Archive for the ‘TES5 Skyrim’ Category


Old news for anyone who hangs around the Elder Scrolls forums, but it appears that those pesky CTDs (crash to desktop) and ILSs (Infinite Loading Screens) are a thing of the past for PC users. Console gamers are stuck with the 1.9 patch in all of its glory.

The short version is that a gamer named Sheson figured out that the cause of most of these problems can be traced back to the way that Skyrim allocates memory for the game to use. The initial allocation of 256MB was supposed to overflow to a second allocation of 256MB. It did that most of the time, but as soon as the first block was completely filled, crash-bang-boom. Sheson’s solution was to allocate additional memory to both stacks, but primarily to the first. *Poof!* Problems go away.

Players have tested this fix in a variety of ways, most notably by spawning hordes of memory-intensive NPCs, cranking up their uGridstoLoad and anything else that almost always guarantees a short gaming session. Almost everyone is reporting vastly improved stability, although cranking up uGrids still has its own set of persistent problems, mainly in the form of scripts that trigger when a cell is loaded. Higher uGrids means earlier loading so stuff that is supposed to happen when you get there, starts happening much earlier, but that’s a different issue.

This fix has been incorporated into the latest build of SKSE (SKyrim Script Extender). The alpha build of v.1.7 has been out for a couple of weeks (I installed it on Jan 29) and can be downloaded from skse.silverlock.org. This is still an alpha build, so there might be other issues lurking in the shadows, but the benefits of the memory patch far exceed the perils of added scripting capabilities.

To turn on the memory patch capabilities, users will need to create an skse.ini file as follows:

  1. install SKSE according to the installation instructions
  2. create SKSE.ini in Skyrim\Data\SKSE (New –> Text Document and rename it to SKSE.ini)
  3. add the following lines to the .ini and save it

    [General]
    ClearInvalidRegistrations=1

    [Memory]
    DefaultHeapInitialAllocMB=768
    ScrapHeapSizeMB=256

  4. Run your game

The first line is supposed to clear out any orphaned scripts that might exist in your saved game, so is recommended rather than required. I don’t remove anything except texture mods in the middle of a game and have not suffered from those problems, but it’s not harming anything to have it.

The [Memory] section is required and the values are the minimum recommended. The 768MB is 512MB for the initial heap plus the 256 for the secondary heap. I have not played around with higher values, even though I have plenty of RAM to spare, so can only attest to the fact that those values have worked well for me. Your mileage may vary if you want to use other values.

Gopher put out a new Skyrim Mod Sanctuary showing the problem, the patch and the effects. It’s well worth watching.

Memory Patch

 

I don’t recommend dumping any alpha onto an existing game (I’m a bit less leery of betas), which is what I did. But I have had zero problems since installing (60+ hours of gameplay). I had one CTD a few minutes after installing, but absolutely no crashes, freezes or any other oddities in the two weeks since. I usually like to point out that anecdotal evidence barely rises to the level of “persuasive”, much less “conclusive”, but this seems pretty solid from the sheer volume of anecdotal evidence on the same effect.

The long gap between postings is due to two issues. First, there hasn’t been much happening on the game scene where I felt that I had anything unique or insightful to add. Sure, there have been a few DLCs for Bioshock: Infinite, Dishonored and the like, but they honestly haven’t been anything to rave (or rant) about. I’d really like to have something a bit more interesting to say than, “Meh”. I’ll confess to being very interested in the “Burial At Sea” DLC for Bioshock, but aside from a couple of trailers (which have been dissected and commented ad nauseam by this point) there hasn’t been much to comment on. The second reason is much more mundane: I’ve been playing.

However, the mods forum at Bethesda generates a fairly large number of “what mods should I use?” posts. Lacking anything better to do at the moment and being too damned lazy to post the same answer every time it’s asked, here’s my current mod list. Some are “must have” mods, a few are “nice to have, depending on your character build” and a few others are “meh”. I have Falskaar in my load order, but my current Level 68 character is probably a bit over-powered for it, so it will likely wait until the next character.

SKSE is required. Too many really good mods require it, so it’s just part of a standard Skyrim installation as far as I am concerned. The same can be said for SkyUI and the Unofficial Patches. I absolutely will not play without them.

