So, you've decided to play Skyrim again. Or perhaps this is the first time. Either way, you've installed the game, played a few minutes, and realized something: wow, this is pretty ugly.
Skyrim isn't exactly a game that has visually aged well. It's more than three years old, was already a bit dated when it came out (Bethesda's four-year development cycle shows), and with gorgeous games like The Witcher 3 having been released this year, Skyrim doesn't really have much to offer on the visual front.
It is, however, a gun that runs on Creation Engine, and it has a development kit with an active community. We have the technology. We can rebuild it.
This article is an update of the March 2012 mod list, and most of the mods on this original list are still valid and usable. Some mods, like Dragonbone weapons, have since then been covered by DLC, but it's all in order and functioning.
On top of presenting worthwhile mods that were either updated recently or not mentioned in the 2012 article, this will also be a guide to help everyone upgrade their game's visuals quickly and easily. The mods are all listed in the order they should be installed and the use of Mod Organizer is highly recommended for reasons explained in detail further.
This Skyrim 2015 Graphics Overhaul keeps a consistent aesthetic while modding the graphics quality by using high resolution textures, added flora, improved lighting, and more. The point of this article's approach is to sustain playability with high framerates while simultaneously bolstering visuals, so we're not going for the best graphics possible; we're aiming for an overall improvement while retaining consistent aesthetics and performance.
Before we begin, there are some utilities that need to be installed for mods to function properly. While SKSE and SkyUI are mandatory (most mods simply won't work to their full extent without them), LOOT and Mod Organizer are optional but very strongly recommended, for various reasons explained below. If you want to have as much fun modding the game as you have playing it, consider downloading all of these tools.
Skyrim Script Extender is necessary to run nearly every single complex mod out there, including SkyUI.
SkyUI, along with the nifty interface changes, adds a Mod Configuration Menu which is used by a ton of mods to allow the player to easily set options from a dedicated panel.
Put simply, LOOT is a godsend. This utility will detect any issues with load order and fix them automatically, solving a lot of potential issues right away without the usual sweat and frustration. Mod Organizer already has LOOT, so if you're using MO, you won't have to bother downloading this separately.
Mod Organizer is by far the safest mod manager to use with Skyrim. Rather than fill the game's folder with mod files that are difficult to keep track of, MO puts them all in a separate folder entirely which prevents conflicts or overwriting files. MO also allows for separate profiles which use their own mod and can even run separate save files. It takes a bit longer to get used to than other managers and may seem quite needy in some aspects, but it's all worth it in the end – especially for modding the graphical contents of the game.
I cannot recommend the use of Mod Organizer enough. It can be a bit difficult to use early on, but the profile system and the smart overwrite system allows for easy combination of mods that would otherwise conflict. An extensive guide to the use of Mod Organizer can be found right here. Note that MO comes natively with LOOT in its latest version.
One of the reasons Mod Organizer is also great for editing visuals in a game is due to its priority system. On top of the normal load order – which handles .esm and .esp files – MO handles priorities of all the isolated mods installed, allowing for intricate modifications without having to delete or overwrite files. Simply make sure the left panel is sorted by priorities, and then move the mod up or down depending on whether it should “take over” other mods or not. The lower a mod is on the list, the higher its priority. Place it higher on the list to allow other mods to take control. This is particularly handy for handling large texture overhauls as you can drop all the main packs on the top of your list, then put the smaller mods on the bottom to overwrite specific textures and parts to personalize the final result.
Getting Started Modding Skyrim
The guide below is dedicated to establishing a quick-and-easy upgrade to Skyrim's visuals with no significant performance loss and no significant alteration to the game's art direction or general art style. These mods will increase the texture resolution of most objects in the game, alter the colors to be much more vibrant, and revamp the flora to be more lush and higher quality. Modded Skyrim performance benchmarks post-install are performed below, with FPS measured on various video cards.
The mods are all listed in the optimal order of installation on Mod Organizer, meaning the mods installed last will be prioritized over the mods installed first. Note that swapping the priorities around will not result in any conflict and can be done to obtain different results.
Also important is the fact the mods changing the weather, lighting and color correction of the game are generally prioritized over texture changes. On top of being less impactful on performance, these mods offer much more visible improvements and will often help drastically more than just swapping textures for higher definition ones. To clarify, here are three screenshots of the game. The first is the vanilla experience, the second has modified textures and flora, and the third has modified lighting and flora. See for yourself:
Continue to page 2 for the essentials.