Still Playing: The Elder Scrolls V Skyrim
My PS3 Skyrim save file has over 90 hours on the clock. For 90 hours I put up with the dismal performance of this sprawling fantasy epic on Sony’s console. There was an enforced three-week break spent waiting for a patch that would fix a bug related to save file size that forced framerates to dip into single figures. Not that they spent much time out of single figures anyway: PS3 Skyrim is wretched, a stuttery, glitchy, barely functional mess. And it’s one of my favourite games of all time.
I don’t recall exactly why I stopped, but I’m quite sure the weather had something to do with it. This is a game made for cold winter days in front of a fire, after all, and I never quite understood the couple of friends who carried on playing it throughout 2012, whatever the weather, their save file timestamps stretching into hundreds of hours played. I last played the PS3 version on February 13. I guess the sun came out.
It’s winter again, of course, and once again there have been cold days spent in front of the fire, pad in hand. It’s business as usual, then, but for one thing: the freshly built gaming PC under the TV. I built it for indie games I couldn’t play on anything else, for the best-looking versions of new games, and because the other boxes under the TV were starting to show their age. With an already swollen Steam library and so many other new experiences a few keystrokes away, Skyrim is far and away my most played game so far. And, despite the wealth of character customisation and playstyles at my disposal, I’m playing it in almost exactly the same way as on PS3: as a female Imperial named Cwenhild (a medieval girl’s name which means ‘battle queen’, courtesy of Google), bow and arrow out in the open, and sword and shield in dungeons. That’s partly because of my fondness for melee combat and lack of imagination, admittedly, but mostly it’s for closure. It took a year and a depleted savings account and a couple of fraught evenings building my first PC, but at last I’m playing Skyrim the way its creators intended.
In fact, that’s not quite true: it’s even better than that, because PC’s advantage here isn’t just in stable performance and better textures. It’s got mods, thousands of them, both on Steam Workshop and the incredible Nexus Mods. For every hour I’ve spent wandering Skyrim’s frozen tundra, every hour routing the undead and looting the depths of this sprawling land’s caves, forts and dungeons, I reckon I’ve spent an hour and a half tinkering. Seeking out, downloading and installing mods, loading the game to check for performance hits, then quitting to desktop and installing another. It’s quite the addiction, and one I can heartily recommend.
I started, sensibly enough, with graphics mods. This is a pretty game in unmodded form, of course, but with ENBSeries, which intercepts render calls and adds a host of extra effects like bloom, HDR, depth of field and god rays, it’s stunning. It’s also a performance hit waiting to happen, but there are settings for all those effects, letting players customise according to taste and PC performance – and those have been released too, meaning there are now scores of ENB presets out there for download. LOD mods improve the look of buildings, mountains and even waterfalls on the horizon. Might as well make the water look better while I’m at it, the blood too, and let’s give that HD texture pack a whirl. Add new textures for the sun, snow and clouds, and replace the night-time sky with a high-quality shot of the Milky Way. With all that on top it’s still running at 43 frames a second – not ideal, but stable, and double what PS3 could do on a good day.