition on PlayStation 4 you would of course notice the discrepancies, however nothing I noticed looked terrible other than what was terrible already (Bethesda seriously, fix your faces). There was much less pixilation and jagged edges than I expected, especially when putting it next to other VR titles which struggle to produce quality anti-aliasing. So in terms of presentation and bringing the full game into VR, Bethesda succeeds.
Are you trolling me Bethesda?
The other surprising feature was how consistent and rock solid the framerate was. Virtual reality requires titles to run at a consistent 60fps to avoid motion sickness and Skyrim performs exceptionally. This is an impressive feature as Skyrim VR will be the only console version of the game to run at that framerate. Your general bugs were also very minimal, being pretty much limited to motion tracking bugs (I will get to that in a second). Granted the demo I played was clearly a vertical slice, so it’ll be interesting to see how the game runs when everything in the world is loaded at once. I want to also note that I didn’t feel any indication of motion sickness at all. Although I am accustomed to VR games, I can still get sweaty and queasy at times. I felt none of that playing Skyrim VR.
Now we get to the controls, which are probably the game’s biggest hurdle so far. The demo I played used two PlayStation Move controllers to simulate each hand. You can assign weapons, spells or a bow to them, and there is a handy quick item menu that allows you to switch between weapons easily. The face buttons of the Move controller can be used to perform a dragon shout, set a teleportation point, turn you 90 degrees (which works well) and bring up/navigate the quick item menu. My concern with this setup is the actual face button layout of the PlayStation Move controllers. These are in a square shape, not in the familiar diamond shape you find on every other controller. This makes things confusing, particularly because you actually cannot see the controller when you have the headset on. So when the rep asked me to press the bottom-right button to bring up the menu and then the top-right to scroll up in the menu, I quickly became very confused. It’s impressive Bethesda was able to have enough buttons to include everything in the original game while adding other functions for VR, it’s just the unintuitive layout of the Move controllers that make it feel like a mess at first.
Skyrim VR oddly solves most of the usual Bethesda bugs while introducing some new ones
While we are on motion controls, the tracking itself is patchy, but when it’s on, it’s on. Spells work incredibly well, feeling like they have a larger range in VR, and there’s a palpable sense you are decimating enemies with magic badassery. Aiming with the Moves really work well as you can aim each hand individually at the same time. The action of pulling your bow back and firing feels realistic, but there were times my bow would aim in a weird direction and I couldn’t hit enemies from a distance. Same story with the sword. It seems that the sword only inflicts damage when you swipe it in a certain direction. I feel half the time I was aimlessly swinging my sword until I landed some damage. I can totally see players resorting to just spells if this is a problem in the full retail release.
The final flaw with using the Move controllers is teleportation. A caveat to this is that teleportation works quite well, and in a matter of seconds you’ll be zipping through the world. However, it breaks your immersion considerably and kind of breaks the game. Enemies in Skyrim are programmed to run straight at you and start whacking, and teleporting allows you to take advantage of the simple AI path and just appear behind them and do damage. The rep reassured me Dualshock will be supported with traditional locomotion controllers. Honestly, with the issues I’ve reported above, Dualshock sounds like the way to go. If the button layout is exactly like the console versions, then I believe most of my issues with the controls will be resolved.
If this was footage of my demo, I would be looking at the ground and swinging at the dirt…
All things considered, I am still stumped as to how the whole of Skyrim has been brought to PSVR and how, in the famous words of Todd Howard, it just… works. The framerate is smooth, the bugs are few(ish), the visuals hold up and there are no reports of motion sickness. The motion controls and inputs are clever and build into the immersion, but the design of the Move controls and their limitations hold it back. I am worried that Bethesda or Sony are not going to advertise Dualshock support, as many players are confused at this stage what movement options it offers. Teleportation has become a dirty word in the VR world and the motion tracking bugs can get frustrating. There is no doubt however, that virtual reality (PSVR in particular) platforms are lacking in AAA titles, games with considerable length, games with a wealth of content, action-RPGs and open-world titles. Skyrim VR ticks all these boxes, and based on my preview I am cautiously optimistic. My caution rests on how the Dualshock support works and if the performance remains stable when the full retail version of the game is in play. We’ll update you with our thoughts and feelings come release.