  • 83Willow’s 101 BugsHD – a nice touch with swarms of butterflies, torchbugs, moths and the like, all usable as alchemical ingredients. Effects are a bit stronger than vanilla ingredients, which some might feel makes it somewhat overpowered for an alchemy-based build. If that’s you, don’t use it. Otherwise, it’s a nice addition if for nothing else than the pretties.
  • A Quality World Map – a “must have” mod, especially for those who do not fast-travel; just too useful to not include
  • Arrows and Bolts Tweaks – can be a bit over-powered, depending on your choices at installation. Probably best to leave ammo availability at or below vanilla levels.
  • Achieve That! – a “must have” for me because it’s just fun. You get minor perks or rewards for completing certain tasks (like eating 200 ingredients). None are particularly unbalancing or over-the-top and some are very difficult to achieve within a single playthrough.
  • Acquisitive Soul Gems – a “must have” for anyone playing a Conjuration-based or Enchanting-based character. It fixes a minor problem when the game uses an incorrectly-sized soul gem (like using a Greater soul gem on a Mudrab).
  • Alternate Start – Live Another Life – not recommended for people who are playing Skyrim for the first time; a “must have” for those of us who have made the trip to the headsman’s block so many times that we’d almost prefer root-canal work to sitting through it again.
  • aMidianBorn Book of Silence – retextured weapons, armors, unique items, etc. About a gigabyte of retex goodness if you get the whole package. A “must have” as far as I’m concerned, but it’s going to boil down to personal taste in the end. NMM doesn’t seem to play well with large downloads, so you should probably select “download manually” and import it rather than let NMM handle the download.
  • ApachiiSkyHair – “nice to have”, I think. Since my characters spend a lot of time wearing a helmet, it’s more for NPCs than anything else.
  • Balanced Magic – a rebalancing of the spell system and almost exclusively for mage characters. Do not use this with mods like SkyRe, for example, as you will undoubtedly run into conflicts.
  • Bandoliers and Pouches – “nice to have” – it adds craftable pouches and whatnot that increase your carry weight. Considering that you can accomplish the same thing with other mods without adding new items to the game, it’s nice, but not necessary.
  • Bellyache’s HD Dragon Replacer Pack – some nice retextures of dragons; either this mod or Deadly Dragons or Dragon Combat Overhaul is producing dead dragons that follow me everywhere (they drop out of the sky when I transition to exterior cells). I haven’t identified the culprit, but those are the only ones that are doing anything to dragons, so are the most likely suspects.
  • Better Archery Eagle Eye Perk – probably “must have” for archer builds, but “nice to have” for everyone else. It’s one of the very early Skyrim mods (pre-Construction Kit), so may or may not play nicely. I’ve never had issues with it, but don’t say you weren’t warned.
  • Better Sorting – Headbomb’s original mod with updates by Savage Hammer – most players could probably live without it, but I’ve been playing with it for so long that’s it’s kind of permanently embedded; it was a partial fix to Bethesda’s vanilla abomination of an inventory system and is likely irrelevant by now
  • Categorized Favorites Menu – another partial fix to Bethesda’s vanilla abomination of an inventory system. It has mostly been superseded by SkyUI’s favorites system, but I still like it (even if SkyUI gripes and complains about it)
  • CFM Config – Skyrim Redone – for my tastes, a better favorites overlay than CFM. Again, it has mostly been superseded by SkyUI’s newer functions, but I’m used to its quirkiness by now, so will stick with it even though it’s no longer being supported or updated. CCFM (Customized Categorized Favorites Menu) is similar, but I have not played with it. I’ll give it a go on my next character build, but it looks promising.
  • Cerwiden – SMART Healer – an interesting sidekick from the author of the Vilja companion mod in Oblivion – fully voiced with an interesting backstory and her own little quest line – definitely worth a look
  • Civil War Overhaul – extremely well done and a “must have” for anyone who wants to really delve more deeply into the Stormcloak rebellion. If the Civil War is something to endure/overcome on your way to other objectives, this is definitely not for you because you absolutely can lose
  • Complete Crafting Overhaul – Headbomb’s original mod. Like “Better Sorting” it’s kind of embedded in my load order. It requires two other mods (Smithing Perks Overhaul and Weapons and Armor Fixes) to work properly. It should not be used with another rebalancing mod, such as SkyRe. It sticks pretty close to vanilla and I’m using it mostly because I’m used to it, not because I think it’s particularly superior to anything other than vanilla Skyrim.
  • Convenient Horses – a “must have” mod if you’re planning on using horses at all. It’s a bit over-powered due to the ungodly amounts of stuff that you can have your horse carry, but it’s so wonderfully convenient, you won’t want to play without it
  • Deadly Dragons – another “must have”. Vanilla dragons are complete wusses (I’ve watched them get killed by Sabre Cats and Cave Bears). This makes them a force to be reckoned with. Set the difficulty high enough (it’s configurable) and even the Dragonborn will cower in fear of them. You’ll also want to install something like “Run For Your Lives” unless you want to see your favorite NPCs become snacks.
  • Dragon Combat Overhaul – a “must have” mod that does what it says: overhauls dragon combat. Dragons, even with Deadly Dragons, are fairly predictable. Knock their health down to 35% or less and they land, making them easy pickings. DCO makes them much less predictable. They’ll use spells, shouts, strafing runs, knock-downs, wing buffets or whatever as their ultimate goal is to inflict as much pain as possible upon you before they settle in for lunch.
  • Enhanced Lights and FX – a “must have” for some and “meh” for others. I like it better than other lighting mods as it really does darken interiors to the point where torches, light spells and Night-Eye are absolutely indispensible. If you’re not that crazy about stumbling around in the dark, pass it by.
  • Enhanced Skyrim Factions – The Companions Guild – a “must have” for anyone wanting to complete the Companions Guild quest line. It makes the faction much more interesting by restoring some cut content, installing skill and level requirements for advancement and the like. The vanilla quest line could be completed in one or two sessions; ESF stretches this out and makes it much more challenging and satisfying.
  • Follower Trap Safety – a cheat, but pretty much a “must have”. It basically gives your followers the “Light Step” perk so that they don’t blindly step on those pressure plates that you deftly avoided. Face it, Skyrim didn’t include a “don’t step there” command for your followers, so they tend to get smacked around due to AS (Artificial Stupidity).
  • Frostfall – either a “must have” mod or an unnecessary complication, depending upon my mood at the time. Gopher’s YouTube vids (“Beginners Guide to Modding Skyrim” and “Skyrim Mod Sanctuary”) do a much better job of explaining Frostfall than I ever could. This is not a mod for someone who is interested in speedy play. You really must think through what you’re wanting to do and the consequences of doing it or you’ll likely freeze to death.
  • Immersive Armors – like the Book of Silence stuff, it’s nice-looking armors. They aren’t over- or under-powered. SkyRe users will also need the compatibility patch(es) from the Files page. It plays well with the other mods, so it’s going to come town to personal aesthetic tastes, I think. It’s “must have” for me.
  • Immersive Weapons – like the Book of Silence stuff and JaySUS Swords, it’s nice-looking weapons. There are compatibility patches for SkyRe users. It’s “must have” for me.
  • Immersive HUD – iHUD – it’s “must have” for me, although I use it in conjunction with Less Intrusive HUD (I like its compass better). It makes HUD elements disappear from the screen when they aren’t needed.
  • JaySUS Swords – this is one of the earlier mods to add unique weapons and was pre-CK if memory serves. Aside from design, there won’t be many differences between this and other mods, such as aMidianBorn or Immersive Weapons. I keep it mainly as tradition and because there are a couple of really good-looking Steel weapons that I like to use. Couple these with Smithing Perks Overhaul and you’ve got some weapons that will work well, even into the mid-game.
  • Lanterns of Skyrim – Around Towns and Lanterns of Skyrim – Bridges – a couple of small mods that add lantern posts in areas outside of towns where town guards patrol and to some bridges. Very handy with lighting mods that seriously darken nights.
  • Lockpick Graduation by Lilyu – I count it as “must have”, although it’s a slight cheat. The mod changes the look of locks in the lockpicking minigame so that it’s a bit easier to pick up where your lockpick broke. It doesn’t change the mechanics of lockpicking at all; just adding some tick-marks to the locks that you’re picking. If you’re looking for a real cheat, try KenMod – Lockpick Pro. You can pretty much do the whole game with less than 1o lockpicks.
  • Move it Dammit! For NPC Companions and Followers – a “must have” – it makes your followers back up when you bump into them. I can’t count the times I got stuck in the bedroom at Breezehome because Lydia or some other follower was standing in the doorway and I couldn’t get through.
  • Night-Eye Overhaul – a “must have” as far as I’m concerned. It adds an Illusion-based Night-Eye spell (either timed or toggled – your choice) and makes some other tweaks/changes to the way that Night-Eye behaves. It has issues with some ENB lighting mods, but that’s due to the ENB, not this mod. I should probably go look for something else because it has a few other issues with other lighting mods, but I’m pretty used to its quirks by now.
  • Project Reality – Climates of Tamriel – a really good lighting mod with little performance hit. It plays well with other lighting mods, although I don’t know how well it plays with ENBs. I’ve generally avoided ENBs for performance reasons.
  • Pure Waters – a retexture of how water looks and behaves – a “must have” for me, although it’s strictly eye-candy.
  • SkyrimHD 2K Textures – one of the better general retexture mods out there. I use it in conjunction with the official HD texture packs from Bethesda. Even the Lite version textures are pretty awesome and had a much smaller performance hit with my GTX 550Ti than the official ones.
  • Static Mesh Improvement Mod (SMIM) – redoes a lot of the meshes in the game and is “must have” as far as I’m concerned.
  • Timing is Everything – almost “must have”, but more than “nice to have” – it lets you change the starting point for a lot of quests. For example, the default for Dawnguard is something like Level 10. If you don’t want it to start (with its attendant vampire attacks and favorite vendors and NPCs ending up dead), you can change it to whatever level you want. Works well with all of the official DLCs, too.
  • When Vampires Attack – “must have” – makes NPCs run for cover during a vampire attack rather than trying to take on that Master Vampire with the trusty old Iron Dagger that so many carry.

