Though consolefolk are revelling in a spike from fuzzy 720p to crisp-textured 1080, on PC The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition [official site] is about as transformational as wiping the toilet seat (well, depending on who exactly used it before you did). Play it today and you'll be lucky to feel there's been any meaningful change. If anything, you might find that it's a step down from your modded original Skyrim with the Bethesda high-res texture pack, and a dark return to the infuriating official interface to boot. A brand new, truly 2016 Skyrim this is not - but it might yet be.
The special edition boasts various new graphical features on paper, but in practice you'll be hard pushed to notice many of them. Lighting gets a boost, in a way that will probably prove divisive if anything, and it goes out of its way to show off a new but ultimately incidental depth of field effect in its introductory sequence.
I switched repeatedly between it and an unmodded Skyrim original install with Bethesda's official high-res texture pack added in, and it didn't take long to reach that perfect pitch of meaningless insanity that is deciding between two different shades of white to paint your bathroom. Ultimately, I came damned closed to preferring the original. Not from some Paul Weller Fan purism, but because the two were so similar, save for a inspecific sense that the balance of brightness and sharpness seemed more comfortable on the original. Bloom, particularly, seems overdone in some Special Edition scenes, resulting in a greater sense of contrast and detail in the original. E.g.
On the other hand, in some scenes the original looks noticeably more drab, and the depth of field effects makes NPC conversations look a little fancier than they did. There's no way you'd ever mistake Skyrim Special Edition for a true 2016 game, but sometimes it does seem a year or two younger than it really is.
If minor appearance changes were the only factor, I'd say go for the Special Edition if you're planning on a slightly lengthy return to Skyrim, as that's where mods will now focus and there are almost certainly going to be patches. This is the platform that will see the most evolution in the near future.
Of course, it's not the only factor: the other is that the Special Edition does not yet support many mods, and all those we came to rely upon in the original have to be ported across. This will require manhours that may not be possible, and many creators have long moved on. So, to have the best possible Skyrim experience, I absolutely come down on the side of the original with your mods of choice installed.
I don't mean elves in the nuddy or some everything-spoiling Dark Ethereal Bieber Marine Armour ++++++++ addition. I mean replacing the inventory and map screen with something that wasn't made for a gamepad and a 1280x720 screen.
I mean skyboxes full of life, more dynamic weather and all the snow-flecked trees you can handle. I mean faces that look like people rather than misprinted Bratz dolls. I mean a hundred different lighting and texture and quality of life improvements that we all installed in 2011 or 2012 then took for granted but have to do without in Skyrim Special Edition.
The key stuff will come back. Of course it will. I earnestly believe that, three months from now, I'd be saying 'SE not OG without a doubt'. But today is the day that you're thinking "yeah! Skyrim! Fancy a bit of that again!", and the simple truth is you're going to have a better time with the original edition and a few carefully-chosen mods, particularly UI ones.
Skyrim Special Edition
Unless you never played with the official high-res texture add-on, the visual difference between the two Skyrims is honestly minor, and most of the improvements can be achieved or even bettered by adding ENB or SweetFX to Old Skyrim.
There is also the very strong chance that your age-old Skyrim saves will not be supported by the Special Edition. A few folk are claiming that their saves made it through the net, but I have had zero luck across dozens of attempts, the Special Edition crashing for each, and I am a long, long way from alone in this. (FYI, I found some ancient saves from my original review, before any mods were out, and which did load. These provided the screens for this post, e.g. the one at its top).
This alone is a reason to steer clear of the Special Edition until you can somehow establish if the campaign you put dozens or hundreds of hours of your life into will be supported. Or unless you're happy to start over entirely - not unwise, given any long-lived Skyrim character will be an impossible superhuman powerhouse with zero meaningful obstacles anyway.
I've also seen people talk of bugs, though I have not encountered any myself but admittedly am only a couple of hours in, and those who are attuned to such things report that the sound quality has been downgraded.
I will note that it's running worse for me than the original Skyrim, hanging around 40 frames per second maxed-out as compared to 60+, and given that it doesn't look meaningfully improved to my eyes, this is a fairly steep price to pay, though I imagine a combo of new drivers and patches will take the edge off before too long.
Skyrim Special Edition
There is, however, a silver lining to a cloud that is not particularly grey anyway, given that it is a free upgrade to anyone who owned Skyrim and its expansions and adds to their Steam account before today ends.
That is that Skyrim has moved from 32-bit to 64-bit, which means it is in theory capable of loading so much more into memory, and in turn that should mean far more epic mods, be it massive dragon armies or far more of the world being visible at anyone time.
In time, at least. All is theory for now. The new Direct X 11 support in theory offers the potential for more effects frippery too, but again this will be in the hands of modders, as Bethesda have not chosen to overhaul textures or character models for the Special Edition.
The truth is that, if you choose to play or replay Skyrim right now and can't be fussed with mods, it all but doesn't matter which version you pick. The difference is not profound enough.
If you've got Skyrim Special Edition for free and run modless, sure, go with that, but definitely, definitely don't spend £30 on it if you're discounted from the free offer because you didn't get all the expansions first time around or didn't grab the freebie before it expired.
However! Ask me again in three months. I can't wait to see what happens with this.
Skyrim Special Edition is out now on Windows via Steam for £30/$40/€40. It can be freely claimed by those who bought Skyrim and its three DLC packs or the Skyrim Legendary Edition (which included the DLC).