I've been playing Skyrim again recently, and thanks to the wonders of modding, it is lookin' damned fine.
That's not to say it ever didn't look fine—when the game was released last November, it was a perfectly okay-looking game. A little rough around the edges in places, not the hottest textures in the world, but still. Considering its sheer scope and scale, it was amazing that it looked as good as it did.
But as anyone who's played past Bethesda games on PC can tell you, the incredibly active (and flat-out incredible) modding community ensures that the version of each game that's released is far from the "final" version. The mod-combination I've spent the last month or so tweaking combines graphical upgrades, audio enhancements, interface tweaks and new items and locations, yet keeps everything stable and smooth.
(Note: In case it isn't clear, we're talking PC here, not consoles. Sorry, console people. You're pretty much stuck with the original. Feel free, however, to read this post anyway, then go browse NewEgg and contemplate your next paycheck.)
I've found that when it comes to modding games like Skyrim, there's usually a grace period of a few months where it's wise to stay away from most user-created mods until their creators get the bugs sorted out. Shortly after Skyrim came out, there were already some easy ways to make it look better. But past that, I avoided most large mods.
Starting about a month ago, it's begun to feel like we're starting to enter the golden era for Skyrim mods. There are a freakin' TON of them available, and more come out every day. Better still, the Skyrim Nexus has become more accessible than ever, and the Steam Workshop is pretty keen, too. (I generally get my mods from the Nexus, but YMMV.)
Avoid The Plague of Save-Game Bloat!
When I first started installing mods, I was bitten in the ass by save-game bloating. Basically, some mods can cause the size of your saved game to inflate to the point that you start getting regular hitching in your game—it'll start as a quick fraction of a second every minute or two, but as the save file increases in size, it'll quickly become a whole second long. Believe me, it feels like an eternity.
After you install a bunch of new mods, play a couple of seconds, and save a new game file. Then, go into your save-game folder (ordinarily located in Documents>My Games>Skyrim>Saves) and check the file-size on the save you just made. Compare it to the one immediately preceding it—they should be more or less the exact same size. (Hopefully less than 10MB.)
If you see that it's gotten larger by a MB or so, beware—you've got a mod that increases your save-file size. I wish I could say exactly which mods caused this, but it's very difficult to diagnose. It was Dynavision for me, but others have reported that that mod works fine. I recommend just checking your saves every so often. It's a real bummer to make your game look amazing and then lose progress due to a messed up save file.
I'm not some mod expert, and I'm not a graphical hot-rodder. I also don't think of this list as "complete" or anything—there are so many great mods out there that I'll never try them all.
I'm not afraid to hop into an .ini file and make tweaks, but as a general rule I like to avoid it. I don't want to get under the hood to the degree that Duncan does over at Dead End Thrills, but at the same time, I've got my version of the game looking almost as good as his, minus his insane draw-distance.
Some of the more intense mods make the game very crashy, which I'm not into. My priority is still on playing the game, not looking at it, so if a mod starts making my game crash or kills my performance, I remove it. So when I say "as awesome as computationally possible," I mean while remaining stable.
All of these mods except one can be applied with the Skyrim Nexus's fantastic Nexus Mod Manager app. Just download them through the app, fire them up, and you're good to go.
Before we start, a few mods I don't use: I use a controller and play on a TV, so I don't use Sky UI, but it's really great. I also don't use Dynavision even though I really liked it—I have yet to install it and not get save-game bloat. (See sidebar.)
I don't like the mods that hugely overhaul gameplay, so even though I enjoyed WARZONES: Civil Unrest, it wound up kinda getting in my way too much. I find Dragons to actually be fairly challenging much of the time, so I've yet to feel the need to install Deadly Dragons, though some recent extreme armor and weapon maxing I've done might finally make me want to make the game harder. Finally, I don't use the Realistic Lighting mod, as I think it makes things a little too dark. If that's your thing though, it's a very neat mod.
Okay! Here we go. My preferred Skyrim mods, with thoughts on why I dig them like I do.
This one operates outside of the mod manager—but, it's a snap to install. I go with level 2 for the settings.
The Official HD Texture Pack
This one probably goes without saying, but it makes the game look much better if you're running at 1080p or higher.
Quality World Map with Roads
A great mod that makes the world-map much clearer and easier to read while adding roads. There are also options for a cloth-style map, and you can opt to show all roads or just the main ones. I go with main ones, since I still like to explore.
Better Dynamic Snow
This one improves the look of snow once it's fallen on the ground. One of many smaller mods that adds up to make the game much better-looking without hurting performance.
