Gamescom 2017 has offered up few exciting stories for Digital Foundry so far, but the playable debut of the Switch version of Skyrim at the Nintendo booth proved to be a genuine surprise - and the good news is, the port is looking very strong.
Nintendo showcased the title running in handheld mode on three Switch units, with a full-on black box devkit with attached screen also present (unfortunately, we didn't get to try the game on this system). Gamescom attendees are given 15 minutes with the title and the opportunity to explore and go anywhere within that time constraint. We played on one of the handheld units and the key takeaway is that even in mobile mode, Skyrim offers up a polished slice of gameplay.
On the handheld screen, the title looked like it was rendering at native 720p, and while graphics comparisons aren't really viable on the showfloor - especially on mobile screens - the Switch version of Skyrim delivered an accomplished mobile experience. It's the consistency in performance that's really impressive, especially compared to the last-gen versions of the game. The wobbly frame-rates with hitching and stuttering during traversal and combat simply aren't an issue on Switch: that 30 frames per second is as close to locked as you're going to get.
While the Switch's GPU - especially in its more modestly clocked mobile mode - can't really match the latest generation of consoles, the system does have the benefit of tapping into far more available memory than the last-gen versions of the game. On top of that, instant access to assets via flash memory as opposed to mechanical hard drives (or DVDs) should definitely help the title's streaming systems.
To what extent Bethesda is tapping into the full range of Special Edition features for the Switch version remains unclear, but certainly the consistency in performance is very much like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 releases we saw last year. On top of that, the developer has integrated Joycon motion controls too for those that want them. We kept our controllers docked to the main unit where gameplay and menu system navigation runs very much like the existing console editions of the game. Of course, the Switch version's unique aspect is its sheer portability, the system-level sleep function allowing you to dip in and out of the game whenever you please.
It's all looking impressive so far, but there are a couple of caveats to bear in mind. Firstly, the handheld unit looked very much like retail Switch hardware, but it was connected via a meaty-looking cable harness leading into a closed box, and we're told by Switch developers that debug units can run the full-fat GPU clocks in what otherwise looks like the handheld mode. Also, we should remember that the tablet screen can be forgiving in terms of hiding cutbacks and compromises - and we didn't get to see Skyrim running docked.
But if what we played is indeed fully representative of how the final game shapes up when running in mobile mode, the Switch port of Skyrim should be well worth checking out. We've tried playing the game on an Intel Atom-based tablet with integrated graphics and the experience is nothing like as good as this - if you're looking to play a fully portable Skyrim, you're looking at a larger gaming laptop to offer the visual feature set and performance the Switch version is offering. Ultimately, 15 minutes of hands-on time with a game only goes so far - especially in a vast game like Skyrim - but what we've seen so far holds up really well, and we're looking forward to taking a deeper look at the final release.
Will you support the Digital Foundry team?
Digital Foundry specialises in technical analysis of gaming hardware and software, using state-of-the-art capture systems and bespoke software to show you how well games and hardware run, visualising precisely what they're capable of. In order to show you what 4K gaming actually looks like we needed to build our own platform to supply high quality 4K video for offline viewing. So we did.
Our videos are multi-gigabyte files and we've chosen a high quality provider to ensure fast downloads. However, that bandwidth isn't free and so we charge a small monthly subscription fee of £4.50. We think it's a small price to pay for unlimited access to top-tier quality encodes of our content. Thank you.Support Digital Foundry