Digital Foundry's Skyrim Face-Off is currently in production, and we've spent some time getting to the bottom of the texture streaming problem that's currently being reported and discussed in the wake of a fairly damning YouTube video published at the end of last week.
The issue only seems to manifest if you have the Xbox 360 version of Skyrim installed to the hard drive - a process that is entirely optional. In this case, the highest resolution versions of the textures appear to stall and not load, meaning that you're definitely not seeing the game at its best. If you remove the install, and run the game directly from the DVD, the best quality artwork returns to the game.
Here's a quick comparison of the issue as we see it. In the first picture, we see the game running from the hard disc. In the second, we delete the install data and run it directly from the DVD - viola, full resolution textures. Next up, we try installing it again to ensure that it's not a one-off problem, but as you can see the lower quality textures are back.
In the final shot, we show off the exact same scene running on the PlayStation 3 version of the game - which operates with a 4376MB mandatory hard disc install (the 360 version is 3.8GB in total when copied over to the HDD). In this situation, the game appears to be running quite correctly, with the highest quality artwork streamed in.
Typically, an alternative install solution for Xbox 360 owners is to copy the game over onto a USB flash drive. Bethesda talks about the game extensively using the HDD's cache, so we thought that there was an outside possibility that this could be a bandwidth issue - an HDD install accessing the HDD cache, actually leading to a lowering of response time. This is something we've previously seen with Halo 3, which actually loads faster installed to a USB device.
Unfortunately, in our testing the USB install was ignored completely with the game relying on the disc and hard drive instead. Only when we removed the HDD totally was the USB install utilised - and that crashed within 15 minutes of play time. Perhaps that's something that should be investigated when the game is inevitably patched, in addition to sorting out the headline bug.
Bethesda staff initially denied that there was an issue, with VP or Marketing and PR Peter Hines tweeting to a customer, "I don't know what texture glitches you are talking about. Game runs same off disc vs. HDD. We don't see any differences."
However, the official forum was later updated with this post:
"Skyrim uses a lot of dynamic streaming systems, including textures. We've seen a few reports of certain textures temporarily scaling down on the Xbox 360, and not scaling back up. We have verified that this issue does not occur when playing off the disk and when the game is fully cached (not installed).
"Skyrim makes heavy use of the Xbox 360 caching system, and caches over the normal course of play while in menus or interiors. This cache can be wiped when other games are played or when the user manually removes it. We're working on a solution in the next title update for those who have installed the game."
We hope to have completed our analysis of Skyrim shortly and aim to publish our article on Tuesday. In the meanwhile, here's a Skyrim PC/Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 comparison gallery to pore over.