Originally published on GameInformer.com November 20, 2017, at 07:00 AM.
Selected for Blog Herding -- The Best Blogs of the Community, 11/30/17.
Selected for Game Informer Newsletter, 12/2/17.
8,109 views as of June 4, 2018.
Update 6/4/18: Select screenshots from this pictorial appear at bottom.
I can't remember being as excited for a video game release as I was for Skyrim VR this past Friday. As a fan of the standard version, the special edition and virtual reality gaming, this new port promised the opportunity to virtually set foot in Skyrim and embody the Dragonborn in ways that prior editions couldn't. In many ways it's a breathtaking success, though not without some significant shortcomings.
My biggest concern was whether or not Bethesda could provide locomotion options that would allow most gamers to exist in a virtual Skyrim without discomfort. Contrary to some assertions, the nausea that gamers can experience is a physiological response to the discrepancy between visual cues and a stationary state that practice alone can't completely overcome.
Every gamer is different, and I'm no exception. I can play games like Farpoint for hours on end with no discomfort, however, games like DriveClub made me physically ill in one minute flat. Most VR games fall in the middle. So I was relieved that Skyrim's design has an option that allows me to play indefinitely were it not for the fatigue of standing in one place for hours at a time.
Rather than teleportation or what I understand to be more fluid movement provided by the DualShock controller, I've opted for locomotion via the Move controllers (like teleportation) that combines smooth forward/backward movement with snap turning. Like other Skyrim VR controls mapped to the Move controllers, however, learning to use them takes a lot of practice.
The issue is where on each controller (left and right hands) actions are placed. One moves by pointing the left-hand controller and holding the main button down, while turning occurs by pressing the right-hand X (left turn) and O (right turn) buttons. Coordination took me awhile. Worse, maneuvering in combat is a challenge when players are dual-wielding weapons, magic or a shield.
Glitchy controls right off the bat had me in a panic. The problem was my character kept unsheathing weapons, including when I was trying to converse with NPCs. That act alone alarmed the others, but my character also randomly swung at/attacked with whatever I was now wielding. This lead to many fights as well as save reloads to avoid the consequences of angering everyone in Skyrim.
After much trial and error I eventually discovered that whenever I turned my head left, my character would unsheath his weapons and whenever I raised my arms to choose a dialog option (no matter how slowly), my character would attack. Thankfully, the glitch seems to disappear with playtime, though on occasion it still happens (the NPC above did not appreciate it).
Besides locomotion, combat was a concern in VR, especially when using motion controllers. I know current controllers can overcome latency issues, especially to judge by Farpoint's use of the Aim controller. But for me, the Move controllers were unproven in games that rely heavily on melee and ranged combat. But for the most part, combat in Skyrim VR is responsive and entertaining.
Much has been made of archery controls in this game and for good reason. Being able to use the Move controllers to mimic the act of pulling back an arrow on a bow, aiming it at one's target and releasing it is empowering and satisfying, especially because lining up a shot takes some skill. Loosing an arrow without a reticule takes practice but is all the more immersive for it.
Melee combat is likewise effective and rewarding though it feels surprisingly less precise. Whether due to inconsistent hit detection or inadequate visual or audio cues, such combat can boil down to flailing away with one's weapon of choice in hopes of hitting the mark often enough to bring an enemy down. Truth be told, in the midst of combat I'm not keeping score and I never feel cheated, so any such discrepancy is minor.
Hack and slash, in fact, tends to be my approach when confronted with monstrosities like a giant spider (above) that in virtual reality are made even more intimidating. More on that later, but suffice it to say that the degree to which Skyrim VR immerses you in its world, including during combat, more than makes up for the shortcomings that do exist as a result of porting an older game to this new medium.
One of the ways that this version of the game has inspired me is in how intuitive some actions are in the virtual reality setting. For instance, in the standard game I recall having to alternate between blocking with one's shield or attacking, whereas here it's easy to do both at the same time. While blocking incoming attacks with my left-hand shield, it's tremendously satisfying to swing my right-hand weapon around the shield at my attacker.
That's not to say it wasn't an option in the standard game, I just don't remember it or it wasn't such a simple proposition using the DualShock controller. But having a Move controller in each hand to simulate holding separate items encourages a more organic approach to most situations so they can be addressed more efficiently.
Another feature that I found immersive was especially evident during combat. Environmental effects, as with everything else in VR, is in 3D. So when a mage casts spells, they fly, arc, flare, etc. past your head and around your body (above). Not only do they crackle in stereo, for instance, but their bright trajectory can be traced as it flies past. If you're lucky. This is similar to witnessing snow flurries at higher elevations, which whip and swirl believably all around you.
