The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Performance and IQ Review

The latest Elder Scrolls installment is here, taking us to the frozen province of Skyrim in search of Dragons! We've checked out performance and image quality in this wildly anticipated game with current generation graphics card solutions on the market today, and we're ready to show your our results. You may just be surprised at what you see!


The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the fifth installment in Bethesda Game Studios' The Elder Scrolls franchise of role-playing games. Skyrim was released by Bethesda Softworks and Zenimax Media on November 11th, 2011 to widespread critical acclaim. Previous Elder Scrolls entries Oblivion and Morrowind in the series proved to be immensely popular, and are in fact still played today in spite of being five and nine years old, respectively. Skyrim has so far earned a 94.75% rating on GameRankings, and 95/100 rating on Metacritic.

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a first or third-person action role-playing game, or action RPG. Action RPGs vary from traditional RPGs primarily by utilizing real-time combat mechanics. While traditional RPGs might be turn-based, or at least force a delay between attacks, action-RPGs allow more fluid, real-time combat, relying on the player's reflexes to determine success in battle. Skyrim is merely the latest in a very long line of action-RPGs, dating back to 1984. Those internal die-rolls do still happen in Skyrim, but they are calculated in real-time as the player performs his or her actions. The success and magnitude of an attack is thus not only determined by the character's assortment of skills, but also by the player's skill at maneuvering attacks.

Skyrim is a single-player only game. It takes place 200 years after the events of Oblivion, and the gamer plays a character referred to as Dovahkiin, or Dragonborn, being a person born with a dragon's blood and a dragon's soul. As such, it is up to the player to rescue the world from the resurfaced scourge of marauding dragons. The game world is immense and features a wide variety of environments ranging from farmland to ancient dwarven ruins, to expansive frozen wastelands. The game is epic in both scale and feel.

The Technology

Skyrim does not technically use the Gamebryo engine, that previous game Oblivion was based on, as well as many other Bethesda games. However, the new engine that Bethesda developed is highly built from the Gamebryo engine, at its base. According to Bethesda Community Manager Nick Breckon here, Skyrim's engine "is all-new, and it looks fantastic." Bethesda Game Studios has dubbed Skyrim's engine the Creation Engine.

The Creation Engine offers several improvements over Gamebryo for Skyrim. The Creation Engine allows a greater draw distance and dynamic shadows to be created by any object in the game. In fact, when you "wait" (press T) in-game, you can see shadows shift around with the movement of the sun across the sky. In addition, while Oblivion used SpeedTree to render trees, Creation Engine handles that duty for Skyrim. The Creation Engine allows developers to give weight to branches, which influences how the trees react to wind. The effect of wind is a constant and extremely visible thing in Skyrim. Trees, water, and snow all gets blown around by the wind all the time. The Creation Engine also allows for dynamic snowfall. Being far to the north, the province of Skyrim is a cold realm, and it snows a lot. In some places, it seems to snow constantly. Where snow was merely a static texture effect in previous Elder Scrolls games, it is now a dynamic effect rendered in real-time by the game engine.

The Creation Engine uses Havok for physics calculations, and all physics are done via the CPU. Havok is used for character animation. This is visible in-game when walking up or down steps, or across uneven terrain. The character's body moves in realistic ways.

Skyrim is a DX9-only game. There is no DX10 renderer or DX11 renderer in this game. DirectX 9.0c is what is used, and there aren't any exciting DX11 features we've come to experience in recent games. Beyond that, there aren't even some DX9 features we've come to enjoy in other DX9 games, such as soft shadows. We'll talk about this more in the IQ page, but this game seems to be a mix of image quality, and in some ways doesn't even challenge the capabilities of DX9. While we don't equate eye-candy with quality, we have powerful DX11 capable video cards, and for a late 2011 game, we'd expect PC games to be pushing the bounds of graphics utilizing the power of today's video cards.