Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Star Trek: Enterprise Is A Deeply Flawed Series But Worth Giving A Try

**I apologize for not having part II of my in-depth look at Battlestar Galactica posted yet, it should be up in the next few days (finals week and everything). I've had this article sitting finished on my computer for a while now, and it is the tenth anniversary of Enterprises' last episode (and the last of episode of any Star Trek), so I figured I'd post this in the mean time. 

Long reviled by many as the series that essentially killed Star Trek as we had known it; Enterprise has been slowly undergoing a kind of semi-rehabilitation in the fan community lately. Within Star Trek fandom there are often cycles in which something is almost universally hated for so long, that eventually a wave of contrarian backlash forms, and people will jump to its defense. The Final Frontier (Shatner's infamous vanity project) has followed this pattern at times. There is also a tendency right now for fans to “circle the wagons” in response to both JJ Trek and the current drought of Star Trek or any space based sci-fi on the small screen. The show has always had a small but devoted subset of Star Trek fans on its side, but online streaming and the general explosion of interest in nerdy cultural artifacts, has exposed ENT to a wider audience. But the series’ fans, both old and new, tend to overlook the serious flaws that kept the show teetering on the brink of cancellation.

Personally, I do find Enterprise to be refreshing stylistically, it has a "you are there" sort of feel to it, and the ship seems more like a real space filled with real people facing a journey into the unknown than any other Trek series. There are also nice little bits of continuity sprinkled in that tie even the more self-contained stories together. While there are problems with characterization (I'll get back to that point later) the crew is much less bland and 2-dimensional than Voyager. It also has the best production values of any Trek series and almost always looks a cut above the rest of the Berman era. However, ENT labored under the weight of its own poor construction, and developed problems early on that it would never completely shake.

First, no one could decide what the show was actually about, as far as any sort of overarching narrative. It was originally conceived of course as a prequel and a Federation origin story, but then became a kind of back door reboot for the franchise. It rarely directly contradicted canon, but it went off and made entirely new story elements instead of expanding upon the Trek universe as it already existed. In seasons 1 and 2 we wound up mostly with a myriad of entirely new alien/planet/anomaly of the week plots (which were stale and perfunctory imitations of TNG) and the poorly planned and thought out Temporal Cold War arc. There were a few weak callbacks to the prequel notion, but they were disjointed and poorly handled, like the Vulcans showing up just to be insufferable jerks once in a while.

The third season just dropped the pretense of being a prequel all together with the Xindi arc. While the story was interesting and mostly well handled, it amounted to "24 in Space"(several of ENT’s writers worked on 24) and it was an ill-fit for the structure of the series and the characters. The Xindi were never very threatening or convincing as enemies and the dark turn in the series was too sudden and ham-handed to be taken seriously. Though the season was entertaining simply for the way it ran the ship and crew through the wringer. Testing them on a long and dangerous mission in hostile space and bringing a sense of realism and continuity to the show; at times it felt like watching Voyager if it had stuck to its premise.

Season 4 is where the show starts to get its act together....well...after the space Nazi episode at least. But it still had its low points. One problem was that the new show runner, Manny Coto, brought in writers who were long time fans, and sometimes it felt like the inmates were running the asylum. They spent 5 episodes on a convoluted fan-fictiony explanation for the Klingon makeup change, and "oh look there are scenery chewing augments and Dr. Noonien Soong's look alike ancestor!”. They also spent 2 episodes in the Mirror Universe, which was simplistic fun but also slightly derivative and oriented towards fan service. The real standout is the Vulcan arc, which I have to say stands among the best stories Star Trek has ever produced. Season four however was not a complete redemption of the series and I don’t buy into the common refrain that a fifth season would have been some sort of unparalleled Trek masterpiece. Aside from the fact that TV shows are reasonably expected to sort out their growing pains in one season not three, and that ENT would have been cancelled long before if the Star Trek name wasn’t behind it; season 4 showed only a few glimpses of the series’ full potential.

The second major problem lies with the characters. The writers wanted to make the point that Humanity was taking its first steps into deep space and still had much to learn. This was a good idea in principle, since it would help to set the series apart from its predecessors and open up the potential for better drama. However they used ham-fisted methods to accomplish this; making the humans petty and stupid. In the first two seasons, Archer and Tucker often revel in their own sort of childish ignorance and masculine impulsiveness, while gleefully rubbing T’Pol’s face in it, who is often the sole voice of reason.

