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.
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.
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.