The Elder Scrolls

Jeff de León’s Skyrim SE Guide #1: Hand-Picked, Massively Tested; Best Vanilla++ Exterior Textures Available as of Summer 2021

What started as a quick post became me testing out every option anyone suggested… and then most of the other options available on Nexus. Knowing me, I will not be able to resist writing guides for other aspects of the game, so this will be JDL's Skyrim Guide #1.

(When I am finished, I will post a TL;DR that includes just a list of what to install without all the commentary.)

I say Vanilla++ because I am looking for textures that improve upon vanilla in two specific ways: increased diversity of color and textures between regions, while still seamlessly fitting with the base game and as many other texture/mod options as humanly possible. I love changing things around, so easy compatibility is key!

I am okay with how much work this took because I am seriously amazed by how good Skyrim can look.


*FAQ and Explanations At Bottom:


The Best Skyrim Landscape & Exterior Textures:

Getting Started, (Optional): Enhanced Texture Detail, UV Tweaks:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/992

Load this before everything else and let it get overwritten by anything else you install.

At this point, you can call this mod: "Updated, more detailed meshes for stuff no one else has bothered with since Skyrim came out."

I know this is not technically a correct description of how it works, but that's how it plays out in practice. Without this, some of the textures that have not had hand-made mesh (model) updates over the years will stand out as lower quality.

I tested most affected textures with this on and off so that I would be fair. This doesn't affect many landscape textures. If you don't like the effect this has, simply delete the folder where things have become "too detailed." I personally delete the tree folder, as it makes certain tree elements a BIT too detailed and sharp on MY screen with my settings, but I think 90% of people would just want to leave all of it on.

No more bright distant objects (Optional): Darker Distant LOD:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/23585

I have personally found this to be a mandatory install for ages, across different weather and lighting mods. I do not use ENB right now, and it still makes my distance look far better.

SMIM Quality Add-On:

For overwriting the pretty much mandatory Static Mesh Improvement Mod: https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/659/

I find these textures to be better than most other packs improving dungeon or interior features.

The first of several textures by the amazing Pfuscher (https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/users/212132?tab=user+files) that I will recommend.

Static Mesh Improvement Mod:

When you find a great Skyrim mod author, I suggest browsing their profile and seeing what else you like. It's one of the best ways to find hidden gems that will still be bug-free and high quality.

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/44388

Project Clarity AIO, Half-Res:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/45306

If you are installing everything else I recommend, you can probably skip this. Project Clarity is just enhanced version's of the vanilla textures, but it’s not a basic sharpness filter. It actually looks better.

Installing the .bsa means that everything will be overwritten by nicer mods without you having to worry about it. Half-res mostly chosen to save time and space. Check out IconDeath's (https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/users/34739755) other mods, or install certain selections at 4k.

We install this just in case some random texture isn't covered by our other mods. It won't stand out as much as the low-res vanilla textures.

Skyrim 2020:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/2347

These are great textures for most of the game, replacing older texture packs. I will call this a spiritual successor to Noble Skyrim.

The main flaw with Skyrim 2021 is a feature; it adheres very closely to vanilla, so some textures are a bit plain or brown. That's where other textures come in, especially for landscapes.

But these textures are all great and the average player could just install the 2k version and be done without much work. Parallax fully optional. Looks amazing without it.

To be blunt, this beats out Noble Skyrim and probably whatever else people are using. This blends seamlessly with the base game and comes in an easy to click 2k version that covers most of the games textures.

This is constantly updated and very impressive. For example, the recent addition of Imperial Forts is the best texture ever released for them, in my opinion, and its just casually added to 2020 when it could have launched as its own mod.

One of the perks of Skyrim 2020 is the absolutely amazing 2k version and the 4k-2k option– Pfuscher carefully chooses which textures are actually worth 4k and leaves the others at 2k. You can tell he does this fairly efficiently because the file size doesn't get massive.

While this is not a performance guide, I think Skyrim 2020 could market itself as a performance texture pack at both the 2k and 4k variants.

Glorious Doors of Skyrim, Winner of "You Stare at These More Than You Realize" Award:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/32376

Guaranteed to increase your happiness by 14%

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/32376

Septentrional Landscapes: (Thank you /u/AlthroTheKhat)

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/29842

I can't believe I finally learned how to spell that word. Septentrional!