Instead of the interplay between logic, intuition and morality with Spock, Kirk and McCoy in TOS, we get T’Pol as an overbearing mother figure dealing with her rebellious sons. Archer’s character is especially dragged through the mud in awful episodes like “A Night in Sickbay”, and it seems like he’d be pretty much ok with his entire crew dying horribly as long as his dog was safe and he didn’t have to ask any Vulcans for help. Tucker mostly just comes off as a bumbling redneck caricature; of course according to “These are the Voyages” he never went to college and somehow taught himself warp theory by working on boat engines in his native Florida…Yes, you heard that right. I guess folksy wisdom triumphs even over the intricacies of manipulating spacetime.

This dynamic begins to change in season three, and while Archer and Tucker both gain competence, they take a sudden and unconvincing turn towards becoming revenge obsessed “space Jack Bauers”. It’s only in season four that they finally become people you could reasonably imagine leading an interstellar mission and not blowing up the ship in the first week, because they tried to use warp coolant discharge to heat a moonshine still. But Scott Bakula never seemed comfortable in the role, and Archer still remained the weakest and least interesting out of all the Trek captains.

The other characters are all pretty much one note. Reed likes weapons, Hoshi is afraid of everything and Mayweather (when he manages to get a line) likes to remind everyone that he was raised on a cargo ship. They are mostly forgettable. Phlox though is fairly interesting at times and John Billingsley usually manages to walk the line between annoying and endearingly eccentric, while usually avoiding the “bleeding heart doctor” clich├ęs.

Finally, there is a sort of childish male-centric sexuality that runs through much of the series. The very first episode gives us a gratuitous decontamination scene where Trip and T’Pol rub oil all over each other; while Reed and Mayweather giggle like 12 year old boys about three breasted women. T’Pol of course is given a catsuit uniform that is insulting to the actress, the character and fans of all genders and sexualities; then in a particularly awful episode she contracts an illness that makes her prowl the ship like a dog in heat. Star Trek never handled sex very well (go watch TNG’s “Sub Rosa”), but Enterprise took this to new heights of puerile stupidity.

So we’re left with a deeply flawed series, that couldn’t decide on a larger story direction nor completely break away from tired tropes of the franchise. But it is a series that I found to be ineffably watchable and at times very entertaining. It never reached anywhere near the heights of TNG or DS9, but it always managed to keep up a feeling of boldly going, even when it was to places we had obviously been before. Often the competence of its production overcame its questionable writing. For that reason I would rate it higher than Voyager, which always felt like it was retreading the same stale formula.  While I would never recommend Enterprise to someone unfamiliar with Star Trek, I think the series is worth a watch for any serious fan of the franchise. The current drought of Star Trek on the small screen is now entering it's tenth year, sometimes beggars can't be choosers, and you will find more than enough entertainment to keep you going through the ups and downs of its four seasons.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Battlestar Galactica: Its Successes, Failures And Lessons For The Future Of Sci-fi On The Small Screen (Part One)

Ronald D. Moore's dark and complex re-imagining of a cult 1970's TV show recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. I take a look at back in two parts at both its successes and failures, and what it lessons it has for the future of the science fiction genre on the small screen. (Part Two will be posted in the next few days) 

Though it had relatively modest (but never in danger of being fatal) ratings, Battlestar Galatica was an amazing critical hit without precedent in the oft neglected space opera sci-fi genre; once called the "Best Show on Television" by TV Guide. It also developed a strong and still devoted fan base. On its recent ten year anniversary many entertainment news outlets scrambled to eulogize the show in glittering terms, while holding it up as example to all sci-fi and genre television. BSG had undeniably high production values, a unique and gritty aesthetic, expertly portrayed characters and a willingness to use sci-fi to tackle issues of morality, religion and politics. But the show had definite structural problems beyond its controversial ending, which grew during its run and increasingly weighed down and nearly crippled its main narrative. BSG was in many ways science fiction's most spectacular success on television and its most spectacular failure. There is much to be learned from what it got right and where and how it went off the rails.

