The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Performance & IQ Preview

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was released early this morning, and we have an exclusive look at performance in this game. We'll talk about performance, show some screenshots, and see what video card delivers the best experience on game launch day. For all you that are not already on your 10th quest that is.


The long awaited sequel to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was launched early this morning, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is now available on Steam or in retail stores. While we have a full evaluation of Skyrim in the works, we wanted to bring you this preview of performance and image quality so you know what to expect out of this game today. We started playing Skyrim right when it was unlocked on Steam and quickly began looking at performance and image quality on several video cards. First and foremost, what caught our eye was that the game is running in DX9, it does not support DX11. This left us with a rather cold and disappointed feeling at first, but as we played more into the game we see that Bethesda has done quite a lot with DX9, though certainly there is room for improvement.

Skyrim does not use the previously used Gamebryo engine that Oblivion used. Instead, Bethesda created its own technology for this game called the Creation Engine, which is heavily based on Gamebryo. Some key features of graphics improvements over Oblivion include draw distances being father, dynamic lighting leads way to shadows being cast by any object, and now Bethesda is using this technology for the trees and foliage. Previously, SpeedTree was used, but now this is all done in the Creation Engine. Skyrim also makes use of Havok physics engine for character animation which allows real-time interaction with NPCs. Speaking of NPCs, Skyrim uses Radiant AI, which was also used in Oblivion but has been updated to allow NPCs to interact more in their environment. All of this sounds great, but again, nothing special we haven't seen in any game so far. Nothing that really screams "unique" here.

To get this preview out to you quickly we have not played the game all the way through, as if there really is an "all the way through" for this type of game. What we will do in the full evaluation is look at all the lands and places available in this game, and figure out what will be the most graphically demanding areas or scenarios to do a run-through in. For now, this preview simply records framerate over time from the very beginning of the game until you walk to the door of The Keep to enter Helgen. While this is at the beginning of the game, it does include quite a bit of graphical effects at play.

Use These Drivers

NVIDIA released Beta drivers the day before Skyrim was launched that improves performance and enables SLI support in Skyrim. Unfortunately, AMD does not have a performance driver or a Catalyst Application Profile (CAP) available at this time for Skyrim. This means that CrossFireX is non-functional. In regards to when we will see a CAP for Skyrim from AMD, the current status is: Pending. You will find this post from CatalystCreator Andrew D at his twitter page here: "We're working on a CAP update for Skyrim; as soon as an ETA is known I'll let you guys know." So as it stands, you will get SLI support and performance improvements with NVIDIA now, with AMD you will have to wait.

NVIDIA Driver - ForceWare 285.79 - "Added or updated SLI profiles for the following games: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" - This driver came out on November 10th, 2011.

AMD Drivers - Right now, the best AMD driver to use is the current one - Catalyst 11.10 WHQL and 11.9 CAP 4. As you will see below, the lack of CFX support is going to hurt.

Our test system consists of an ASUS P8P67 WS Revolution motherboard, Intel Core i7 2600K at 4.8GHz.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Setup

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Skyrim auto-detects settings upon first run on your graphics card. You can thankfully change many in-game video options, which will talk about in our full evaluation. For now, we will show you what Skyrim wanted to set by default for the GTX 580 and HD 6970.

Radeon HD 6970 Auto-Detect

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(Radeon HD 6970)

For the AMD Radeon HD 6970 Skyrim auto-detected "Ultra" settings. It wanted to run at 2560x1600 with 8X AA and 16X AF with all settings as high as they would go, by default. This also includes all the View Distance options at their highest values.

GeForce GTX 580 Auto-Detect

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(GeForce GTX 580)

Skyrim did not want to run at the highest settings, by default, on the GeForce GTX 580. Instead, Skyrim auto-detected "High" settings. Skyrim wanted to run at 2560x1600 with 8X AA but 8X AF instead of 16X AF. It also set the Radial Blur Quality to Medium, and Shadow Detail and Decal Quantity to High. In addition, it turned off Reflect Sky. The game also wanted to run at lower View Distances, turning down every option by quite a bit. It also turned Distant Object Detail to High.

We don't know why Skyrim wanted to run at only "High" settings on the GTX 580, it certainly doesn't make sense when you look at the performance on the next page. The only thing we can think of is that the game is detecting the amount of video memory on the video card and setting options with that value in mind. The GTX 580 has 1.5GB while the HD 6970 has 2GB on board. We found NO issues or performance problems running with "Ultra" settings on the GTX 580. For all of our apples-to-apples settings we are using maxed out "Ultra" settings on both video cards.