There are a few other minor mods that I haven’t listed because they’re very much personal preference kinds of things: Warmer Magic Lights, Spell Crafting, Ultra Realistic World Lighting, and things like that. I’m on the verge of starting up another character, so will likely go perusing the Nexus and change out some (or a lot) of these. But at least now I can just post a link to this on the forums rather than hunt down links.

My normal practice in Skyrim is to start a character, play until I either decide to start another one or until I finish whatever it was that I set out to do and then delete the saves and start fresh. I developed this routine because I found that archiving a character to pick up again later was problematic when it came to mods. Which ones did I use with which characters? Or better yet, since I frequently add to those which I used at the beginning of a character, which mods were installed with a particular save? I’ve got a fairly standard base list (the unofficial patches, SkyUI, Better Sorting, JaySuS, retextures and the like), but that doesn’t account for the stuff that I might use with a particular character (Staff of Magnus fixes for a Mage character or a Companions overhaul for a werewolf/warrior type, for example).

I know that Wrye Bash can and does keep track of that kind of thing, but it’s not a tool that I use. There was some of that functionality with Oblivion’s mod managers, but it’s not there in NMM (a tool that I do like). So the simplest path was to just delete saves and start over rather than archive and pick up again later. Yet another reason why I detest that stupid cart ride and trip to the headsman. When you’ve seen it 20 or 30 times, it’s no longer entertaining.

And then a user named Mardoxx over that the Bethsoft forums pointed out that the active plug-in info is stored in the .ess, which can be viewed with Notepad (or Notepad++). Just search the file for .esm and you’ll find them all lumped together. The only downside I can see to this is that you need to know which .esm/.esp files go with which mods. Fortunately, most mod authors are pretty good about naming them as something resembling the mod’s name. For the rest, well, you pays your money, you takes your chances.