The more I test, the more this comes out as the winner. It blends very well with other textures. It has a nice variety of color without moving too far from Vanilla. It is very detailed without overdoing it.

If there is a criticism of these textures, it's that you might not notice that much of a difference because they probably look similar to whatever you're using now– just better.

The first of many textures by WineDave (https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/users/52194591?tab=user+files) that I will recommend.

Mountains: Dave's UFHD Mountains, Darker:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/26662

Of everything in this guide, I think mountain's are the most subjective. I still think these are a clear winner for the goals of this guide. Dave's mountains are the most "unique" mountain texture that would blend seamlessly with the rest of the game's terrain.

I personally love light gray mountains, but as I worked on this guide, I gave up trying to make them work. Unfortunately, gray mountains always have really harsh seams visible with other landscape textures, no matter how hard I tried to make them fit, including tweaking other textures to ease the transition. Brownish mountains like these simply work best.

I spent a whole day testing out mountain textures. I detail some of the perks of other mountains in my other post, and I really feel saddened that I can't have rum-induced mountains anywhere in my game– but Dave's UFHD mountains BLEND with the rest of the game AND look amazing.

I let this overwrite Majestic Mountains, which includes mesh tweaks and LOD improvements. Majestic Mountains Lightside is a runner-up to this that is closer to Vanilla if you feel I strayed too far. These rocks are a slightly unique color, and I am happy that they manage to blend well.

(Remember, one of my goals in updating Skyrim's exterior textures is to SLIGHTLY improve diversity of color and texture so that the entire game is not the same shade of brown. This is the only way I'm really trying to step away from closely mirroring Vanilla).

Majestic Mountains:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/11052?tab=files

These are as light as textures can go while still blending nicely with other ground textures.

Blended Roads:

Blended Roads, Near-Mandatory Install:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/8834?tab=files

Blended Roads Redone:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/26270

(Let the meshes overwrite the textures downloads. It doesn't actually matter as far as I can tell, but this is the most recently updated setup by the author)

After mountains, this is a super tempting texture to do in 8k if you can. There won't be grass, clutter, or much else covering your roads, so you'll see these bumpy beauties in their full glory almost all of the time.

The ones available with Skyrim 2020 are very nice and a close #2– but these are dramatic, bumpy, and gorgeous. Skyrim 2020 road textures are understated and look a little empty.

Note: There is currently not a single texture option or combination that lets you have seamless blended roads in snowy regions unless you disable the "Improved Snow Shader" in your Skyrim.ini.

I think this defaults to off, but I suggest using the BethINI config program to make your life easy.

BethINI:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/4875

Luckily, this is what pretty much every graphics guide and mod author already says to do. I tried really hard to get the improved snow shader working because I actually like the sparkles added by the improved snow shader.

But for the time being, I have been forced to disable it because the graphics seams are not worth it. I LIKED having slightly brighter, more reflective snow by enabling the improved snow shader, and it is possible some .ini tweak might make this all work nicely together, but I haven't discovered it despite lots of trying.

Snow: Hyperborean Snow

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/29283?tab=files

In previous tests, Cathedral Snow was the outright winner due to eliminating snow tiling. However, I think letting other snow mods OVERWRITE Cathedral Snow allows you to benefit from the enhancements and reduced tiling that Cathedral Snow adds. I am not 100% sure if this is necessary, but letting Hyperborean Snow overwrite Cathedral Snow looks amazing.

This is a good texture to do at 4k if you can. For me personally, with my monitor's sharpness, the 8k actually looked worse than the 4k, since it got a little too detailed and looked a bit less like soft, white snow.

Snow: Cathedral Snow:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/18033

I don't know what witchcraft they use, but this is the only available snow texture without massive tiling, perhaps due to the included .esp.

Until the technology used in Cathedral Snow is adopted by other snow texture authors– it's not even close. I think overwriting this with another snow texture lets you benefit from the changes they make. I am not 100% clear why or how this is working, but it looks damn good.

Better Dynamic Snow:

3.0 looks amazing and is a pretty effortless install. Only use BDS 2 if you are an advanced user who wants to mess around with parallax textures. BDS2 will need patches for some other mods, whereas BDS3 is compatible with everything out of the box.

This is a tough choice because Parallax looks lovely.

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/9121

Do you want Dynamic Snow on Glaciers, or no?

