Can PC mods match Skyrim Special Edition?

Digital Foundry has a shot at replicating the upcoming remaster.

The upcoming Skyrim Special Edition adds a host of visual tweaks - as we've covered - ranging from extra foliage, upgraded shaders, dynamic depth of field, and volumetric lighting. But of course, we can already get many of these graphical upgrades right now, simply by enabling user-made mods on the PC version. After our last comparison, the question we asked ourselves is: could we match this new Skyrim release using a range of the most popular mods?

The sheer volume of mods out there can be quite overwhelming - and many of are of variable quality and have issues with cross-compatibility. However, if you're after something close to the results of Bethesda's remaster, a great starting point is the RealVision ENB mod. This injector mod compiles several post-processing effects into one handy package, though the setup is somewhat involved. There are full instructions on Nexusmods website to help you along, plus a lengthy list of optional mods you can install too.

In our case, we went with three specific extras on top. The first is the Skyrim HD: 2K texture pack; a hefty 3GB download that completely overhauls every texture map in the game with higher resolution assets. This is an absolute must if you plan on playing the game today (where the vanilla game's best textures haven't aged too well) and simply involves dropping a 'textures' folder into the game's install directory. Likewise, the HD Plants and Herbs mod found on the Steam Workshop is a must, while the Enhanced Towns and Villages series also helps fill places like Riverwood and Whiterun with more foliage.

Can mods on PC compare to the remastered Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim Special Edition?

Between these visual tweaks the change is staggering - at times far exceeding the official remaster. Easily the biggest shakeup comes via the town enhancement mods (applied to each location), which don't stop simply at the small scattering of extra plants we see in the remaster. Rather, it entirely fills out places like Riverwood with trees, NPCs, wildlife, and much more. It lacks the subtlety of Bethesda's approach, but also highlights how much further the developer could have pushed the boat out in this respect, had they wanted a bigger departure from the game's original look.

The other primary overhaul is in texture quality. Combined with the RealVision mod, the 2K texture pack boosts detail across all surfaces in the world, giving a far crisper look to cobblestone roads and mountainsides. Water shaders are also switched out on a nearby river, giving us faster-flowing movement with higher resolution reflection maps. In its defense, footage of Skyrim's Special Edition suffers from a degree of compression, but direct comparisons show this user-made approach is equally as ambitious as the official thing, if not more so.

One area in which our modified PC version falls short is with regards to snow shaders, where the Special Edition has a few advantages. The 2K texture pack only increases the raw resolution of each asset, but the official upgrade brings these icy surfaces to life with a more animated, sparkling shader effect. Of all the mods we've tried, it proved difficult to match this with compelling results - a sign that there are advantages going the official route.

Special EditionModded OriginalOriginal
With a combination of RealVision ENB, the 2K texture pack, and the Enhanced Towns and Villages mod, it's possible to achieve some big changes through mods on PC. The results are very different to the official remaster - though the boost in texture quality via mod is a clear advantage.
Special EditionModded OriginalOriginal
Alas, the 2K texture pack doesn't match the improved shaders of the upcoming remaster. We're missing the sparkle effect of the official release, though it does a great job of improving water shaders.
Special EditionModded OriginalOriginal
Another aspect we struggled to match with mods concerns the volumetric fog. The updates to Skyrim's engine add this in a more elegant way than the user-made methods we've seen.
Special EditionModded OriginalOriginal
Foliage density and quality are easy to boost through mods too - with often radical results..
Special EditionModded OriginalOriginal
The depth of field effect in RealVision ENB is well done. Note the top-left - it's a fully dynamic solution, and a very close match for the remaster. The additional fungi in the remaster points to a level of additional incidental detail Bethesda has added to the game that we couldn't match with mods.

The RealVision ENB mod pulls its weight in post-processing effects, adding in a smooth depth of field effect, plus lens flare. As with the Special Edition, this dynamically adjusts your focal depth based on how close an item is to the camera, and the end results are surprisingly refined. Even the warmer hue of the remaster can be replicated with ease here, though to our tastes, Skyrim's wintry landscapes sit better with its traditional, cooler temperature.

However, it's hard to call this modified PC version a definite match for the Skyrim Special Edition, or an improvement as such. The foliage, texture and shader improvements are a big plus for the mod approach, and the added depth of field is also spot on. The only snag is getting a good match for the new volumetric lighting, a feature taken from newer titles using the Creation Engine, such as Fallout 4, and retroactively fitted into Skyrim. Certain hacks allow us to generate fog and depth, but none we've tested so far precisely match what Bethesda is going for with its updated engine's lighting.

It's an interesting experiment then, but with mixed results. However, one big advantage for PC players is that the Special Edition is a 64-bit application. As confirmed by Bethesda's Peter Hines , the Special Edition is no longer be restricted by the RAM limits of its current 32-bit executable - a cap at 3.5GB of memory that could cause stability issues in the game when exceeded. Some fan-made mods have already found ways to circumvent this limit, but it's nice to have it applied to the game as a whole, and will be interesting to see how mod scene benefits from it going forward.

Skyrim's Special Edition comes out October this year, a free upgrade to anyone who owns the PC version and all DLC. If you can't wait until then, the bewildering number of mod options on offer can definitely get you closer to that experience - and in same ways exceed it - if you have the patience to experiment. For those happy to wait, Bethesda's updated release is set to deliver a hassle-free upgrade, often prioritising subtle visual upgrades over a grand overhaul to Skyrim's original visual design.

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About the author

Thomas Morgan

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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