As with attacking from behind one's shield, attacking while leaning from behind static cover becomes an effective means of taking on foes, especially at range. Notice a pattern here? I don't like putting myself in harm's way unnecessarily, so it was fun to discover I could peak around corners and even loose arrows or launch a fire spell while doing so. Again, I don't recall being able to do this in the standard game, but once again Skyrim VR encourages such experimentation.
Dual-wielding spells in virtual reality, like archery, has received a lot of attention because of the way combat has been reimagined to take advantage of the medium. In this case, spells in each hand can be cast at different foes. For me, it's actually easier said than done, as keeping track of two foes -- especially if they diverge -- can be a challenge when attacking. But the opportunity to do so is welcome and efficient.
Lastly in relation to combat, it's worth noting that in this PSVR game players have to watch their back. Enemies will attack from behind, forcing use of the controller to turn and face them. That might not seem significant, but for a VR system that relies on one front-facing camera, using this oft-neglected blind spot helps immerse players (as opposed to Farpoint, for instance, where passed foes will comically sprint to the front).
Motion controls of course are less important for using menus, however, Skyrim's interface is a significant element of the game and demands precise navigation. What players get, though, is a less than ideal implementation in virtual reality. Menus can appear at an angle to the gamer's POV, using motion controls to move horizontally and laterally can confound, and simply recalling the related control configuration can be a challenge.
If I remember, left-hand Square is Quests/Settings/Stats, Triangle is Menu/Items/Map/Magic, X is Sheath/Unsheath and O is Favorites. Honestly, I'm still learning and often enough press the wrong button. And because the Move controllers vis a vis menus seem to operate in a limited window between not moving and moving too much, hitting the sweet spot can be trial and error. But like so many other things, practice can make perfect.
Two sides of the same menu, so to speak, are the terrestrial world map and the celestial level-up menu. Both impress with their appearance in VR, as the former is laid out like a topographic floor map that players can glide above, and the latter resembles a galactic diorama that players can turn within.
While visually impressive, the designs aren't perfect. The world map is hindered by labels that are difficult to read at a distance in VR, and the motion controls for the celestial menu take some practice to hit their mark (turns out holding down the main button helps, a little). Still both are neat, with the celestial menu being a sight-to-behold.
The overall presentation is one area that will make or break Skyrim VR and it's mostly a success. When standing amid the mountainous terrain, one is struck by the sheer scale of this world. Whether peering up at the high peaks, hiking up steep mountain trails or standing amid high elevation snow flurries, one feels humble in the midst of such natural wonder. The forests, foliage, lakes and rivers only help immerse players in the fantasy.
Still, there are issues that hold this version back from being the spectacle that it could have been. Anyone familiar with PSVR knows most titles sacrifice presentation in order to provide a solid VR experience on the PS4 (Batman: Arkham VR and Farpoint being notable exceptions), and Skyrim VR follows suit with worse draw distance, texture pop-in and generally less detailed graphics.
But what the game might lack in consistently detailed tableaus, it makes up for with more defined character models and settlements up close. The detail is not of a level like Batman: Arkham VR or even Farpoint, but even if not realistic it's still believable. The overall impact when taken together is a living, breathing 3D fantasy world that players can lose themselves in for hours on end.
Whether standing beside a three dimensional NPC or marveling at the snow-capped mountains that tower over every settlement, standing amid swirling snow flurries on Skyrim's peaks as the wind howls in your ears or battling denizens of the caves and caverns below the surface, Skyrim VR immerses players as no version of the game has before.
Fighting the first dragon in the game helps illustrate some of the game's pros and cons. Raising one's gaze skyward to track this giant mythical beast as it soars overhead is an amazing experience, one that turns exciting with attempts to equip and loose arrows at the moving target. Then desperation sinks in as the creature lands nearby, spraying fire while I clumsily use a fire spell and try to flee at the same time.
Personally, I'm loving my experience with Skyrim VR and am always anxious to set foot again in its virtual fantasy world. Technical issues can irritate on occasion, but in most cases practice can eliminate such annoyances. It's by no stretch a perfect game, but considering what Bethesda accomplished with this port of an older game, the outcome is impressive.
Still, VR is not for everyone, and this purchase comes down to a pretty simple recommendation. If you've never played Skyrim, pickup the special edition on Steam, PS4 or Xbox One -- the production values are impressive and the controls are intuitive and responsive. However, if you're already a fan, the VR version is icing on a delicious cake. Being able to exist in a virtual Skyrim is a fantasy come true that its flaws can't diminish.
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