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.
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.
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.
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