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Skyrim's huge mod scene makes my wait for The Elder Scrolls 6 less painful

Skyrim
(Image credit: Bethesda)

It’s been nearly a decade since The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was released in the fall of 2011. Since then we’ve seen the open-world first-person RPG get re-released on multiple console generations, and even ported over to the Nintendo Switch and virtual reality. 

While prolific, in both its vanilla and 2016 Special Edition forms, Skyrim now looks rather long in the tooth, with a game engine that very much belies its age. But Skyrim’s support for mods and all manner of tweaks have extended the game’s life massively. And a new video showing off what happens to Skyrim when one sticks 500 mods and ray tracing on it reminds me just why it’s such a special game, and triggers quiet excitement for The Elder Scrolls 6

Mods for an Elder Scrolls game are nothing new. Skyrim’s predecessor Oblivion has mod support on the PC, and Skyrim came with it pretty much from the get-go. Steam Workshop support later made it trivially easy to access and use multiple mods in the game without breaking it.

Now, YouTube channel Digital Dreams has taken this support and really run with it, giving Skyrim Special Edition a 4K makeover, a big boost in graphics and ray tracing, as well as hundreds of other mods. I’ve embedded the video below for your viewing pleasure. Suffice to say, with plenty of visual mods the game looks miles apart from its original form, yet still unmistakably Skyrim.

Making one of the best games of all time even better

Skyrim

(Image credit: Future)

Such mod projects are ambitious, but serve to show how malleable Skyrim is. And they also let you take an old game and make it look a lot newer, customizing it pretty much to your liking. 

I’ve not flirted too heavily with mods myself, simply opting for the official high-res textures for my first major playthrough of Skyrim. But as I polished off the main campaign and the multitude of major side quests, I started to look at ways to tweak some of the annoyances out of Skyrim, and mod support was the answer. 

After hearing various guards tell me for the hundredth time tell me “I used to be an adventurer like you, until I took an arrow to the knee,” I found a mod that got rid of the repetitive voice lines. Then I started to dig further, tweaking map markers, audio, and adding extra content into the game. 

While I like to play games as the developers intended, having ploughed hundreds of hours into Skyrim I’ve got to the point where there’s not much else to explore. But while I bemoan the delay of PS5 exclusives, seeing Digital Dreams’ video serves as a reminder that there's so much that I could still wring out of Skyrim. 

But it also gave me a dose of nostalgia and reminded me of just how good Skyrim really was. 

Sure, The Witcher 3 offers a more compelling story to frame its open-world, Red Dead Redemption 2 provides smarter systems and more dynamic environments, and Breath of the Wild makes traversing its ruined landscape an utter joy. But there really aren't many games, at least outside of developer Bethesda’s library, that give you the feeling of being in a whole country to explore.

Why Skyrim is still worth playing today

Skyrim screenshot

(Image credit: Future)

While the Witcher 3 felt like you were dropped in a county, Skyrim conveyed the feeling of moving across an entire country on a large continent. Multiple cities over seeing specific areas — Winterhold in the North, Falkreath in the South, Riften in the East and Markarth in the West, and more — each conveying the cultural particularities of the slice of Skyrim they occupy, made the game’s setting feel like a fully-fledged fantasy nation rather than just a map to explore. 

And while the main storyline wasn't the most dynamic, the myriad of side quests — from full-fat secondary stories of the Thieves' Guild, Dark Brotherhood and The Companions, to simple tasks — gave the expanse of Skyrim real character and depth. Quests will see you crossing fields and fjords, plumbing the depths of cave networks and dwarven ruins, and scaling ancient Nordic fortresses built into snow-capped mountains. Some end in a simple reward and an entry in your journal marked off, while others provided surprisingly poignant stories about lost ghosts or tales embroiled in Skyrim's rich history.   

Not only does Skyrim provide this breathless go-anywhere wonder from the very start, it communicates that it’s a land embroiled in fantasy geo-politics, cultural scuffles, hardships and successes for those willing to graft or cheat their way to the top. 

While it can’t quite deliver the nuanced environmental storytelling of Souls games, which have seen people launch whole YouTube careers based around deciphering lore and stories from items, symbols, architecture and environments, the land of Skyrim still tells its own tales. A skeleton in a cave might be clutching a journal saying how the person ended up there, with an entry noting strange scratching noises; venture further and you may find that person ran afoul of giant spiders or the Falmer, seemingly corrupted elves with a murderous intent. 

Skyrim

(Image credit: Bethesda)

All that aside, Skyrim remains just a wonderful nation to explore. Even in its vanilla form it still presents you with some screenshot-worthy vistas dappled in autumnal sunsets or covered by a star-studded sky.

During the multiple coronavirus lockdowns when I couldn’t get out of London to the countryside, Skyrim offered me some respite as I shuffled through the deciduous woods of Falkreath or crossed the misty hills and mountains surrounding Markarth. Coupled with the fabulous soundtrack, and a good glass of wine or whiskey, and Skyrim delivered some wonderful escapism.

With all the transformational properties of modding, there’s plenty of reasons for me to keep revisiting Skyrim for years to come. But my recent experience with the game also makes me feel very positive about The Elder Scrolls 6.

Sure high-fidelity open-world games are now a dime-a-dozen. But few developers capture that Bethesda magic when it games to making a virtual world you just want to lose yourself in. I’m currently playing Assassin's Creed Valhalla and as good as it looks, it lacks that certain “what’s around that corner” drive that Skyrim gave me nearly a decade ago and still manages to do today. Fallout 76, meanwhile, may have suffered a terrible launch, but as my colleague Marc McLaren says in his review of the latest Steel Reign update, it's now close to being the game it always should have been. And again, that Bethesda open-world magic is a big part of it. 

So with the lessons learned from Skyrim and the plethora of mod inspiration to draw upon, I’m rather confident that Bethesda will not only make The Elder Scrolls 6 a visual treat, but also give me yet another compelling country to explore for literal years.

The only fly in the ointment with all this is that Bethesda’s next big game Starfield is set to arrive late 2022, meaning The Elder Scrolls 6 isn’t likely to be released for a good few years yet. But I won’t moan, as I like sci-fi exploration just as much as fantasy open-world wandering. And while I wait, I can simply mod the heck out of Skyrim.

Roland Moore-Colyer

Roland Moore-Colyer is U.K. Editor at Tom’s Guide with a focus on news, features and opinion articles. He often writes about gaming, phones, laptops and other bits of hardware; he’s also got an interest in cars. When not at his desk Roland can be found wandering around London, often with a look of curiosity on his face.