I started a another playthrough of Skyrim a few weeks ago. I decided to take a swing at using SkyRe combined with Frostfall and Realistic Needs and Diseases to see if it made for a more immersive game. I’m happy to report that the answer is both yes and no, depending on what you’re looking for in “immersive”.

SkyRe (Skyrim Redone) is an overhaul by T3nd0 that redoes the perk trees, eliminates several exploits from the game and generally turns the character development system on its head. On the whole, I’d say that he succeeded. The modded game is much more unforgiving (arguably “brutal”) than vanilla. The perk trees have been completely redone and (at least from my perspective) feel much more natural than the vanilla perk trees. The new ones allow for infinitely more specialization, especially when combined with mods like JaySuS Swords or Immersive Armors. There is also an Immersive Weapons mod, but JaySuS has been in my load order for so long that swapping seems a bit like giving up those comfortable shoes that took you a year to break in. On the other hand, JaySuS hasn’t been updated in almost a year, so perhaps it’s as broken-in as it’s going to get.

There is a fairly steep learning curve that goes along with SkyRe, so players used to (“entrenched in”?) the vanilla perk trees can look forward to a massively different gameplay experience. Depending upon your personal tastes, this could be very good or very bad. I’m currently leaning toward the “good” side of that.

Frostfall is a hypothermia mod. In simple terms, you’re not only having to battle the “ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties and things that go ‘bump’ in the night”, but the environment as well. It integrates very well with SkyRe (the Wayfarer perk tree includes perks tailored to Frostfall, for example). Adventuring is no longer a matter of making sure that your armor and weapons are up to the task. You must also consider your ability to cope with cold, wet and exposure. Frostfall also combines very well with Wet and Cold, which is mainly just graphical effects, but has a few other nice touches as well. Isoku (the Wet and Cold author) has a second mod to go with Dragonborn, but I have not done anything with it.

Realistic Needs and Diseases is kind of the icing on the cake. It forces you to eat, drink and sleep in order to maintain your fighting edge and you must worry about diseases on top of it. This is one where the jury is still out. It accomplishes its goals, but forces you to carry food and water. In and of itself, this is no big deal. But it’s a bit of an immersion breaker to be headed into some cave or other and see an “I need a nap” message as you enter or to hear your stomach growl as you’re trying to sneak down some corridor. I’m also not a big fan of the prevalence of disease in the larger world. Yes, by our modern standards, the medieval world was far from sanitary. But people were not keeling over from disease with the frequency of the mod’s defaults. Fortunately, all of this can be toned down through mod settings in MCM.

Each of these are outstanding mods in their own right. It’s in combination that problems start to raise their ugly heads.

My main complaint is that the pacing of the game slows tremendously. I’m using a self-imposed fast-travel limitation on my current game. Barring a game-over situation, I’m choosing not to use it (as opposed to allowing Frostfall to completely shut it down), although I will avail myself of carriages when it seems appropriate or convenient. To complicate matters a bit more, I am running at a timescale of 10 (in the console, “set timescale to 10”) rather than the vanilla 20.

So if I hop in a carriage from Whiterun at around 7 or so, I get to Markarth or Solitude around noon-ish, can conduct my business and be back in Whiterun by dinner time or shortly thereafter. Barring extended dungeon-delving, which might take a day or two, everything now seems to be a day-trip length and I’m constantly having to wrap activities around meal times and sack time.

With the pacing slowed down so much, I admit to feeling much more engaged with the surrounding world, but I think it comes at the cost of that feeling of epic adventure that characterized the vanilla game. Fortunately, most of these things are configurable in MCM, so my complaints really boil down to stuff that I did to myself when setting up the mods. In my own defense, all I can say is that I have given honest effort to experiencing the mods as their authors intended them to be experienced.

You really should plan on starting a new game if you install these. While they can be dropped in on an existing character, there will problems. Most will be in the “annoyance” category, but there are a couple of features that will not work well. For example, SkyRe adds a huge number of new perks into the game and should really be used in conjunction with Elys’ Skyrim Community Uncapper. However, dropping the Uncapper onto an existing character can have some interesting side effects. My existing character was gaining Light Armor skill every time he got smacked with anything (fists, arrows, weapons, whatever). Without changing any of the config settings, my current character is gaining Light Armor skill at a much more reasonable rate.

In short, these mods in combination create a gameplay experience that is radically different from vanilla. Some gamers will enjoy this (perhaps with a few settings tweaks) while others will not. I think they’re definitely worth checking out.

Sometime back around Thanksgiving, or perhaps a bit before, I started up a new playthrough using a lot of the mods that Gopher reviewed in his “Skyrim Mod Sanctuary” series (and leaving many out, too). Daiyugray V Sukinpeg has held on for two solid months and, now at level 54, reflects on what he has discovered in the couple of in-game years he has been at it:

