When Bethesda started bombarding us with Skyrim ports, we made fun of the company and the people who fell for its marketing schemes. When the Special Edition was announced, we were outraged that Bethesda was trying to charge us for the game again without offering much in return. Especially on PC.
But when Skyrim Anniversary Edition was announced, we just hung our heads in shame and opened up our wallets because we knew Todd finally managed to wear us down.
I can think of very few video games that received as many ports and re-releases as Skyrim. And even though we all have a good laugh whenever a new version comes out, we still end up buying it anyway.
Jumping back into Skyrim is like visiting an old friend. And I’ll take any excuse I can get to reinstall the game. But this time is different because I decided to do the unthinkable. This time I decided to play Skyrim on PC without any mods.
And this is my story…
Of Mods and Men
I returned to Skyrim more times than I can count over the past decade but only once did I have the courage to play it in its vanilla form. This was back in November of 2011. My initial experience was an overall positive one but, like many others, I had my fair share of issues with the game.
“Why are hundreds of NPCs voiced by the same seven people?”
“Why isn’t there more weapon and armor variety?”
“Skyrim, why can’t you be more like Morrowind?”
Luckily, I didn’t have to ponder these questions for long because by my second playthrough my copy of Skyrim was jam-packed with mods designed to fix all the issues I had with the game. And improve many aspects I didn’t even know I wanted to improve. But while Skyrim became unquestionably better with mods, I inadvertently began focusing more on them than the game itself.
Each subsequent playthrough brought with it a frenzied hunt for more and more mods. Content mods, quest mods, Thomas the Tank Engine mods. Mods to improve other mods. Patches for mods. Software to better organize my mods. Mods, mods, mods.
In the end, Skyrim mods became an obsession and I didn’t really care about the game anymore. Earlier this year I spent two weeks decking out my copy of Skyrim with over 400 mods while obsessing over trying to change every single aspect of the game. Ultimately, though, I only ended up actually playing the game for maybe around 20 hours before I called it quits.
In an effort to avoid feeding my urges yet again I decided to play Skyrim Anniversary Edition in its pure, unaltered state. And, to my surprise, so far I haven’t missed playing with mods. Well, maybe just a little bit.
People Actually Paid Money for This?
The main reason I wanted to stay away from mods this time was that I wanted to give Skyrim Anniversary Edition a fair assessment for the purposes of this review. And also because this new re-release of the game technically already features mods, even though Bethesda is adamant that we shouldn’t call them that. I’m talking of course about the Creation Club content.
Skyrim Anniversary Edition brings to the table a plethora of fresh content courtesy of CC. From armor and weapon packs to quests and even some new gameplay mechanics, there’s quite a lot of stuff here. Most of it had been available on the Creation Club for some time but a bunch of the DLC was made specifically for the Anniversary Edition.
As someone who has never touched CC content before I have to say that some of these ‘creations’ are pretty good. Others, not so much. It’s frankly pretty mind-blowing that people were willing to spend money on a lot of this stuff. There are quite a few items that were simply ported over from previous Elder Scrolls games and while it’s nice to see them in Skyrim (without third-party mods), they should have been added for free a while ago.
Having said that, we’re not here to discuss Bethesda’s predatory business practices, though we may do that in a separate article. For now, let’s get back on track and talk about the content itself. Particularly the new additions.
Surviving the Tedium
The first new feature you’ll encounter while playing Skyrim Anniversary Edition is the survival mode. The mode is designed to make Skyrim a bit more challenging and realistic by having you manage things like hunger, sleep, and warmth. Ignoring these aspects will cause you to suffer increasingly larger penalties to your stats. The mode also adds new diseases and, most importantly, removes your ability to fast travel.
Survival mode is overall a nice addition to Skyrim, however, its novelty wears off several hours into the game. While I enjoyed having to visit taverns to stock up on food and take a nap every so often, the routine quickly became a chore. You can’t go more than 30 minutes without the game informing you that “you are peckish” or feeling drained.
On the other hand, I did welcome other mechanics like having reduced carry weight and being able to level up only when you sleep. For the most part, I also enjoyed the removal of fast travel, though I do wish they would have added a couple of new ways to traverse the map.
Horses are essential in survival mode, and you can even tame wild ones now, but it’s all too easy to lose track of them as there’s no horse whistle. Usually, you would just fast travel somewhere to have the horse teleport to you but in survival mode that’s not an option.
While not strictly part of the survival mode, the new fishing mechanic ties into it by giving you a reliable method of acquiring food while you’re in the wild. Provided you can stand the fishing minigame for more than a few minutes. Personally, I find fishing minigames to be a complete waste of time but this one is particularly boring.
Skyrim Anniversary Edition does a decent enough job at gradually introducing you to the Creation Club content. This is pretty impressive considering there are dozens of pieces of DLC here. A few of the quests trigger automatically once you reach certain milestones but most are there for you to discover on your own.
