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How does the Skyrim remaster compare to the maxed out PC original?

Digital Foundry goes in-depth on the visual features added to the upcoming Special Edition.

An enhanced remaster of The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim releases on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC this October. This new Special Edition is the first we've seen of this series on either console to date - it's a native 1920x1080 production, and based on trailer footage so far, it's also seemingly set to run at 30fps. We're promised quite a bit more though, and indeed the game borrows features from the more modern iteration of its Creation Engine, adding the rendering techniques for volumetric god rays and water shaders seen more recently in Fallout 4.

It's great news for PC crowd as well, and those who own all DLC of the original (or bought the Legendary Edition) receive this as a free update. Based on our tests, there's a visible difference between this remaster and the vanilla 2011 release, with the landscape improved by new assets; plants, mushrooms, stones and extra trees are more liberally dotted around the initial Riverwood village. A new depth of field effect is brought in too. As plucked from Fallout 4's settings menu, this allows backgrounds to dynamically fall in and out of focus depending on a player's line of sight.

Another element we noticed in matching our PC footage with this reveal trailer is that textures are identical. Bethesda's press materials offer up seven high quality BMP shots of the game - tellingly archived in a folder labeled 'Xbox One.' We've matched each of these with the PC game at maximum settings, and there's little to no difference in the quality of the texture work (barring one mountain-side near Riverwood). Assuming these are Xbox One screengrabs, it's pleasing to at least see texture filtering matches PC's top 16x anisotropic filtering setting, but the ground detail underfoot is precisely as it was before.

The more striking change is in this Special Edition's lighting. A glowing, sun-kissed appearance is in effect across its reveal trailer, notably in an overview of Solitude castle. It replaces the distinctive, colder hue of the original, and each comparison shot differs wildly from the tone of the vanilla release on PC. Actual geometry is untouched, and draw distances for objects and grass are identical to the PC's top setting in this wide overview. However, it's an undoubtedly warmer, hazier take on the world, with a post-process bloom effect also helping to fill the space.

The remastered Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim: Special Edition compared to the original game, running maxed on PC.

In terms of image quality, all these shots come in at 1920x1080, as backed by FXAA. Shader effects are reworked for water and snow-capped surfaces too, and it's here we see a more substantive change than the regular textures shown so far. Icy surfaces are inflected by a sparkle - a reflective quality missing from the original release's flatter normal maps. It's also in Skyrim's frostier areas that the addition of volumetric fog is most obvious, used to great effect here by creating a sense of rising condensation in the air.

The trailer also boasts new screen-space reflections for this special edition, but this isn't a massive visual boost per se. In fact, the current PC version already has reflections on floors and walls at the same quality, with light-emitting spells mirrored on most surfaces. The only change is a subtle lens flare effect that plays across light points, something that's missing outright from the original game. Of course, a similar effect can be achieved on PC already - alongside many of the Special Edition enhancements we've mentioned- with ENB mods widely available online.

For this very reason, the option for user-made mods in Skyrim: Special Edition is a massive win on PS4 and Xbox One. Similar to its console debut on Fallout 4, engine tweaks could bridge the gap to a more radical overhaul its fans might have wanted from a remaster. The visual flourishes put in place by Bethesda are welcome, and slot neatly into the original experience without going overboard. However, fans looking for drastic changes now have an option, and with its console release in October, the floodgates are very much open.

Original (PC)
The Elder Scrolls 5: Special Edition boosts resolutions on console to a full 1080p, and adds in new details (such as the foliage on right) across the landscape. Geometry appears unchanged, though the mountains at the top of this shot show a shift in design.
Original (PC)
As well as new flora, the remaster receives a new depth of field post-process effect, as shown to the top left.
Original (PC)
Snow shaders are improved too, while a volumetric fog effect adds condensation to Skyrim's icy peaks.
Original (PC)
Bloom is enhanced, and shots revealed so far point to a warmer colour tone for this Skyrim remaster overall.
Original (PC)
A final shot to highlight the higher density of foliage across the ground.
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About the Author
Thomas Morgan avatar

Thomas Morgan

Senior Staff Writer, Digital Foundry

32-bit era nostalgic and gadget enthusiast Tom has been writing for Eurogamer and Digital Foundry since 2011. His favourite games include Gitaroo Man, F-Zero GX and StarCraft 2.

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