  • Followers are a pain in the ass. They’re great for absorbing damage that would otherwise be inflicted on you, but they are still a pain in the ass (even with the “Ultimate Followers Overhaul”).
  • Marriage and children are over-rated. The Dragonborn isn’t home long enough for it to be worthwhile. Someone somewhere is always in the midst of a crisis that only the Dovahkiin can solve, so a warm fire, snuggly spouse and the rest of a homelife are pretty much out of the question until after all of the crises are resolved.
  • Being a land-baron is also overrated, but building is fun. Especially when you have to search high and low for that last little Sabre Cat Tooth in order to finish the job. Not sure that I’m thrilled with the boost to Smithing that goes along with it, but I didn’t think of simply paying a steward to do it for me until after everything was built.
  • It’s really cool to make super-power-up potions, which allow you to make super-powered stuff. But once you can one-shot Alduin, even with “Deadly Dragons”, it kind of loses its luster.
  • Bethesda really dropped the ball in the Lockpicking department by not providing any other way around them. I cannot think of one good reason why a warrior-mage character should have a 100 Lockpicking skill (without expending a single perk in it) other than the designers made it happen that way. There are several very good mods out there that try to deal with this problem in various ways, but it’s still something that should have been dealt with pre-release.
  • I’m not sure whether I like the idea of Alchemy being a quasi-essential skill. Granted, there are plenty of potions laying around (and stocked in Alchemist shops), so it’s not really necessary to harvest and use a single ingredient except as quest items. But I think it’s a bit on the over-powered side (really overpowered if you use Restoration exploits). Personal taste, though.
  • Some NPCs simply deserve a punch in the kisser and it’s occasionally worth the 40 gold to do it. Too bad they never learn the lesson. A hard-working Dragonborn could go bankrupt like that.
  • Bethesda also dropped the ball on the whole Blades/Paarthunax thing. I’m the Dragonborn and the Blades follow me. Period. If they don’t like it, they can go find another Dragonborn (“Inde muaghde Aes Sedai misain ye” and all that). I hear there’s one over in Solstheim. Good luck with that and see my previous comment about well-earned punches.
  • Fancy materials doesn’t mean fancy results. With some judicious Smithing (thanks largely to Hearthfire), the Leather Armor, Steel sword and Draugr arrows that I was using at the beginning of the game are still doing what I need them to do, at least when occasionally bolstered by the appropriate homebrew.

I’m debating about starting a new playthrough when “Dragonborn” is released in a couple of weeks. That will probably make for a good point in time to clear out the mods folder, make sure everything is up-to-date and put my head on the executioner’s block again. Until then, though, there is still much to be seen and done.

I finally decided that I could not put it off any longer and upgraded my OS to Win7 64-bit. I’m still iffy on the Win8 upgrade in October. Y’all know the rule: never adopt a Microsoft OS until SP1 is released. The question is whether the $40 upgrade (maybe free upgrade since I went with Win7 first) is worth the hassle. It shouldn’t be as painful as the Vista to Win7 upgrade, but still… New OS with the usual bunch of post-release bugs and glitches, uncertain compatibility with the applications (games) that I’m currently using… It bears serious consideration and I’m leaning toward “not” mainly for that reason.

For those who were unaware, upgrading from a 32-bit OS to a 64-bit OS means that you get access to heaps more memory, but can’t keep your programs, so everything must be reinstalled. You do get to keep your data files, provided you back them up to something that won’t get messed with during the upgrade (non-system partition or external disk, for example), but apps (and drivers) must be reinstalled. Shouldn’t be an issue with a Win8 upgrade, but compatibility still bothers me.

The only hiccup that I hit was that Win7 rearranged my drive letters and I didn’t catch it until after I started reinstalling my applications. Oh well… A bit of a pain, but not an insurmountable obstacle. Except for the HDD data transfer rate (which is kind of tied to the cheap drives I installed a year or two ago), my system performance is now significantly better. If the “Windows Experience” index is any kind of an indicator, I jumped from 5.9 to 7.9 just with the OS upgrade. Well, 7.9, not counting the crappy SATA data transfer rate. That’s still at 5.9 and there isn’t much I can do about it without springing for new drives..

Skyrim now runs like a champion. Since I haven’t purchased Dawnguard, I’m not hitting any of the new issues and I’m not likely to hit them anytime soon as vampires are waaaaaay down on my wishlist. By which time the major bugs will (hopefully) have been ironed out. In the meantime, it looks like it’s time to redownload some of my games. I decided that a drive full of games that I wasn’t currently playing was probably not the best way to do things, but I did make backups of all of my non-Steam purchases. Unfortunately, the vast majority of those are the games I’m not playing. Go figure. On that note, it’s back to the bit-mines.

Having done all of the preparation, hardware checking, .ini tweaking and whatnot that I could think of, I started off with Episode 1 of Gopher’s “Skyrim Mod Sanctuary” series. His is not the only series of vids spotlighting Skyrim mods. There are many, many others, each with a slightly different approach and each with slightly different tastes regarding what constitutes a good mod. There are, for example:

Gopher’s tastes in mods are more similar to mine, so my emphasis on his series is more of a reflection of that similarity than any disagreements with the others. We do not see eye-to-eye on a few things. For example, I am not a big fan of mods that add cinematic visual effects, so where he finds the addition of lens flare effects to sun glare to be really cool, it doesn’t do a thing for me and I’d just as soon do without.

