A nice place to visit, but I’m not sure about spending 100 hours.
Consumer virtual reality was barely even a gleam in Palmer Luckey’s eye when Skyrim came out in 2011, though, and that fact comes into stark relief when trying to play the game in a brand new medium. While Skyrim‘s world makes some impressive first impressions in VR, a few hours with the game is enough to show some significant problems with the conversion as well.
To be sure, seeing and exploring Skyrim‘s world in VR brings some immediate and impressive improvements over playing on a monitor. From the jump, the stereoscopic 3D and head tracking of the PSVR headset make you feel like you’re actually in Skyrim like never before.
When your fellow citizens look up at a noise coming from the sky in VR, you’ll find yourself instinctively looking up with them. When a dragon busts through a wall and breathes fire in your path, you can practically feel the flames that engulf your entire field of vision. When you reach the top of a mountain, looking over the misty landscape in full 3D is a sight to behold.
But while the new VR perspective draws you in, the dated 3D models often take you right back out. The objects and characters in Skyrim VR look as if they were taken directly from the six-year-old console versions. Those were passable at the time for an HDTV screen, but the rough edges start to show when they’re blown up to an apparent life-size form in a head-mounted display inches from your face.
Those rough edges are often quite literal. Trees and hair have particularly noticeable jagged lines along their borders, while faces often look uncomfortably angular in the VR environment. The limited resolution of the PSVR headset itself doesn’t help, contributing to a stair-step effect on many diagonal edges.
The effect is particularly jarring if you compare Skyrim‘s VR world to the enhanced PS4 and Xbox One edition released last year, or even the Switch edition that launched this week. What those versions lack in vision-filling immersion, they make up for with a much smoother and more believable visual world. We’re also left wondering if a powerful PC would be able to create a more convincing VR version of Skyrim, compared to even the PS4 Pro we tested on.
Skyrim was never built to be controlled with the PlayStation Move controllers that debuted on the PlayStation 3. The VR version helps show why that is.
General movement in Skyrim VR is handled with the practically standard “point-and-teleport” method—hold a button, aim an arching target at your desired location on the ground, then let go to jump right to that spot (there’s also a more limited “push-a-button-to-walk-forward” option). You can turn in the real world to change your angle or tap face buttons on the Move controller to make a quick turn at a set angle (which helps you avoid turning away from the PlayStation camera and/or getting tangled up in wires).
This movement scheme takes a little getting used to, but it ends up feeling surprisingly natural pretty quickly. After about an hour, I was casually pointing and warping at super-speed down abandoned lanes and up snowy mountains with no nausea. Confident teleportation can let you tear through Skyrim‘s large empty spaces much more quickly than in other version of the game, in fact. (Be warned, though: longer teleports use up your stamina gauge, and you’ll be limited to a very small movement range until it comes back.)
Where the controls really show their limitations is in combat, where juggling position, attack, and defense become somewhat overwhelming. The biggest problem is that there’s no easy way to move backward, making it very difficult to step out of range of an opponent or manage your relative positioning.
Yes, you can fire a “blind teleport” back over your shoulder, or twist around and teleport, but neither feels very natural. Even warping forward to close ground on an enemy hovering just out of reach feels cumbersome. Heaven help you if you need to rotate between two or more enemies at once amid this control confusion.
You can easily move backwards and sidestep in Skyrim VR if you use the analog stick on a Dual Shock controller.
The game isn’t able to track the motion of that controller, though, meaning your in-game left hand becomes useless as far as weapons, shields, and spells are concerned. And I couldn’t get the face buttons on the Dual Shock to work for any other inputs, meaning at least one Move controller was required for non-movement actions.
[Update: The Dual Shock can work as the sole controller for the game if the PlayStation Move controller isn’t connected, making for a much more traditional control experience. The direct movement in this mode could be rougher on players subject to VR motion sickness, but the option for snap turning limits the impact a bit.]
Then there’s the feel of the weaponry. In standard Skyrim, a tiny dagger feels entirely different from a huge two-handed axe in speed, momentum, and power. In VR, both end up tied directly to the motion of a PlayStation Move controller, which you can flail with abandon. In turn, every melee weapon ends up feeling almost weightless as you swing it wildly through enemies with little sense of impact or finesse.
The motion-controlled VR combat isn’t all bad. Raising a hand and pointing a magical stream of fire at a target feels joyfully sadistic, and it’s pretty easy to naturally aim as the target moves. Raising a shield to block incoming attacks also feels simple and weighty, as does notching an arrow and aiming down the bow. Overall, though, it’s pretty obvious Skyrim‘s combat was not designed (or even significantly tweaked) with VR controls in mind.
Other small annoyances abounded in my brief time with Skyrim VR so far. The interface seems imperfectly tuned for the new VR perspective; in-game books and menus are presented with big, readable text, but pop-up warnings and notifications like a stamina bar appear too small and out-of-the-way to be very useful.
Navigating menus means holding a button and flicking in the direction you want to move, a usable but imprecise method of navigation. Picking up loose items, meanwhile, requires pointing directly at them and tapping a button, a process that gets annoying after constant repetition. This also makes it extremely awkward to play while sitting, as your legs often end up getting in the way of items on the ground.
Pop-up menus for conversations and shops would often appear embedded in scenery or characters, making them impossible to read unless I moved. And my constant teleporting left me occasionally embedded in pieces of scenery, looking out at the world from behind a door or rock that should have been solid.
These kinds of annoyances add up even in a short visit to a world that could occupy players for hundreds of hours. While Skyrim VR is a decent (if perfunctory) port in a lot of ways, it proves why games designed for a standard controller and a 2D screen are hard to convert to the new perspective and control scheme presented by VR.