Skyrim Performance Review: It's Definitely a DirectX 9 Game
HardOCP just threw the PC version of Skyrim on the bench, pulled it apart, and typed up a nice summary of how it performs on various systems. It's also a nice read for those wondering how Bethesda's new Creation engine works, its strengths and weaknesses, and how fiddling your GPU's custom driver settings might improve the graphics in ways even the game's "ultra" detail setting can't.
Among other things, HardOCP explains that Skyrim's new engine is a lot like Bethesda's old Oblivion engine, except when it's not. The Creation engine technically isn't the Gamebryo engine, but it owes a lot to it in terms of its foundation, which probably explains why it's so reminiscent of Oblivion in terms of the way the landscape, physical structures, and objects interrelate. The game also employs the Havok physics engine (as did Oblivion before it) and offloads physics modeling to the CPU.
I wasn't aware Skyrim used DirectX 9, but sure enough, it does, says HardOCP, adding that there's no DX10 or DX11 renderer, which probably sounds as strange to you, in 2011, as it does to me. Long story short, as wonderful as Skyrim's mountains can look crowned with wisps of fog or tufts of clouds, the underlying visual architecture's pretty dated, especially in terms of the way the Creation engine handles shadows. HardOCP also notes the textures tend to be more diffuse or low-res than they might have been had Bethesda designed the game with the PC in mind and not the space-limited Xbox 360 (the entire game fits, remarkably, on just one DVD).
Other curiosities: There's no VSYNC option in Skyrim's detail settings. It's on, by default, thank goodness (turning if off can lead to screen tearing, an unpleasant visual anomaly where the game's frame rate and your monitor's refresh rate don't line up). But for benchmarking, it's a problem, since it caps frame rates. Hard OCP was able to work around the issue on its Nvidia test cards by using Nvidia's drivers to force it off, but weren't able to make this work on AMD cards, thus their AMD benchmarks have a 60 frames per second ceiling, regardless of what AMD's cards can actually do.
And the benchmark tests themselves were difficult to construct, given Skyrim's more haphazard (than Oblivion, anyway) character scripting and environmental mechanics. According to HardOCP:
When we were using Oblivion to test games, we witnessed the same creatures, enemies, NPCs, and weather events every time we tested it. In Skyrim, however, these things were much more randomized. Sometimes it grew foggy during the trip, and sometimes it rained and snowed. Encounters with creatures and NPCs were at predictable locations, but the nature of these encounters varied. Sometimes we ran into great saber-tooth cats, sometimes wolves, and sometimes giant spiders. So there is some slight unavoidable randomness to testing in Skyrim.
Their conclusion: Great as it looks for a DX9 game, it's still very much a DX9 game, which means GPU scaling is low but—here's the upside—there's plenty of headroom for custom-cranking anti-aliasing in your video card's settings.
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