With that in mind, it occurred to me that mods fall into a few major categories. There are mods and add-ins that were released before the Creation Kit and those that were released afterward. There are also mods that started off as great ideas and then were abandoned/neglected (hey, modders have lives, contrary to popular belief), mods whose functions were incorporated into official patches, mods that have grown beyond their original functionality into other areas of the game, and so forth. Keeping this in mind, the first 14 or 15 of Gopher’s vids deal with pre-CK mods, so here’s a quick rundown of the episode in which they were featured and their current status:

  • Part 1 – Nexus Mod Manager – still out there, new functionalities added, still supported, and pretty much “must have” if you want to mod the game.
  • Part 2 – Thanks for the Memory – not horribly useful. He first showcase is the 4GB launcher and a mod to allow key remapping, both of which have been incorporated into one of the later patches. To be fair, he has updated the vid to reflect this, however the Large Address Aware functionality isn’t horribly helpful to those of us running on 32-bit OSs since Windows will NOT let you have access to all of your RAM. 3.1GB is going to be pretty much the limit unless you upgrade to a 64-bit OS and meet a few motherboard/chipset requirements.
  • Part 3 – Performance – again, not horribly useful. The Simple Borderless Window mod is still out there, but isn’t terribly helpful from a performance standpoint on my rig. It has not been updated since late March, so may have problems with current patches.
  • Part 4 – Shades of Skyrim – the Skyrim Enhanced Shaders mod is still out there and still being supported (http://skyrim.nexusmods.com/mods/822). This one is very much a matter of personal taste. There are lots of other mods doing essentially the same thing. I didn’t care for it much because of the performance hit, but might change that opinion once I do some (more) upgrading of my rig in the future. The FXAA Post Process Injector is no longer available, although I liked it and used it extensively after its release.
  • Part 5 – Dragon Armor – both mods are still available. Be careful with them as they might (will probably) conflict with other crafting mods.
  • Part 6 – Face of War – A couple of the mods do not appear to be available anymore, probably because they were incorporated into Xenius’ Character Enhancement pack. This pack has not been updated since mid-March. Val’s Crafting Meltdown is still available. I’ve used it since its release and have found it incredibly useful, if a bit overpowered with regard to advancing your Smithing skill. I’m currently using a couple of other crafting mods, but will likely go back to it after I’ve had my fun (yeah, I’m a bit of a slut puppy when it comes to mod loyalty). The Weapon Retexture Project is still up, but has not been updated since mid-February.
  • Part 7 – Sky UI (Skyrim User Interface) – SKSE and SkyUI are still very much alive, very much being supported and (in my opinion, at least) very much “must have” mods, especially SKSE since so many other mods rely on it.
  • Part 8 – Night Walker – Nightingale Prime is no longer available, which majorly bums me out as there aren’t any other really good retextures of the Nightingale armor. There are lots of other retextures out there, but they’re way too flashy and colorful for what is supposed to be sneaky armor. The Night-Eye Illusion Spell mod is still up. The author never resolved the problem of its use having no impact on your Illusion skill, so has not been updated since mid-December 2011. I might recommend, instead, the Night-Eye Overhaul mod by BigFuzzyBear (http://skyrim.nexusmods.com/mods/16615) as being more in line with what the first mod had in mind.
  • Part 9 – Acceleration Layer – unavailable. The TESV Acceleration Layer removed a CPU bottleneck, apparently the result of an unoptimized compile of the game’s executable. To borrow from a post on the Bethesda forums, “Unplayability built into the PS3 version? Check. PC users got their kludgy interface and crapified code? Check. Are we pretty sure that everyone will have something to bitch about? Alright, folks, we’re going gold." This problem was addressed in an earlier patch (1.4 or so), so TESVAL doesn’t serve a useful purpose anymore. To give appropriate credit to its author, I used it from the time of its release and had zero issues. If I hadn’t been paying attention to my existing mods when I reinstalled Skyrim, I’d have probably just dropped it back into the game without thinking about it. This was the mod that made me go back and check the rest of Gopher’s spotlights.
  • Part 10 – Script Dragon, SkyBoost & More – Some yes, some no. A Quality World Map with Roads is still up. I’ve been using it since release and absolutely love it. Categorized Favorites Menu is also still up, still supported, and among my “must have” mods. Once you use it, you’ll wonder how you ever played without it. Extra Hotkeys is up, but I opted for More Hotkeys Please, which is spotlighted in a post-CK episode. SkyBoost and Script Dragon have not been updated since the 1.4 patch, so will not work with a currently-patched game. SkyBoost took a different approach than TESVAL to the CPU bottleneck problem, so would be irrelevant now, anyway. Script Dragon fulfilled pretty much the same function as SKSE, but was not widely adopted in the modding community.
  • Part 11 – Darkness Rises – the Realistic Water Textures mod is no longer being supported by the original author, but its functionality has been incorporated into the W.A.T.E.R. mod (http://skyrim.nexusmods.com/mods/13268). Realistic Lighting without Post Processing is no longer up. It has been picked up as part of Realistic Lighting with Customization (http://skyrim.nexusmods.com/mods/7654) and included in Superb ENB-RL mod(http://skyrim.nexusmods.com/mods/11318), both of which are up and supported.
  • Part 12 – I, Assassin – all four mods are still up and supported. I’ve been using JaySuS since its release and absolutely love it. The Arrowsmith mod conflicts a bit with other crafting mods, so you’ll need to choose which mod you want to use, but it’s well worth using. The others are now in my load order, but I can’t report on them since I’m busy writing instead of playing. Bad me.
  • Part 13 – It’s a Kind of Magic – all of the mods are still up.
    • I’ve been using Balanced Magic since release, but haven’t used its full capabilities since I have not been playing mage characters recently. It has not been updated since mid-December, but I can’t see any reason why it would need updating since it does exactly what it set out to do.
    • Mage-Friendly Dragon Priest Masks was last updated at the end of December. Again, as it did what it set out to do, I can’t think of any reason why it would need to be updated.
    • Warmer Magic Lights was last updated in early January. Getting to the file from the Downloads button was a major problem. It appears that this is due to a problem with the Nexus, but it’s downloadable with NMM if you can’t get the Files page to load. You can only get the optional files from the Files page, though.
    • Staff of Magnus Improved and Staff of Magnus Absorb are still pretty much the original mods. Since both of them were mods aimed at one specific fix, there hasn’t been a need for any updates.
    • Deadly Spell Impacts is a retex and was last updated in May.
    • Midas Magic has not been updated since February, so I suspect that the author has done all that he wanted to do.
  • Part 14 – A Wonderful World – all mods still up and being supported. I would not recommend the 2K Textures unless you are on a 64-bit system and have at least 4GB of RAM available for Skyrim. For the LITE versions, I’ve only been able to get the interior textures to work on my 32-bit system. Exteriors are too big of a strain. I’m going to try a bit more tweaking, but suspect that hi-res eye-candy will mostly have to wait on a system upgrade.
  • Part 15 – Deadly Dragons and PISE – PISE is now being supported under a new mod series called ASIS (http://skyrim.nexusmods.com/mods/18436) by the same author, but I believe you’ll need the last version of PISE. Deadly Dragons is still up and being supported.