A large portion of the content is integrated naturally and can be unlocked by picking up notes you find in taverns or while exploring dungeons. It’s a simple system but it works and it plays nicely into Skyrim’s usual game loop where one thing leads to another.
Just like with the main story, you can ignore the new content without feeling like you’re missing out on much. There are a few bigger pieces of content you’ll definitely want to check out, especially if you’re a fan of previous entries in the series.
But, for the most part, there’s no need to focus on trying to find the new content because you’ll run into it just by playing the game as you would normally do. i.e. start a quest, then become sidetracked by a million different things until you don’t even know what you’re doing anymore.
Welcome to Bits & Pieces
Depending on how you decide to go about your adventures in Skyrim Anniversary Edition, you can end up being overpowered sooner than expected thanks to the Creation Club content.
The latest version of Skyrim introduces a wide range of powerful weapons and armor sets, some of which you can acquire pretty early on. That’s not necessarily a but thing but it can make the game a bit too easy moving forward. Playing on a higher difficulty and enabling survival mode can mitigate that somewhat.
For the purposes of this review, I went out of my way to try and locate as much of the new content as I could, and sure enough, it didn’t take me long to find it. Within the first 10 hours or so of the game, I managed to get my hands on several new weapons, three new sets of armor, and an assortment of other interesting items.
Although I was initially mainly excited about the armor sets, I ultimately found myself appreciating the smaller things. Backpacks, magic-infused arrows, pets, and new spells are all great additions to a game that desperately needed more variety.
As far as the armor sets are concerned, some of them look truly fantastic. I especially liked the Imperial Dragon set that makes you look like a Roman Centurion complete with Scutum and Gladius. There are also some returning favorites like the Divine Crusader set from Oblivion that is always nice to see.
It’s a shame, though, that acquiring these sets takes little to no effort. The developers clearly put some thought into designing these sets but made extremely basic quests to go along with them. The same goes for acquiring legendary artifacts like the Lord’s Mail. I feel like some of these should have been tied to Daedric Quests.
A Clumsy Love Letter
One of the biggest highlights of Skyrim Anniversary Edition is the new content inspired by TES III: Morrowind and TES IV: Oblivion. I’m sure many people would agree with me when I say that we would have preferred a remake of either of two games over another version of Skyrim. But since this is Bethesda we’re talking about here, we’ll have to take what we can get.
So what do we get? If you enjoy hoarding, quite a lot. The Morrowind-themed Ghost of the Tribunal creation adds over two dozen weapons and pieces of armor, including returning artifacts like Trueflame, Hopesfire, and Skull Crusher. And, of course, you can also get your hands on the iconic Ordinator armor set. Finally. The Oblivion-themed creation known as The Cause is significantly lighter in terms of collectibles.
The quests associated with the new content are serviceable but nothing to write home about. Seeing NPCs dressed in Mythic Dawn robes and Ordinator armor brings with it fond memories of better times (and better games) but don’t expect to become immersed in these quests.
Like most of the new quests in Skyrim Anniversary Edition, the story is mostly delivered through notes and journals. And while the writing is solid, I would have liked to see some more narration. I know hiring voice actors isn’t cheap but I’m pretty sure Bethesda can afford it. Especially since this is meant to be the definitive version of the game. Then again, we might end up seeing yet another version in a couple of years.
As it stands, the Morrowind and Oblivion-themed content is a nice addition but one you’ll be playing mostly for the loot rather than the story.
All in all, I had a good time playing Skyrim Anniversary Edition and I’ll probably put a bunch more hours in before I’ll move on to something else. This latest re-release brings a lot more to the table than previous ones. But it’s not necessarily a must-buy unless you’re a hardcore fan of the series. Most of the content is very shallow in terms of storytelling and doesn’t address many of Skyrim’s fundamental problems.
Things like the outdated UI, underdeveloped skill trees, and terrible AI are all still there. Bugs continue to plague the game and there’s still a severe lack of balance, with things like Enchanting and Smithing being just as overpowered as ever. And despite the addition of new spells, the magic system is still miles behind what Oblivion and especially Morrowind had to offer.
The PC version, in particular, is difficult to recommend considering you can get better and more plentiful content by diving into the wacky and wonderful world of mods. Doing so would allow you to fix all the issues mentioned earlier along with plenty of other ones. While also giving you the tools to make the game look A LOT better.
At the same time, I can definitely understand not wanting to spend countless hours modding your game. If you’re looking to play the best possible version of Skyrim without touching any third-party software, this is as good as it gets.
It’s the same old Skyrim you know and love with a bunch of extra stuff thrown into the mix; some of it pretty decent, some not so much. You can, of course, continue to add mods if you want even more content. But at this stage, many of them are likely to break the game.