Science Fiction Television "Re-imagined"

Battlestar Galactica premiered in 2004, a time when television sci-fi, especially space opera, was entering a period of terminal decline. The last decade and a half had seen an unexpected revival and mass proliferation of the genre. Star Trek had returned to the small screen in 1987 with The Next Generation, a risky venture with a new crew of largely unknown actors. It was a curious sort of show, philosophical, dry, often pedantic but inexplicably addictive. It was a smash hit that few expected including Paramount executives who didn't even bother trying to find the backing of a major network, instead they sold the series in first run syndication. TNG's runaway success, bringing in as many as 14 million viewers per episode, led to four feature films and three television spin-offs. However, Paramount in a drive to keep a constant Star Trek presence on its fledgling new TV network UPN, began to overexpose the franchise and exhaust it creatively. After the mostly excellent Deep Space Nine, came two lackluster iterations, Voyager and Enterprise, which along with the decline of the TNG films, put Star Trek in an early grave. Enterprise limped along under the constant threat of cancellation until it was put out of its misery in 2005.

The other titan of TV sci-fi, which was also partially made possible by the success of TNG, the Stargate Franchise, was facing the same problems of overexposure and a decline in quality. SG1, once highly entertaining in its own brisk and lighthearted style, had gone on too long, exhausting its premise, main story line and even its principle star and producer Richard Dean Anderson, who left the show in its eighth season. In 2004 it spawned its own lackluster and much less successful spin-off, Stargate: Atlantis.

Sci-fi seemed like it was spent; a cash cow that had been milked dry and was no longer capable of innovation or grappling with weighty issues as it had at its height in the 90's. What was left was little more than a shell of some "gee wiz!" technology, plodding procedural drama and generic action. When BSG first launched very few people expected much of it. The name was associated with a 70's TV show filled to the brim with cheese (it featured an interminably precocious child and his robot dog as main characters), kept alive by a cult following praying for the success of a long shot revival campaign led by series star Richard Hatch. These fans were not happy with Moore's idea of "reimagining" BSG, which amounted to a hard reboot, and the general public was losing interest in sci-fi brands with much stronger pedigrees and wider name recognition.

But, Moore recognized the potential at the core of BSG's premise, before it devolved into a poor copy of Star Trek style planet of the week plots. A group of advanced human colonies in deep space are reduced to a few thousand survivors in a genocidal attack by a race of machines. They are forced to flee for their lives in a rag-tag refugee fleet, protected by the Galactica their last remaining warship, in the vain hope of reaching a now nearly mythical planet called Earth. Here was humanity in a pressure cooker, where the rules and structure of its society were totally upended. It was a chance to use sci-fi as a lens through which to examine the best and worst of the human condition. Moore had worked on three iterations of Star Trek and two of its feature films, but he had long chaffed under the restrictions of its often too rose tinted portrayal of the future and the burdens of its many well worn tropes. This was his chance to break out and bring realism, serious drama and philosophical complexity back to sci-fi. It was also fertile ground for the sort of long form serialized storytelling that was just beginning to permeate television in mid 2000's, in the wake of groundbreaking premium cable shows such as the Sopranos and the The Wire.

"It's the character's, stupid!"

The production team followed Moore's famous declaration closely. BSG, right out of the gate was a tightly constructed human drama constantly asking in words of Commander Adama "Why are we as a people worth saving?" A talented cast took us through the complexities of faith, politics and personal struggle at the end of world. There were no rubber faced aliens or spacial anomalies defeated with technobabble. Just 50,000 people crammed onto ships being relentlessly chased by the murderous race of machines they had created. The show had high production values and a gritty realism in all things. The Galactica gets increasingly battered throughout the series's run and uncomfortably overcrowded as ships in the fleet are destroyed and their occupants evacuated. Fighters are cannibalized for parts on a greasy hanger deck. People go hungry, thirsty and endure all sorts of privations (though there always seems to be more than enough boos to go around). Our heroes question the futility of the fight for survival and whether their own lives are even worth continuing; they also commit their share of questionable and even downright deplorable acts. The human and Cylon antagonists are painted in interesting shades of gray, as some work both for and against humanity at different times.

The narrative of the show is often anchored by Dr. Giaus Baltar who provides an outsider's prospective. A brilliant scientist, but weak, frivolous and self obsessed, he is manipulated into giving away access to the colonies' defense network by the humanoid Cylon and ultimate femme fatale know as "Six".  He survives the fall of the colonies and continues to be manipulated by a vision of Six which only he can see, but nonetheless provides him with information outside of his own frame of reference. She constantly encourages his own selfishness and petty egotism, moving him towards an ever greater position of power and influence within the fleet. But Baltar is rarely intentionally evil, James Callis plays the part with remarkable humor and pathos, and one can imagine that without the influence of Six, he could have been an asset to the fleet instead of nearly leading to its destruction.