Once the Creation Kit was released, the consistency of the mod files became much better, so the abandonment of a mod project would be more likely the result of the modder achieving what they set out to do, getting a real life (it happens), or something other than hitting a wall with game files that they didn’t have the tools to work with. It’s also the point where anyone who wanted to make a mod would pretty much have the ability to do so. This is also the point at which a lot of poorer quality mods started hitting the Nexus and players really do need someone to preview and tell them “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here for this mod stinketh”.

With all of that in mind, I’ve loaded up my mods and have the game running pretty much as well as it will. I’ve got one more tweak to play with in the hope of getting some of those exterior hi-res textures to work and then I’m playing Skyrim.

{Edit}The tweak was to keep my existing “High” settings, add the 2K Texture Packs back in, but scale back three individual settings in Skyrim.ini:

  • uGridsToLoad from 7 to 5 (it must be an odd number, but gets hinky past 7 except on very high-end rigs)
  • uExterior Cell Buffer from 64 to 36 (the formula is (uGridsToLoad + 1)^2)
  • uInterior Cell Buffer from 32 to 18 (the formula is (uExterior Cell Buffer/2))

The idea was to keep it from loading in so many cells with the hig-res textures. It worked better than I had hoped, but was ultimately a fail. Your mileage may vary, though, so it’s worth trying. Starting a new game, I was able to get from Helgen to Riverwood without pushing memory usage very much over 1GB, but it put a noticeable hit on my frame rate and it finally tanked in Gerdur’s house. Oh well, no hi-res eye-candy for me. Bummer. I’ll put the settings back and run with vanilla textures. {/Edit}

After returning from the depths of my RAM checking, I can’t find anything wrong with it. Every test that I run, whether in Windows, DOS, or even Linux comes back clean. The only thing left untested are my hard drives and they’re less than a year old, I keep them scrupulously defragged and optimized (well, my game drive, anyway) and they’re not causing problems for any other applications, so I’m doubtful that they are the culprit(s). But, in the name of SCIENCE! (still got the Big Mountain thing going) and for the sake of completeness, I cleaned ‘em up and defragged/optimized all of them. So here we go with my specs:

  • Quad-core processor at 3.4GHz and 4GB RAM (that will probably change in a couple of months)
  • Two GTX 550 Ti video cards (SLI enabled in the nVidia control panel)
  • Windows Vista (on C:\), completely patched and up-to-date
  • Skyrim (on D:\ – a separate physical drive, not a logical partition), removed all mods, cleanly uninstalled the game, everything remaining deleted from the \skyrim directory, redownloaded, reinstalled, repatched, and with a fresh copy of SKSE. If that doesn’t bring me back to a completely vanilla game, I don’t know what will.

With that setup, and in theory, I should be able to run everything at High with decent frame rates, so that’s the option I took from the Launcher. I already had a profile set up in the nVidia control panel, based on GeForce.com’s recommended tweaks, so I left that alone.

Starting from the default .ini settings for “High” and running around in Whiterun, I stayed as close to 60FPS as makes no difference. When standing at the top of the steps of Dragonsreach and looking at the tree, my frame rate drops to around 47FPS during the day and a bit above 50FPS at night. So with those numbers as my starting point, I added the .ini tweaks recommended by Geforce.com.

I found one additional suggestion that made a perverse sort of sense regarding VSync: turn it off in the game and force it on with the nVidia control panel. In other words, control it at a software layer that’s lower than the game. It seemed a reasonable enough suggestion, so I went with it. To do this, open Skyrim.ini (Documents\My Games\Skyrim\) and add iPresentInterval=0 at the end of the [Display] section.

From there, I also went with tweaks from the Skyrim Enthusiast Tweak Guide (http://skyrim.nexusmods.com/mods/1387) that had not already been done earlier. I scaled back a little from a few of the Ultra settings, but made most of the adjustments he recommended.

The net result, and my new benchmark for anything I add later, is that the daytime frame rate while looking down at the tree dropped to a consistent 30-33FPS, but everything else stayed at or near 60FPS. There is just something about that tree area that puts a massive hit on performance. I ran around outside Whiterun for a while and got 58-60FPS in exterior locations until a group of wandering bandits played smackdown on my little Level 1 character. Since I’m dipping a bit below 60 FPS (the max for my monitor), my best guess is that I’m running pretty close to the maximum settings the rest of my hardware will support.

