Today's Hard|Forum Post
Today's Hard|Forum Post

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!


Gameplay Performance Summary

Most of the time, performance is very high in Skyrim. There are few areas in the game which actually challenge the graphics cards we used in this evaluation. During most of our testing, the FRAPS FPS counter was pegged at 60 (since we did our initial testing on a Radeon HD 6970). It wasn't hard to find a good testing procedure, but gamers should know that what we are showing here represents what we feel to be the worst case scenario for performance in Skyrim. A lot of the game involves either traversing the wilderness or hacking through dungeons and ruins. In those scenarios, performance is quite high.

We witnessed the very best performance with a pair of NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580s installed and operating in SLI mode. After that, the single GeForce GTX 580 was the best performer, followed by the GeForce GTX 570. AMD video cards have some performance issues in Skyrim, and we do hope that AMD can improve this with driver updates. It would be difficult to recommend an AMD video card to any gamer looking to upgrade his or her computer in order to play Skyrim. For this game at least, NVIDIA-GPU based current generation video cards is where it's at, whether you are packing a 30" monitor running at 2560x1600, a 1080p panel, or a multi-monitor gaming solution, they are simply faster.

Multi-GPU Scaling Woes

Skyrim is a DX9 game, a DX9 game that is based on the Gamebryo game engine, and uses Havok physics accelerated via the CPU. In our testing, we've found this game to be rather on the CPU dependent side of things. Given the older graphics nature of this game, it doesn't seem to be very multi-GPU friendly. Meaning, you won't see efficient multi-GPU acceleration performance in this game. Our NVIDIA SLI scaling showed that even at 2560x1600 with 8X MSAA + FXAA SLI scaling was in the lower 20% range. This is one of the lowest scaling games we've seen in a very long time. For a late 2011 game, this is very poor. It just seems to be the nature of the game engine.

While the GPU scaling is low, what multi-GPU allows us to do in this game is push the AA settings up to incredibly high levels. Think of it this way, we have tons of GPU performance not being utilized in this game, so the only way to utilize it is to artificially push it using extra AA options you can enable. Those AA options are FXAA (which is a shader based AA method) and Transparency AA. Turning on FXAA is one way to utilize the power of multi-GPU in this game, turning it on doesn't cause a performance drop and allows much better image quality. Another way to utilize dual-GPU performance is to enable Transparency AA. NVIDIA allows you to set 2X, 4X and 8X Transparency Supersampling from the control panel. This improves AA on trees, grass, vegetation in a much more high quality way than FXAA.

We were able to have 8X MSAA + 8X TR SSAA enabled in this game with 580 SLI, utilizing the power of both GPUs. When it was all said and done, we were able to have 8X MAAA + 8X TR SSAA + FXAA enabled with 580 SLI. This allowed an incredibly better visual quality difference over a single GeForce GTX 580. So while we don't see a great amount of scaling in this game, we have a ton of GPU performance we can use in other ways to improve image quality in this game. That is, with NVIDIA GPUs. With AMD GPUs, you can't right now.

AMD does not yet have CrossFireX support in this game. That support is coming, and you should see it by the end of this week, but it will be 2 weeks since this game launched that we finally see that support, while NVIDIA users have had this support and ability to run at high AA settings since game launch. There are reasons behind this, and scaling is one of them. This game as we mentioned is not multi-GPU friendly, and it's not easy to get working. It is going to take a driver update, not a CAP update, from AMD in order to give you CrossFireX support. When that happens, we expect to see Radeon HD 6970 CrossFireX give us the same type of AA support that GTX 580 SLI can give us right now. That is, we should be able to turn on 8X MSAA + Adaptive Supersmapling + FXAA and have the performance to push that. Once that driver is available, we'll certainly test that scenario and let you know if it's possible.

This, unfortunately is the problem with SLI and CrossFireX both, that we dislike, being based on driver profiles. More often than not, gamers are forced to wait for multi-GPU profiles in new games to enjoy the fastest performance. More so lately, we've seen AMD GPU users waiting the longest times, and the most, for new games to support CrossFireX. As it stands now, gamers who have invested $700 or more into multi-GPU solutions with two or more AMD Radeon HD 6970s are getting a gameplay experience from Skyrim that is on the level with what can be had from a single $300 NVIDIA GeForce GTX 570. That's just not a good value, and we find it unacceptable. AMD has improved in this respect compared to past game releases, but they still have a lot of work to do.

Brilliant Gameplay, Humdrum Graphics

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim falls into the category of games sporting brilliant gameplay backed by compelling writing, but which also have graphics that ultimately let the rest of the game down. Don't mistake our meaning here: this game looks damn good. But graphically speaking, it's really nothing special for a 2011 game. It looks better than Oblivion did out of the box. Skyrim has mediocre textures and bad shadows. Oblivion's soft shadows looked better than Skyrim's hard-edged dynamic shadows.

In its gameplay, Skyrim feels like a PC game. The UI can feel a bit obtuse until you get used to it, but its gameplay mechanics show none of the telltale signs of this being fundamentally a console game that has been adapted for the PC. But in terms of graphics, we definitely get the feeling that the PC's more advanced functionality and higher performance profile was largely ignored by the developers. Skyrim looks fine, we were hoping for something better. Oblivion was the 800 pound gorilla of its day, and Skyrim fails to live up to that legacy.

In our opinion, none of this takes away from the excellent gameplay and top-notch writing, but it doesn't exactly seal the deal either. We would have liked to see DirectX 11 support with tessellation and maybe some high-quality ambient occlusion with soft shadows. It may be true that the game doesn't necessarily need it, but it would have made it a more compelling title for PC gaming and graphics enthusiasts with the latest video cards. There are some ways to improve image quality in this game, but you will have to take matters into your own hands and edit INI files to get the best quality. We are going to do this and give you all a follow-up later this week showing off some of the INI tweaks you can do to improve quality, and the effect on performance.

The Bottom Line

Overall, Skyrim is an impressive game. The combat is enjoyable, the writing is compelling, and the player's social and political decisions have real consequences that echo throughout the game. Its graphics aren't what we were hoping for, but it still looks good and in certain narrow spaces, is fairly demanding of the GPU.

Gamers looking to upgrade their video cards for Skyrim should look at NVIDIA's offerings. For high-end enthusiasts, the single and dual NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580 solutions both rocked the game out of the park, and the GeForce GTX 570 was close behind. Gamers with a more modest budget should consider the GeForce GTX 560 Ti as a solid option for 24" and smaller monitors. Lacking real competition in the high-end space, the GeForce GTX 580 is still a high priced item. Newegg sells a nice Galaxy model for $439.99 USD after a $50 mail-in rebate through to December 31st. They are offering the same rebate on a GTX 570, bringing it down to $289.99 after the rebate. The GeForce GTX 560 Ti is eligible for a $35 mail-in rebate, also through the end of the year, bringing the cost on that down to $199.99 plus shipping.