Another staple of the series is the evolving relationship between Commander Adama, who is a grizzled veteran and the highest ranking surviving military officer, and President Roslin, who was the secretary of education before the attack and inherited the presidency because she was the last surviving cabinet member.  Their relationship evolves from mutual mistrust and conflict, to a grudging respect, friendship and eventually romance. Adama is also initially at odds with his estranged son and fighter pilot Lee, and their relationship goes through several upheavals.

The spotlight was always on its characters and their evolving relationships amidst danger, struggle and calamity. While this was BSG's main strength, the tunnel vision focus on inter-personal drama could also at times be a debilitating weakness.

To be Continued in Part Two... 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

EA's Battlefront Is Starting To Look Like A Large Step Backward From Its Predecessor

The new Battlefront from EA and DICE is a game that I desperately want to be amazing. Video games were always at the core of the Star Wars experience for me. LucasArts for most of its history, was unwilling to simply rest on the selling power of a popular name, and published innovative games of remarkable technical and narrative complexity. KOTOR I and II are considered among, if not the best, RPG's ever made; the X-Wing and Jedi Knight franchises similarly sit at the apex of the flight sim and shooter genres.

Battlefront 2 was the quintessential Star Wars game of its day when it launched in 2005, and a breath of fresh air in a Star Wars gaming franchise that had begun declining in quality and churning out lazy prequel trilogy tie-ins. It gave us the ability to recreate the massive and chaotic battles seen in the movies, both on land and in space. It pushed the boundaries of contemporary hardware with graphics that are still impressive today, and allowed for 32 player matches on consoles and 64 on PC's, with AI controlled characters on both sides adding to the sense of scale. Battlefront 2 also launched with a huge amount of content; an entertaining single player campaign that filled in an important part of Star Wars lore, dozens of units and locations from both trilogies, an engaging "galactic conquest" mode that mixed in elements of turn based strategy and of course excellent multiplayer. It was a dense genre spanning experience that I poured countless hours into. When you took your assault transport and flew into the hangar of a massive enemy capital ship, fought your way on foot to the bridge with your friends and then sabotaged its major systems allowing your team to destroy it; you couldn't help but feel some of that old LucasArts magic.

Unfortunately Battlefront 2 proved to be the last of the truly great and innovative Star Wars games, as LucasArts succumbed to horrible mismanagement, the meddling of Lucas himself and finally the sale of the franchise to Disney. EA has now taken over Star Wars gaming on behalf of Disney, a move that was met with something ranging between very cautious optimism to unconstrained vitriol among fans. EA has a well earned reputation of acquiring popular franchises and then running them into the ground by reducing their sequels to little more than empty cash grabs. Command and Conquer, Dead Space, The Sims, SimCity and Dungeon Keeper all were stripped of content and the elements that made them unique. Many, including myself, had hoped instead that Disney would revitalize LucasArts.

However, EA isn't incapable of publishing good games, the Mass Effect series was all around excellent (aside from the controversial original ending), Battlefield 3 was a very solid evolution of the series and Dragon Age: Inquisition was a sprawling, beautiful and engrossing RPG, even if it didn't have quite the same narrative punch of Origins. Even the troubled and nearly broken at launch Battlefield 4 has been fixed to the point that it is now one of the best online shooters on the market. So when it was announced that the new Battlefront was in development by the team at DICE, I was in the "very cautiously optimistic" camp. The prospect of a new Battlefront leveraging the Frostbite 3 engine and modern hardware to render massive and dynamic battles, was extremely exciting.

The recent big reveal at Star Wars Celebration was rather short on details and was mainly just a beautiful but obviously heavily edited trailer showing what was supposedly "game engine footage" of Rebels and Imperials fighting in the forests of Endor. But a growing list of worrying details have begun to emerge in various gaming publications from interviews with the developers.

1. There is no single player campaign, just a few missions depicting moments from the original trilogy that can be played solo or cooperatively.

2. There is no galactic conquest mode.

3. The max player count is capped at 40 across all platforms. When asked whether bots would be featured DICE responded with "no comment".

