Skyrim with Mods

With the new Skyrim Anniversary Edition officially on the horizon (as prognosticated by HGG’s owner and clairvoyant Josh back in 2020), I decided it was time to break the old girl out and see if I couldn’t finagle a current-gen upgrade of my own using the computing powers of the PS5 and Xbox Series S and a slew of community-created mods. I decided I wasn’t going to use anything from the Creation Club — the paid storefront for Bethesda-approved, monetized content — mostly because I wanted to see what I could cobble together for zero dollars, and also because the Creation Club kind of sucks (at least it does on PlayStation; I didn’t bother to check on the Xbox). 

On both platforms, I was able to improve on the ages-old graphics and even tweak some of the controls. But I mainly only focused on what I felt Bethesda would focus on with their upgrade: namely graphics and quality-of-life improvements, without adding any wacky new features.

Okay, so I did utilize a few mods that change minor elements of the game world in order to add a bit of immersion and mystery, or just to spice up the otherwise bland design or outdated design. These include things like adding signposts and lanterns at strategic points along roads and pathways, as well as some cosmetic alterations to some of the towns and smaller communities. I did also utilize an alternate start mod for both systems, as well as a mod to help clean up the map — and, in the case of the PlayStation version, I installed a mod to streamline the in-game menu.

Skyrim with Mods

Was I able to singlehandedly create a close approximation of what we can expect in the anniversary edition of Skyrim and its upgrades? Was I able to render a version of Skyrim so mind-blowingly graphically stupendous that it shatters the concept of reality as I once knew it? More importantly, was I able to play either version with all of the mods firing on all cylinders, despite the notoriously flimsy stability of Skyrim

Maybe, no, and… no.

So without further ado, let’s get cracking. I will now list the various mods I decided to employ to help me achieve this Herculean task.

I should note that, although I refer to the PS5 and Series S, all of these mods are actually intended for the last-gen consoles. I acknowledge that this an inherent flaw in my quest to make a new-gen upgrade using mostly last-gen mods, but I see this mostly as an experiment to see what is possible. I wanted to put myself into the shoes of Bethesda’s decision-makers and see if I would take the same road as the real deal, or if we’ll go in vastly different directions with our updates.

PS5 Skyrim Mods

Skyrim with Mods
Skyrim with Mods

As I stated above, the general idea of this experiment was to focus on graphics and any control tweaks I could make, like better third-person camera and aiming. And to that end, as you can see above, there wasn’t a ton of mods on offer that would do anything game-changing along those lines. Most of what I ended up installing was designed to make the world feel more densely populated, improve the draw distance a bit (although this allows you to see animals literally drop from the sky as they load in), improve the pathing for NPCs, add more color and personality to some of the towns, lock this thing in at 60FPS, and generally just brighten the game up a bit.

Truth be told, my eyes don’t really work well when it comes to spotting framerates, so I can’t really say if the 60FPS mod worked much at all or not. But the PS5 didn’t compare to the Xbox in terms of lighting effects (more on that later).

I think by far the mods that went the longest way to making this feel more modern were the ones that dealt with foliage — the grass and extra trees and roadside assets. I loved seeing the tall grass and the extra trees, which helped hide the hideous texture mapping of the otherwise brown-and-gray landscape. Especially with the Skyrim is Windy mod, which caused the flora to dance around, the extra animation making the world feel that much more alive.

And even though the draw distance came with an unforeseen loading hiccup, being able to see further in the distance was nice and made the world feel more open and complete. Unfortunately, the extra grass mapping was noticeably absent in a radius beyond a two or three dozen in-game meters around my character. I didn’t really notice much of an improvement for the camera and third-person aiming while using a bow, but it wasn’t any worse than the base game, so no loss there.

At the end of the day, Sony’s limit on what mods can or can’t incorporate definitely put the PS5 version at a slight disadvantage, even though my mod count was slightly larger on that rig. But Skyrim did technically look better, at least for my tastes, so this wasn’t a complete wash. The performance was hit or miss, but as anyone who’s ever played a Bethesda game will tell you, this could have as much to do with the base game as it does with the mods.

