Image Quality And Settings
As mentioned, Skyrim runs on Bethesda’s Creation Engine, which is based on the Gamebryo engine used in Oblivion and all of the Fallout 3 games. It’s updated with a lot of features its predecessors didn't have, such as a greater draw distance, new wind and weather effects, and better character animations. According to Todd Howard (Skyrim’s director) the game supports DirectX 11, but only in a performance-enhancing capacity, similar to Civilization V. Effects like tessellation are not currently exposed in the engine.
Although it can be quite demanding at high detail levels, the Creation Engine's visuals remain attractive, even scaled down to less taxing settings:
As you can see, higher detail levels push foliage, effects, and lighting detail. However, Ultra detail isn't required to have an enjoyable experience.
One of the Creation Engine's weaknesses is aliasing artifacts on transparent textures, such as the ones used on foliage. This can be distracting, especially since multi-sample anti-aliasing does not correct it. The game does include Nvidia’s FXAA code to smooth out jaggy edges using a post-processing shader (which, incidentally, works on both Nvidia and AMD hardware). It does a decent job mitigating some of the aliasing, but does tend to blur sharper details. So, the best solution is to force texture transparency anti-aliasing within your graphics driver. AMD’s Adaptive AA and Nvidia’s Transparent AA do a great job improving the output, but at a quantifiable performance hit compared to FXAA, as we’ll demonstrate in the benchmarks.
There’s not much more to say about Skyrim’s visuals, so let’s move on to performance.