4. There are no space battles or fighting in orbit, and air units will be confined to the area above ground maps like in the Battlefield franchise.

5. The game will launch with only 4 playable planets, though how many maps will be set on each is unclear.

6. Only units and characters from the Original Trilogy will be featured.

7. The AT-AT walkers shown in the trailer and promotional stills will not be player controlled, and will instead follow a scripted path across the battlefield.

All of the items on this list are features or content that were included in Battlefront 2, making EA's Battlefront look like a rather large step backward from a predecessor that was launched a decade ago. Particularly concerning is the low player count. Some will say that Battlefield works just fine or is even better with 32 or 48 players instead of the full 64, but this is not Battlefield. Battlefront is not about creating a tight, tactical and realistic military shooter, it is about recreating the sprawling sci-fi chaos of Star Wars battles. I don't see how that can be accomplished with 20 vs. 20. You'll wind up in a "Battle of Hoth" with 6 or so players on each team in vehicles and a dozen on foot, with a few scripted AI walkers; which is rather absurd considering that Rogue Squadron II recreated the battle with a much larger scale on the Gamecube. Some users on Reddit have humorously taken to calling it "Star Wars: Skirmishfront". If anything the minimal expectation was a max of 64 players, with many rightfully expecting Planetside 2 scale battles with possibly hundreds of players.

The lack of space battles is similarly baffling to me, since they were widely considered to be a highlight of Battlefront 2 and an essential part of the Star Wars universe. There was a Battlefront 3 rather far along in development for 7th gen consoles and PC during the mid to late 2000's, before it was foolishly cancelled by LucasArts. The developers at Free Radical had created the technology for battles which seamlessly transitioned from space to planetary surfaces as they progressed. So expecting some form of space battles from DICE doesn't seem to be particularly unreasonable.

Overall this is pointing to a sequel that has been stripped of content and features compared to Battlefront 2, and is capable only of simulating a pale imitation of Star Wars warfare.  It is looking more and more like the original Battlefront, just with prettier graphics. EA and DICE have been typically dismissive of the growing fan concerns.

Handwaving past the lack of controllable AT-AT's... 

"That's 100% a game design decision. Nothing else. I won't go into details - I didn't make the decision, but just remember that full freedom etc. doesn't always equal fun."

And the low player count...

"40 players was actually the optimum number. Instead of putting 64 in there and just saying that for a number, and having it be too crowded and being a lesser experience, we’ve made it the most optimum number it can be.”

While we don't know enough yet for me to say unequivocally that Battlefront will be a bad game, and the final verdict will somewhat depend on whether or not bots will fill out the scope of the multiplayer battles; the portents aren't particularly good. There is a foul stench in the air of EA simply depending on the Star Wars name to generate hype and pre-orders, while selling content cut from the game back to us in pieces via paid DLC. I'm not one to mindlessly jump on the EA hate train, or break out the torches and pitchforks over minor quibbles like FOV sliders; but this list of missing content represents major features which were integral parts of the previous game. They are also reasonable expectations from a major AAA release these days. We should by now expect more out of a game like Battlefront. At the very least we should not get caught up in the hype until we see the full release, and for the love of Gaben take the advice of Forbes magazine and do not pre-order.

Update: Wow, I never expected this post to generate so much response, 300,000 views so far and the front page of r/gaming. This is just a small forum for me to write occasionally for my own enjoyment. I want to reiterate that I don't blindly hate EA (I've enjoyed many of their games including the entire Battlefield franchise) nor do I think that Battlefront will definitely be a terrible disappointment at launch, it is my honest wish that it is not. I was simply hoping for a true evolution for the series going forward that built on the previous games in the scope and depth of its gameplay, not just in shinny new graphics. I think we need to demand more from EA as gamers and Star Wars fans, and hold them accountable for these missing features. 



Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Moral Evolution of Humans in Star Trek

The Next Generation is pedantic, sanctimonious and preachy often culminating in long winded morality speeches from our great philosopher king, Jean-Luc Picard. For me this is one it's great and singular appeals as a series, because this aspect is generally well written and well acted (Patrick Stewart is perfect in the role) and because its is simply unique among both Trek and television in general in its pure dryness. However I began to think about some of the concepts and ideas that underpin the moral evolution that humanity supposedly underwent to the reach the heights of Roddenberry's Utopian future and often I find them to be hollow.