This is a tough choice. Having it enabled allows for a better transition from snow to glaciers in some regions, but it looks pretty ugly on some smaller glacier textures.

Having dynamic snow on glaciers does look nice at times, but the more I messed with textures, the more I realized that you want to focus on eliminating ugly seams and other issues, so your immersion never breaks.

BDS Projected Diffuse needs to win conflicts with other mods if you disable snow on glaciers. Otherwise, you can try the Projected Diffuse included in each of these other mods and see which you like best. The average person will not find much of a difference in my opinion.

Note: There is currently no texture or mod combination that will get rid of the seams between snow and snow drifts. This is due to the way Bethesda made them as separate objects. Someone would probably need to do a huge overhaul similar to Blended Roads.

Glaciers: Just Ice

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/9444

A bit bluer and prettier than Vanilla, but almost all of the available options are. This one has the nicest "ice floes" texture I've come across and uses it to blend some glaciers to the terrain.

If you don't like it, the option included with some of the other mod packs here looks nice and closer to Vanilla, or try Realistic Ice and Glaciers. But personally, the slight increase to color is NEEDED for the boring northern coastlines, and it has a nice contrast with the dirty sand and snow of that region.

I, personally, install Just Ice over Northern Ice, which includes updated meshes. This is not mandatory, especially if you have limited HD space, and the difference might be minimal. Northern Ice is VERY similar looking to Just Ice and you might prefer it.

Specifically, Northern Ice changes the shape, for the better, of stuff like icy Dirt Cliffs.

Northern Ice:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/41854

Best Shoreline: (Currently Testing)

This is a tough one! I'm going back and forth between:

Northern Shores: Best lightly colored that still blends.

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/27041

And:

Nordic Coast:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/32402For an HD, Vanilla-dark colored.

As well as the included textures with some of the larger packs. Checking out Solstheim as well as blending on mailand.

Best Dirt Cliffs:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/34035

As this is used inside some dungeons, it is a more important texture than many realize. This is the best implementation, in my opinion, and should overwrite all the other versions included in my other mods.

Water: Realistic Water Two:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/2182?tab=files

I did not test out other water options recently. RW2 or Water for ENB are the two popular options.

That being said, if you are using RW2, I want to draw attention to two mods that should be overwriting your RW2 install that many people seem not to know about:

Better Water: https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/28221

Just a more HD texture. I was shocked at the difference because I think, years ago, someone in the comments said that these were "now included in RW2", which is NOT the case.

Better Color and Transparency: https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/38729

I can't believe what a different actually seeing through the water makes– especially since different regions have different textures under the water, further influencing the color.

Better Volcanic Tundra Water:

Lovely teal rather than puke green.

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/38668

GKB Waves

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/19077

Adds lovely waves to your shores!


Highly Compatible Lighting & Mists Add-ons:

Dynamic Volumetric Lighting and Sun Shadows:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/44483?tab=files

It's hard to describe what this mod does, but in short, it makes the sun and the shadows it casts more realistic, which in this case, also happens to make it more beautiful.

Volumetric Mists:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/29273

Volumetric mist is part of how our eyes perceive distance in real life, so this mod makes Skyrim's open world feel more three-dimensional, even if you install the most performance-friendly option.

It is beautiful, but it comes at a performance hit.

Cresty's Distant Mists:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/29003

Adds distant Ground Mists Depending on Weather.

Morning Fogs:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/21436

This really makes water feel more real and alive by adding mist at night and in mornings. Configurable via MCM.

Obisidian Mountain Fogs:

I finally removed Obsidian Mountain Fogs from my load order because I realized that with how nice the graphics had gotten, I didn't NEED so much of my distance obscured– but it's still a lovely mod if you want thick clouds blocking out some distant mountains. You will occasionally walk through the mists in the Reach, even though they're supposed to be distant, which is another reason to consider not using it. They are low res up close. That won't be an issue with the other mists I recommended above.

Weather:

This is super subjective and honestly, other mods are fancier than the one I recommend here but:

Cathedral Weathers & Seasons:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/24791?tab=description

If you've gotten intimidated by too many weather options and don't want to test them, I recommend Cathedral Weather. It is bug-free, compatible with the most stuff, and has configuration options that let you tweak the brightness, color, and contrast in-game.

I personally loved Obsidian Weather, True Storms, and Vivid Weathers at different points in my decade of Skyrim, but I've grown very comfortable with Cathedral for the in-game tweaking and how much it feels like the vanilla game.

