I bought a PC 100% because of Skyrim. After seeing the game – unmodded – on my friend’s PC, I decided then and there that if I wanted the ultimate graphical experience, I’d have to buy a PC. Thus, Pandora’s Box was opened. I bought my PC and immediately began modding. Modding is arguably one the greatest strengths of the PC platform. We, the players, are able to modify games in ways unimagined by the developers. This is a good thing. Mods can greatly enhance your experience or, in my case, provide me with a completely new one.
A lot of you ask me which mods I use. I use roughly 40 mods, 30 of which are graphical enhancements – this may give you a hint as to what my top 5 mods are so forgive me if I get preachy for a second here. I firmly believe that if you have the machine to do it, you absolutely owe it to yourself to push its limits far as it can possibly go. Why not squeeze every last ounce of graphical enhancement out of your machine? Why not make your game look as good as possible? If you aren’t going to push your machine, then why did you spend potentially thousands of dollars on it?
Well, you guys asked, so this piece is for you! Here are my top 5 Skyrim mods, in ascending order. If you want to check out the mods, and I strongly encourage you all do so, click the title of each mod and it will take you directly to its respective mod page. I’ll also include any performance loss you can expect. For reference, I average ~40 fps with these system specs:
Intel i5 2320 quad-core @ 3.0 GHZ
16 GB DDR3 RAM
EVGA Nvidia GTX 660ti 2 GB GDDR5
Performance Loss: Minimal
If I can be brutally honest here, I really didn’t like the vanilla (unmodded) water of Skyrim. It never looked like the cold spring water that it should have been, and it never really gave me that mountainy feel. So, in my days of searching, one of the first mods I found was this one, and boy, what a difference it makes! Now, every single water source looks unique. The wind makes subtle ripples across the surface, the water looks more alive. Most importantly, it feels, well, pure. Combined with some ini tweaks (SkyrimPrefs.ini), your water will look absolutely amazing. It will look and feel as it always should have – cold, natural, and pure. Joe and I are huge proponents of this mod. Do yourself a favor and check this out. Lake Ilinalta never looked so pretty!
Performance Loss: Moderate
Before I continue, I must explain how lighting works in this game. When you enter a dungeon, for example, you generally notice a few torches lighting a hallway. However, the dungeon doesn’t seem truly dark, as if lit by only those few torches. The reason you can still see is because of ambient lights. Ambient lights are basically extra light sources that the developer includes to further light a scene. These lights are not visibile sources, meaning, they won’t appear to the player as a fire or a torch. Rather, the exist purely to provide extra light to a scene.
Pretty much every single game that doesn’t use true global illumination (with possible exception to the witchcraft that is Crysis 3) uses ambient lighting. It’s not a bad thing. But, I want immersion in my gameplay. So what do I do? I download this mod. One of the things Realistic Lighting Overhaul does is it eliminates those ambient light sources, making your dungeons much darker, the spells from your hands give off light, your eye adapting to changes in light levels (just like in reality), among other amazing tweaks. Like the other mods on this list, I simply can’t imagine playing the game without this mod. The entire world feels that much more real and you feel as though you’re actually in Skyrim. It’s truly amazing. Combined with Lanterns of Skyrim, you’ll have a truly immersive experience.
Performance Loss: Moderate – High
The vanilla version of the game shipped with 512×512 textures – which is standard resolution on the consoles. Bethesda then released a higher resolution for the PC player-base, and these were at 1k (1024×1024). Guess what this mod does?
Yup! In what is the most downloaded Skyrim mod to date from the Nexus, Skyrim HD 2k provides you textures that are four times the resolution of Bethesda’s own HD textures, making for an unreal visual experience. On top of that, there are even optional 4k textures – that’s 4096×4096 – which are sixteen times the resolution of the official texture pack! That’s unbelievably ridiculously awesome. This mod changes the textures of pretty much everything you see in the game from trees, grass, logs, sky, roads, buildings, you name it. Beware though, I strongly recommend at least 1.5 GB of VRAM on your graphics card as these higher resolution textures will eat up memory incredibly quickly. Check this one out though. It’s just glorious.
Performance Loss: Minimal – Moderate
Ok, I’m going to try and explain this one without getting too technical. On a very basic level, parallax occlusion mapping is a cheaper, faker version of tessellation. What is tessellation? In video games, tessellation can be used to create further detail in the game world. For example, if we look at brick walls in games, they are usually a flat plane with a brick bump map textured onto it. When you look at it at a normal (perpendicular) angle, it’ll appear as a wall with bricks, but as you approach a more adjacent angle, the illusion is gone and you’ll see it as a flat plane with brick textures.
Tessellation allows for those bricks to be actual bricks by way of increasing the polygon count and physically extruding bricks from that wall. So no matter what angle you observe the wall at, it looks like a wall of bricks because it is a wall of bricks. Parallax occlusion mapping is great cheap way to fake this. In this example, the bricks will look as if they are actual bricks from almost any angle by way of parallax occlusion – without increasing the polygon count. This means that you don’t have a massive performance hit, but you still get a very convincing illusion of bricks without being treated to flat brick textures. For example, in the before and after images below, those cobblestones look like actual stones, but there aren’t extra polygons added to create this effect.
Phew! Hopefully that wasn’t too bad and you guys understood what I was saying. Project Parallax in Skyrim aims to provide parallax occlusion mapping to many textures in the game, giving the player a far more immersive and graphically convincing experience. Be warned though, you need ENB in order for this to work. The good news, however, is that this series of mods works with the standard textures, Bethesda’s official HD textures, as well as Skyrim HD 2k. Yay!
Performance Loss: High (I mean, let’s be honest here…)
This was the sole reason I upgraded my graphics card. I saw the beauty and ultra-realism that this mod brought to Skyrim that I just had to have it. And so, I ran out and bought my 660ti – probably one the best decisions I’ve made.
So, what is it? Well, no one really knows what ENB stands for, if it’s an acronym at all. ENB is the brainchild of Boris Vorontsov who has single-handedly overhualed the visual quality of many games, including GTA IV. What does it do? Well, to understand that, we must first understand that Skyrim is a DX9 game. This means that it does not utilize the advanced features of DX11 like tessellation, ambient occlusion, Bokeh depth of field, etc.
By sheer brute force, ENB allows Skyrim to tap into the DX11 capabilities of your machine, but it does so at a significant performance cost. Some features it allows are:
- High quality bloom
- True High Dynamic Range lighting
- Temporal antialiasing
- Parallax occlusion mapping
- Screen Space Ambient Occlusion
- Complex indirect lighting
- Bokeh Depth of Field
- Image Based Lighting
- Sun rays
In short, ENB is a showcase of what Skyrim‘s engine is truly capable of when pushed to the absolute ragged edge. It is fully customizable and so you see a myriad presets out on Skyrim Nexus. My current favorite is Project ENB. I have tweaked and tinkered with this to make it as stunning as I possibly can. This is by far my favorite mod and makes me proud to be a PC gamer.
And there you have it, my top 5 Skyrim mods. Are you surprised? I have to be honest, as I was putting this list together, I had a feeling they would all be graphical enhancement mods. I stand by my belief that if you have the means to do so, you owe it to yourself to push your machine to the limits and squeeze every ounce of visual fidelity out of it as you can.
What do you guys think? Will you be installing some of these mods? Sound off below!
Shadow hide you.