The Must-Have Mods of Skyrim

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Graphics and Sound

Graphics mods for Skyrim can be split into two categories. The first class of graphics mods are post-processing and shader modifications. These change Skyrim's visual style but don't alter the meshes and textures of objects and effects. There are a huge number of post-processing mods for Skyrim -- this is one area where it's much more a question of what you, the player prefer rather than an issue of better vs. worse.

With that said, we've got an easy favorite.

Skyrim Enhanced Shaders FX - By Tapioks

What it is
: A shader/post-processor mod for Skyrim
What it does: Changes game lighting, offers FXAA, additional effects
Does it change game balance? No.
Performance Impact: Minimal
Download Location: Not Available On Steam / Skyrim Nexus

We've picked Skyrim Enhanced Shaders (SKES) out of all the available shader mods because we genuinely like it best -- but also because it offers superb documentation. This makes it a great post-processing modification for those new to the idea who want information on what various effects do and how they can be adjusted.

In the screenshots below, default Skyrim is on the left, Skyrim Enhanced Shaders ENB mode is on the right.

The mod is distributed in two forms, the default modifications (and the one we recommend) and a "Vanilla Plus" mode that's a more modest variation on Skyrim's standard visuals. It also includes a series of optional effects, including a DOS Game "8-bit style" that renders the game in a manner reminiscent of pre-3D accelerated Might and Magic titles, as well as an FXAA injector and a texture sharpening option. The entire mod can be toggled on and off via Shift-F12 without restarting the game. It's also distributed in a 'Performance Friendly' version for those with more modest computers.


We've played the game in all day/night modes and in a variety of dungeons. We prefer the color balance and special effects of the Skyrim Enhanced Shader mod in all cases.

Skyrim HD - 4K/2K Textures - By Nebula

What it is: A replacement project for the majority of Skyrim's textures.
What it does: Updates the game to look like something built for modern PCs
Does it change game balance? No
Performance Impact:  Varies
Download Location: Not Available On Steam / Skyrim Nexus

Bethesda's HRTP textures are on the left; the Skyrim HD versions are on the right

Skyrim HD (SHD) is a comprehensive update for game textures that improves enormously on the 256x256 and 512x512 textures Bethesda used in the original game. SHD's textures are noticeably more detailed than even Bethesda's official High Resolution Texture Pack (HRTP) and there's more of them.

This last is more important than you might think. While Bethesda's HRTP did improve on the original game, adding better textures in some areas but neglecting others makes the contrast between the two even more jarring. We've put together several comparisons between the HRTP and SHD below -- in all screenshots, the HRTP is on the left, SHD is on the right.

The HD Skyrim mod also uses normal maps to add the illusion of height

The one caveat to using SHD is that there's a performance hit for doing so. The mod is offered in two formats; a 4K maximum resolution and a 2K 'Lite' version. Bethesda's average texture size is ~1K, so even the Lite variant offers twice the detail. It's also possible to use both the SHD and HRTP together

Static Mesh Improvement ModBy Brumbek

What it is: An improvement pack for many of the game's smaller objects
What it does: Makes said objects look better -- often by making them round
Does it change game balance? No
Performance Impact:  None
Download Location: Steam / Skyrim Nexus

This mod might look like small potatoes -- but it actually does a lot more than just fix the ugly spuds. Here's a few more comparison screen shots; the overlaid comments are the work of the mod's author, Brumbek. Click to enlarge.

This mod is compatible with the Skyrim HD project and the Enhanced Shader mods discussed earlier this section.

Specialized Smaller Mods Worth Your Time:

The "Improved NPC Clothing Mod" can be used to further enhance game clothing. Left is the HD version, right is the mod

If you're looking for smaller projects that focus on more specific targets, we've got some recommendations there as well. There's a few too many of them to break out for individual discussion, but all of them are useful.

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