For all the good my modding excursion did — pleasantly noticeable but not life-changing — I hope Bethesda’s new-gen update will look and perform far better than what I was able to cobble together myself. Then again, this is Bethesda we’re talking about here…

Xbox Series S Skyrim Mods

Skyrim with Mods
Skyrim with Mods

Right out the gate, I ended up landing on a list that closely resembled my PS5 mods list. However, there was a handful that focused on the textures of specific individual models or items. This was partially in the spirit of parity, but I mostly wanted to overhaul or improve things I felt might be the focus of the pending Bethesda upgrade, since that was roughly the thesis I had begun with.

Some of the mods weren’t available on both systems, as far as exact mods appearing in both ecosystems. So I had to search for a grass density mod on the Series S, as I wasn’t able to find the Xbox counterpart of the exact mod I used on the PS5 from the same author (although there were more Xbox mods that focused on grass than there were on the PlayStation). But of the three I tried, none seemed to produce an exact match to the Dense Grass mod on the PS5, which is still the one I like the most. I also think the added draw distance didn’t add as much on the Series S compared to the PS5.

Although both versions lacked definition or textures far off in the distance, this was far more noticeable on the Series S. Looking at Whiterun from a not-too-substantial distance, it looked far blurrier on the Series S. Then again, the mod parity isn’t one for one, so it could just be the collective effects of the mods.

But when it comes to lighting effects, I feel the Xbox Series S is the clear winner. The glow of the lanterns along the sides of the roads could be seen from a good distance and really seemed to illuminate the immediate surrounding area in a more believable and organic way. And even without any nighttime mods, the night sky on the Series S crackles a lot more and is awesome to behold.

Skyrim with Mods

On the other hand, it felt like the more I tried to find a graphic overhaul mod similar to the one that gave me the vivid coloring results that I was partial to on the PS5 (the NLA – Natural Lighting Aesthetic mod), the dimmer the Xbox version got in return. Or perhaps not dimmer — it just never really went above and beyond the vanilla settings.

So although there were far more mods to tinker with on the Xbox, most of the ones I ended up settling on made the game look better in smaller ways, since Microsoft allows creators to upload mods that impact individual textures, like on the various trees or items like cups and wedges of cheese. To that end, Microsoft clearly came out on top, and if I am ever able to get those colors to the proper retina-searing level of the PlayStation’s NLA mod, the Xbox version will be the hands-down, all-around winner.

So what about performance?

Skyrim with Mods

Everything I mentioned previously is moot if the game itself isn’t able to withstand the weight of these modifications heaped atop an already shaky foundation.

Using the mods listed above for both consoles, I was sadly not able to succeed on that end. For both the PS5 and the Xbox Series S, the game was only able to run consistently without crashing only under the least taxing of gameplay. Walking around enjoying the scenery was mostly fine, although the PS5 definitely struggled more in certain areas than the Xbox. But interacting with crafting stations and the crafting interfaces would bog down the game. Exiting buildings would often cause the game to crash. Combat didn’t appear to be an issue, but then again, I didn’t encounter any dragons in my time playing — those notorious culprits of slowdown and framerate stutters. 

I still plan on toying with the mods on offer, as well as my load order, to see if I can’t get closer to a stable, gorgeous next-gen upgrade using only the provided free console mods. Thankfully, both system’s SSDs allow for slightly faster loading times, which makes jumping in and out of the game and mod menu a slightly less taxing affair. Although, I did crash out once while reloading Skyrim after removing a few mods on the PS5, so even that can be a gamble.

At the end of the day, this was mostly just an experiment to see if I could get Skyrim running on current-gen consoles up to a level that might at the very least rival what Bethesda is pumping out later this year. Especially since it seems that most of the extra content included in the actual anniversary edition will be content from their Creation Club, so I’m not expecting a ton of in-game improvements. Then again, it’s impossible to know exactly how much effort went into this upgraded version of the game.

I will say this, though: If my efforts produce something even remotely similar to what Bethesda releases, that will be a bit of a disappointment, even if the enhancements are free for those of us that own the last-gen version of the game.

What I would love to see, aside from a graphical up-res and implementation of some of the patches and bug fixes that the modding community took upon themselves, is an overhaul of the inventory system. I also would love to see improved combat mechanics and camera positioning, and a nice bump to the A.I. systems. New story content is probably out of the question, but that would always be a welcome addition to any update.

So, feel free to try my mod loads to see if you can improve the game, or just start from scratch. And if you happen to have any suggestions, or if you have a tried-and-trusted mod loadout for this old dog of a game, I would love to read about that in the comments. 

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