The Next Generation and to a lesser extent Deep Space Nine and Voyager ignores a very important dynamic of human society when the characters pronounce judgment on other cultures or past eras of earth history. What we consider to be the result of a purely moral evolution (or devolution depending on your specific viewpoint) is almost invariably the result of very concrete structural changes in society that are driven by technological advances and/or shifts in the modes of economic production. People, whether spontaneously or generationally, do not undergo some deep and ineffable moral transformation, emerging at some point with more evolved sensibilities. Instead changes in the society that they live in continuously render certain values, ideals and beliefs obsolete while replacing them with new ones. Social movements are important, but they are in many ways reactive instead of progressive, they convince either a group of elites or the general population to accept and adapt to a new reality that has already been brought about by these structural changes.
Often in Star Trek we are told about how greedy and selfish humans were in the past and how glad the main characters are that they “evolved past that”. However Federation society was made possible because of various technological and economic transformations that necessitated drastic shifts in the way their society was organised. Technological advancement translates to shifts in the modes of production from labor intensive to capital intensive. What this means is that fewer workers can produce greater levels of output of goods and services thanks to machines and computers. This can create large displacements of labor as industries evolve to require fewer workers. So far in our world these displacements are not permanent, as the overall complexity and scope of the economy increases workers are picked up by new industries especially in the service sector. But, there will come a point when automation will become so capable and inexpensive that it will make huge swaths of jobs obsolete at a rate that will far outstrip any new demand for labor. The economy will become more and more productive but require less and less workers. This will necessitate a complete revaluation of how society is organized which is far beyond the current capitalist model. At the same time the resources available to a society at the Federation’s level of technology will be immense, allowing them to easily guarantee wide access to health care, education, housing and an overall very high quality of life. Greed and the value of wealth in such a society would understandably diminish but it would be for concrete and scientifically definable reasons not because humans suddenly became better people. Even the majority of crime would disappear under these conditions because its main driving force is poverty and inequality.
So when Picard and his crew passed judgment on the humans from the 21st Century in “The
Neutral Zone” I thought they were being needlessly smug and superior. The society that these humans came from had not developed the necessary preconditions for something like the evolved sensibilities of the Federation to be at all practical or even possible. They were not any better or worse people than the Enterprise crew, they were simply a product of a society with much different dynamics. I think this mode of thinking of can be applied to much of the moral superiority on display by the Star Fleet characters. If they truly have such evolved ethics than they should consider the reasons that other races act the way that they do, instead of dismissing them as morally inferior. I enjoy how DS9 subverts this in many ways. Quarks speech in “The Jem'Hadar” about human hypocrisy is great and Sisko has no real answer for it. The Dominion war also shows that future humans are still capable of acting in many violent and deplorable ways when their survival is at stake. Even small touches like Obrien’s struggle with his own hatred of Cardassians helps to paint a portrait humanity that has not changed in a fundamental way.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Skyrim Graphics Overhaul Guide


If you're a fan of epic, immersive open world RPG's, beggars can't be choosers. Bethesda's Elder Scrolls and Fallout series are some of the only games that truly fit the bill and while they are splendid games, they each have had their own host of problems. Fortunately the developers have made the games easy to modify and an army of moders have worked tirelessly to improve them.

Skyrim is an amazing technical achievement, but like its predecessors, it falls short in several areas. While the game has a great art design, many of the base assets and effects are disappointing. It is clear that there was not enough effort put into optimizing Skyrim for the PC. Even with the settings on maximum and displayed in 1900x1080 (or 2560x1400 in my case), the game does not really look that much better than the console versions, aside from the sharpness of the higher resolution. There are blurry and downright ugly textures on many surfaces, objects and landscapes, as well as a lack of true lighting effects. Another nagging issue is the game's inability to properly load distant terrain as you travel, causing constant texture pop ins. It is obvious that Bethesda developed Skyrim for consoles first and never put much effort into taking advantage of PC hardware. A good comparison is The Witcher 2, which also came out in 2011 and on the PC is still one of the most graphically impressive games out there even without a single mod. CD Projekt Red really put in the work.

In this guide I will show you how to overhaul Skyrim's graphics and push the everything possible out of its engine. Fully moded, Skyrim can be wondrously beautiful and hold its own against more recent AAA games. These mods only improve graphics and will not effect gameplay in any way. Below are some screen shots from my system, I am using only the mods that are listed in the guide.  