Categorized Favorites Menu
This one lets me view my favorites menu broken into different categories, which makes it much easier to pick and choose among my many awesome weapons, shouts, and potions.
Cloaks of Skyrim
I love this one. Basically, it adds a bunch of cloaks to the world, which look good and feel "right." What is a nordic fantasy world without cloaks? Who knows. Better still, it gives you one more enchantable article of clothing, which lets you make your character a bit more powerful.
It looks good with my archery-enhancing cowl, too.
Crimson Tide - Blood
This one's pretty sweet, though it may be too over-the-top for some. It makes the blood in the game much more visible, and splatters blood on your screen when you take damage. I dig it.
This mod adds a cool tree-village south of Helgen. Something like the Ewok village, I suppose. Neato.
Enhanced Distant Terrain
Enhanced distant terrain makes far-off places look sharper, thanks to some visual slight-of-hand. Doesn't seem to have any real effect on performance, either.
Enhanced Night Skyrim
I am a huge fan of this one, and it's been around for a while now. It adds all sorts of lovely stars to the Skyrim sky at night, and really pops off when the Aurora comes out.
Possessive Corpses no more lazy zombies and shy nirnroots
Yes, that's the actual name of this mod. What it does is keep the world from expanding too hard once you've killed a lot of people—it keeps the world from tracking too many arrows and possessions, and will help fight save-game bloat.
WATER - Water And Terrain Enhancement Redux
Our first update to this list—OpticShooter has put out this new mod, which is an update to "Realistic Water Textures and Terrain," which I'd been using. It's much better and has a ton of cool options. Looks great, too. Plus now your character gets wet in water!
Lush Grass and Trees
A simple mod that doubles the amount of grass and pine-tree textures, making forests in particular look really nice. Lush, you could say.
Skyrim Flora Overhaul
This mod subtly changes the textures for a ton of the plants and trees in the game to make them look much better. It's a subtle thing, but you'll definitely notice it, especially if you hold a modded version up against an unmodded or console version of the game.
Sounds of Skyrim: Dungeons and Wilds
These are both great mods that add a lot of ambient sounds to the game. They do sometimes distract, since the audio design of Skyrim is already very good, but in general I like hearing more birds, bees, and wolves in the wilds. I should note that once, I had the game crash to desktop every time I entered a particular dungeon until I deactivated the Dungeons mod. But I've never had any other problems.
Xenius Character Enhancement
This one's another slow burner that you'll notice over time—it makes all of the faces in the game look much, much better. I prefer it to the more radical overhauls like Better Females by Bella, since it stays true to the original design of the characters but just makes them better-looking.
Faster Vanilla Horses
It's just what you'd think—it makes the horses in the game much less painfully slow, and therefore much more usable. Horseback is a great way to ride around the game after you've been modding, as well!
Static Mesh Improvement Mod
This is another large overhaul mod, one that improves the way that a ton of small objects in the world look. Like the Flora Overhaul, it's one that you might not notice all the time, but in certain scenes (particular indoors) you'll realize that the game simply looks… better than it did.
The Dance of Death
This one's just for fun, but I like Skyrim's kill animations (even the janky ones.) So, I like The Dance of Death, which gives you the ability to cast a spell that dictates how often you'll do killmoves and how they'll look. It's compatible with the new killmoves added in the recent update, and it's a lot of fun.
So, there you have it—all of the mods that I use in Skyrim. Like I said, it's not a comprehensive list; there are some that I've tried and gotten rid of, and others that I'm sure I've just not heard of. If you've got good suggestions or modding tips, I'd love to read 'em in the comments.
At some point, I'm sure that this list will require updating; if and when that happens, I might re-publish an updated version of it. But as of today, it's my current version of Skyrim.
I continue to be flabbergasted by how much there is to do in this game. Can you believe: I've still not finished the main storyline? I got set back a few quests by having to load an old save due to mod-bloating, and have still just not really gone and finished the main quest. I've finished so, so many quests, completed several of the guilds, logged so many hours... and still there's more to do.
Soon, I'm sure we'll be hearing about DLC. And thanks to all of the incredible modders at The Skyrim Nexus, we'll get to play that DLC on a version of Skyrim that's significantly superior to the one that Bethesda released.
This is why studios and publishers should embrace modders rather than attempting to regulate them or lock them out. A huge round of applause to all the modders whose hard work has served to make Skyrim a more beautiful place and Skyrim a better game.