Let’s go add some mods. I’m going to follow along with Gopher’s series, but need to keep in mind that he started it right after the game came out and the Creation Kit wasn’t released until almost three months later. Consequently, many of those mods will probably be a bit outdated by now. For example, many of the features of Headbomb’s Better Sorting mod were incorporated into SkyUI, so having both would likely be redundant by this point (in spite of my having used both from the outset). So let’s get the browser open and head off to the Nexus. Lock’n’Load.

After finishing my latest jaunt into the Mojave, and being very impressed with Gopher’s vids on modding FONV, I thought that perhaps returning to Skyrim might be in order. Since I’m not planning on taking on Dawnguard until it seriously goes on sale or something, I’m mainly interested in the eye-candy and gameplay enhancements.

If anyone would like to take a gander at Gopher’s “Skyrim Mod Sanctuary” series (he’s currently up to about #40 or so), go here for the full list.

My first concern was the HiRes Texture Pack that Bethesda released a few months ago. Although I met the system requirements if two 500MB graphics cards in SLI equaled one 1GB graphics card, I finally broke down and just bought a 1GB card (GeForce GTX 550 Ti). Actually, I bought two, but the second one had to wait on a new PSU (went from 600W to 850W to accommodate the load of the second card).

The game still locked up and died before I could get a saved game loaded, so I started investigating memory. Everything I read on the Bethesda forums assured me that Skyrim was now Large Address Aware (it can use more than 2GB of RAM). I started wondering just how much memory Skyrim was using, so I downloaded Elys’ MemInfo mod (http://skyrim.nexusmods.com/mods/2006) to check things out. If my graphics cards were capable of handling the load and my CPU/RAM was capable of handling the load, and my drives were capable of handling the load, then the sucky frame rate had to come from somewhere. My first line of investigation had to be RAM usage.

I also wanted to start from a relatively clean slate, so I uninstalled all of my mods except:

Most of these are mods are relatively old and were aimed at a few gameplay features lacking in the vanilla release rather than improving appearance, so I’m pretty sure that any performance hit is minimal and I also know that they’re stable. In light of my new cards, I’m going to make a few tweaks from the Skyrim Enthusiast’s Tweak Guide (http://skyrim.nexusmods.com/mods/1387). The basic premise is that more powerful graphics processing, running at fairly cheesy resolution (my monitor will only support up to 1440×900 at 60Hz) ought to give me more oomph at that cheesy resolution.

My benchmarking location is at the top of the steps in front of Dragonsreach, looking at the tree:

2012-08-15_00001

At this location with only those installed mods, I take the biggest FPS hit (remember, my monitor caps me at 60FPS).

Just to be sure of cleanliness, I deleted both the Skyrim.ini and SkyrimPrefs.ini files from my save folder. The game will generate new ones based on Skyrim_default.ini, which is located in the same folder with TESV.exe. I also got rid of all of my saved games and will endure that stupid cart ride at the beginning of the game for the sake of SCIENCE! (oops! Obviously spent too much time at Big Mountain over the past few days). So, my goal is to get from Helgen to Dragonsreach, save the game, then start tweaking and checking at the area that has the biggest performance hit. One item of note is that daytime FPS is about 4-5 FPS lower than night. I’m not sure why other than draw distances and shaders.

So Item #1: High Resolution Texture Pack DLC from Bethesda. System Requirements:

  • Quad-Core processor (check – mine is a Phenom II 965 at 3.4GHz – a bit dated, but solid)
  • 4GB System RAM (check – actually have 6 [long story], but because my OS is 32-bit, it only uses 4)
  • DirectX 9c compatible graphics card (check – got two of ‘em, actually)
  • GeForce GTX 260 or better (check – GTX 550’s)

Result? At “Low” settings, I got a fairly consistent 30-35FPS all of the way from Helgen, through Riverwood to Whiterun and Dragonsreach. At my benchmark point, I was pegging 33FPS. The best I got was in Riverwood interiors, where I inched above 40. At “Medium” settings, the game just crashes, as it does at “High” and I’m not even going to attempt “Ultra”. The short version is that the packs put too big of a hit on my performance to keep. I’ll stuff them away in storage somewhere and haul them out again when I do a MoBo/CPU/RAM upgrade in a few months and switch to a 64-bit OS.

Without the HiRes Texture Packs, I get about 40FPS at my benchmark point at night on “Low” settings. On “Medium” settings, I actually gained 10FPS. I have no idea why, but I can’t ignore a counter that fluctuates between 49 and 51 FPS on Medium and 38-41FPS on “Low”. It’s counter-intuitive, but there it is. On “High” settings, I lost 4 to 5 FPS and hovered around 45FPS. Memory usage remained fairly constant at 650 to 750MB, regardless of Low/Medium/High. The texture packs wouldn’t use less than 1GB of RAM, except at “Low” settings, so I’m pretty much convinced that I have a RAM problem of some kind.

At this point I’m not sure that I have the patience or the wherewithal to track down that problem, but I’m going to give it a shot. And on that note, I’ll be offline whilst I go digging around in the inner recesses of my RAM. Peace out!

In the speculation of my last post, I seem to have overlooked the truth of ZeniMax Media’s filing of six applications for trademarks for “Fus Ro Dah!”. I’m sure that they’re just trying to protect their brand (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), but the wide variety of items addressed by their applications would seem to indicate otherwise. And here I would have thought that they’d have gone for “arrow in the knee”.