A Note on Hardware:

The package of mods that you will be installing is only recommended for those with decent GPU's. I have tested them on my system which has 2 GTX 780's running in SLI, and I get good frame rates while running on only one card. If your system can run Skyrim maxed out at 1900X1080 with no problems, then you should be fine with these mods.

Starting Off:
Before you begin installing mods you will need to download two pieces of software. First, SKSE (Skyrim Script Extender) which is necessary for some of the mods to function properly. Second, is the Nexus Mod Manager which allows you to easily install and uninstall mods. NMM and all of the mods you will install are going to come from the Nexus website and you will need to create an account there before you can download anything. 



2K Textures:

This is the most wide reaching and important mod to install and will act as a base for the other improvements that you will make. This mod overhauls the majority of Skyrim's textures, replacing the originals with much more vivid high resolution versions.  Be sure to download each part.


Static Mesh Improvement Mod:

SMIM focuses on improving the appearance of many Skyrim's smaller objects and architectural elements. It makes a very noticeable difference in the game's dungeon environments.


Ruins Clutter Improved:

This mod further improves the appearance of dungeons.


Better Dynamic Snow:

BDS improves the look of snow on the ground and other surfaces.


Water and Terrain Enhancement Redux:

W.A.T.E.R greatly improves both the look and physics of water, making it seem much more realistic.


Climates of Tamriel:

This mod adds more realistic outdoor weather and lighting effects as well as sounds. It adds more variation to the types of weather you will experience in game and improves the look of the night sky. There are many similar mods to choose from, but I personally think CoT is the most detailed and comprehensive.


Skyrim Flora Overhaul:

SFO replaces the tree, grass and shrub models and adds a greater variety of plants to the game. There are many download options on the mod's page and the choices can be overwhelming. The latest version of the mod is listed under "SFO 2dot0 Alpha 2". I would suggest this if you want to remain closer to the more bleak look of vanilla Skyrim. Chose "Summer Edition v181" and "SFO Overgrown Summer" for a more lush and vibrant look to Skyrim's warmer areas.   


Enhanced Lights and FX:

This mod adds true lighting effects to the game. It removes any light with no apparent in game source, allowing for fires and candles to realistically light up dark environments. It also improves the torch and spell lighting effects.


Ultimate HD Fire Effects:

This mod improves the look of all flames.


Distant Terrain Pop In Fix:

This is a more complicated problem. As you move outdoors through the game world, the engine loads the full environment including all textures, characters, houses, objects etc... only within a predetermined distance around you in all directions. It does this in discreet units called "grids" and by default the game loads 5 grids in each direction. The problem is that beyond these grids you are shown an ugly low resolution version of the game world called an LOD that amounts to a sort of matte painting, it's not really there. As you move your character the LOD is replaced by the fully loaded game world and fully realized objects and terrain suddenly pop into view, many times in a very glitchy way.

Now there are two ways to fix this. There are mods that improve the LOD transition and make the LOD's themselves more detailed. However the best solution is just to raise the number of girds the game loads to the point that the transition happens so far away from you that isn't even noticeable. The LOD's are then so far away that their lack of detail looks like a natural portrayal of distance.

The fix requires two separate mods and a series of tweaks to the Skyrim.ini file locate under My Documents/My Games/Skyrim. Now you can simply tell Skyrim to load more grids by changing a few lines in the .ini file. The problem is that this can make the game extremely unstable and prone to crashing. This is because the game engine utilizes your system's RAM very poorly. So first we will have to force it to utilize more RAM than it would otherwise. To do this you will need a mod called SSME


Simply extract its contents into the main Skyrim game directory, do not install it with Nexus Mod Manager.

Now download and install the Stable uGrids to Load mod, (use NMM to install it)


Finally open your Skyrim.ini file using Notepad and edit the following lines.

uExterior Cell Buffer=144

If you have an older machine and you are worried about performance you can set it to a lower value in intervals of two such as 9 or 7.

uExterior Cell Buffer=64

uExterior Cell Buffer=100

***Warning*** Make a clean save of your game first and after changing these values test the game out and make sure its is stable before continuing with quests. If you are experiencing crashes open the console and type uGridsToLoad:General X (X=a lower number either 5,7 or 9) Then, open and close the map screen.  

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