If you want some intense, unrealistic but fantasy-looking additional weathers, try this add-on:

–JawZ– Northern Lights Weather Add On for Cathedral Weathers:

https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/32437


OKAY THIS IS STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS, BUT I AM CLICKING POST FOR NOW.


*FAQ:


This is a lot to read. Why didn't you just list the best textures like a normal person?

I am a writer and a teacher. I am known for writing back 9 paragraphs to answer simple questions via email. My debut novel will be a long, multi-POV Science-Fantasy retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

If you just trust my judgement, there is very little that I say here that you actually have to read. Just scroll through and click the links and select the resolution that your computer can handle.

If you try to set up your game based on what I've written here, feel free to comment here for specific questions or guidance and I'll do my best to help.

1. You recommend mostly textures released or updated in the last year or two. Are you biased against old textures, Jeff?

Nope! I tried out old stuff too.

I think this is mostly because someone releasing Skyrim graphic mods in 2020 does so for one of two reasons:

a) They love Skyrim, have tried out most of the existing texture options, and thought they could do better, or at least offer a new interpretation of something.

Given that texture resource websites are getting new stuff all the time, and that tools have gotten better over the time, they might have a slight edge.

Modding a decade old game isn't a great way to make money, unfortunately. So, most of the newer textures and mods you see are a labor of love that someone is creating for their own enjoyment of the game, and are kind enough to share.

b) Unless the mod author just has a lot of pride and wants to make their mark without testing out existing options, or is using Skyrim to learn.

I think all of the authors I include fall into Camp A. You'll see that the texture style, colors, etc, are very similar to older mods you might be using now– just better!

My game includes plenty of ancient textures! There are some textures that nobody has bothered updating since like 2014. This means that pretty much every texture creator installed a mod from 2014, thought "This is good enough!" and chose not to bother making their version.

2. This is all subjective! Why do you think your opinion matters?

I started my guides' series with landscape textures because I think you actually can be somewhat objective.

I am not just aiming for what I find prettiest: you really need to consider how one piece meshes with the whole.

It doesn't matter if your mountains are beautiful if the transition from grass to mountains suddenly looks worse than vanilla, for example.

Objectively bad: Lots of seams between textures. Stands out too much from surroundings. Too much color or too little color. Rigidly adhers to Vanilla Skyrim's everything must be similar shades of brown philosophy.

Objectively good: Graphical fidelity. Highly compatible with other mods so you can mix and match– usually by following Vanilla's color palette, but improving upon it. Increases diversity from base game. Visiting one forest feels more different from visiting the plains outside Whiterun.

3. A lot of these texture options are practically the same thing. Who cares? Why not just install one overhaul that does everything?

This was the biggest challenge for me in making recommendations. Most of the recent, best options follow a similar style. For example, the coast installed by Skyrim 2020 and Nordic Coast are just two different interpretations of a very similar, brownish shoreline texture.

I've even found some mods using the same resources (purchased from texture websites, not stolen from each other). This makes sense; over the years, mod authors have tried a huge number of styles for various textures and there appears to be a consensus over what looks good.

We know in 2021 that the texture for the pine forest floor, for example, shouldn't just be pure green, but should mix grass and dirt with a few pieces of debris or flowers mixed in. Most of the best recent textures are different interpretations of this general idea. All of the best options followed this sort of style, with the worst ones I tried and some older textures sticking to some variety of monochromatic brown or green.

4. How will this guide affect mods that use Vanilla assets to create new locations or dungeons?

It will make them look amazing. This was a priority for me. By sticking to textures that are similar to the Vanilla style, but better, this guide ensures that any mod created using Vanilla assets will come out looking better than ever before.

This is one of the reasons you really shouldn't just install the 'prettiest' mountain or beach texture. Other mods you want to install will be made with the assumption that your textures look like Vanilla.

While this is not something I'm covering in this guide, I want to specify that older dungeon mods like SkyrimSewers (https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/9320) or EaserRider's Dungeon Pack (https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrimspecialedition/mods/2218) will look amazing with these textures.

As a rule of thumb, any mod that adds stuff to the game that has a small file size is using vanilla texture paths and will look great with any upgrades that you do. Mods with larger file sizes mostly use their own textures. This is why many older mods do not get outdated as graphical fidelity increases. =)

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