The winter release lull is a blessing and a curse. There are fewer new games coming out for players to sink their teeth into, but there is a moment of calm to dip into ever-deepening backlogs or return to time-tested favorites. Skyrim has been a constant presence on my hard drive since it was released just over 3 years ago, but as much as I love it I have to admit that there are only so many hours that you can spend playing before you know the map like the back of your hand. Before you have every title a character can have. Before you’ve filled the basements of every one of your houses with wheel after wheel of firm yellow Eidar cheese.
When everything starts to feel a little too familiar, it’s time to take advantage of Skyrim’s robust modding scene for a total revamp. Here are the 10 Best Skyrim mods.
While SkyUI changes a lot of things in favor of easier navigation (most notably Skyrim’s ridiculously cumbersome inventory) it adds a few new features too. For example, there’s a control panel in the Options menu that many recent mods plug into automatically, allowing players to fine-tune many of the more complex mod systems. If nothing else, SkyUI might be the push you need to install Skyrim Script Extender (more commonly known as SKSE), a popular (and in some cases required) mod that expands what other mods are able to do.
Though it’s not fair to call Skyrim ugly, time is rarely kind to game graphics. Seams show when you focus too closely on mundane objects meant to hold up only at a generous distance. Round edges start looking more polygonal than you remember, and details much blurrier. If you’re returning from a jaunt through Dragon Age: Inquisition or any number of other slightly more recent next/current-gen games, the rough edges might just start to grate on you. SMIM makes a lot of big changes to these smaller elements of the game, but when combined with a few texture and effect upgrades (like the free official High-Res Texture DLC, Skyrim Flora Overhaul, and Pure Waters) the overall effect is a tremendous improvement on the original.
ENB shaders and presets are the next step in getting Skyrim up to current visual standards. Even if you don’t consider yourself a graphics snob, once you’ve played Skyrim with a good ENB preset it’s practically impossible to go back to the game’s vanilla lighting. The downside is that there are a lot of ENB configurations to choose from with varying impact on game performance. The best way to sort out which one is for you is to spend an afternoon experimenting. That said, True Vision ENB, Project ENB and RealVision ENB (pictured) are all popular choices for a reason.
But honestly, the visual razzle-dazzle isn’t quite enough. If you really want to roll up your sleeves and alter the guts of your game, you’ll be looking for some slightly more substantial razzle, and slightly more consequential dazzle. The Apocalypse spell package adds 140 spells, from practical-yet-mundane object summoning to magical tornadoes that suck up anything in their path. Of course all of these spells are lore-friendly, meaning that they’re designed to complement the established tone and history of The Elder Scrolls series… Not to mention the fact that they’re tremendously fun to play with.
If magic isn’t really your cup of mead, Hothtrooper44’s Immersive Armor and Immersive Weapons mods will add a much more tangible kind of variety to Skyrim. While there are hundreds of armor and weapon mods out there to get you out of your drab vanilla robes and plate, Hothtrooper44’s are known for their quality and, of course, their lore friendliness. Better still, instead of having to select and install dozens of different individual armors and weapons, the Immersive mods each come with a variety of pieces and sets ready to be seamlessly integrated into the game.
It’s hard for me to keep myself from nudging Alternate Start higher on this list, purely because it’s such an important mod for my own play style. Combined with TES V Savegame Manager (a 3rd party program that lets you easily switch between multiple character saves) Alternate Start is a good way to play Skyrim from a character-driven perspective. It lets you begin the game as a tavern patron, a necromancer in a hidden lair, a simple farmer, or a number of other interesting starting points in lieu of the scene at Helgen. Once you make your character and pick your start you’ll be deposited into the appropriate location with the appropriate gear. You can follow the mod’s natural integration with Skyrim’s story or, if you prefer, use a mod like You Are Not The Dragonborn to turn off all the perks of being Dovahkiin and venture off to live the life of a relative nobody. Some starting points, like being shipwrecked with only the rags on your back, are also ideal for players looking for a more survival-oriented Skyrim experience.
Speaking of survival, survival mods have become a huge part of the Skyrim modding scene. Realistic Needs and Diseases may be the best introduction for those curious about this style of play. Among other things it makes eating, drinking and sleeping necessary for player characters, and they’ll incur some very serious debuffs if they ignore those needs for too long. Given the abundance of apple barrels and fresh water this mod isn’t the most severe survival mod available. When you’re ready to raise the stakes you may want to branch out into Frostfall, a mod that makes travelling in the frigid extremes of Skyrim appropriately challenging. No more trekking through the snow in your sandals, to say the least.
What about the Skyrim player who’s been everywhere and seen everything that the vanilla game and its expansions have to offer? If you’re desperate for a change of scenery, then both Falskaar and Moonpath to Elsweyr (pictured) are tailor-made for you. Moonpath to Elsweyr is particularly interesting because it will bring you to the unfamiliar, sandy and heretofore unseen reaches of Elsweyr, homeland of the Khajit. Both of these mods add their own quest content as well, so you won’t be left twiddling your thumbs in front of a new backdrop.
Interesting NPCs may be the biggest Skyrim mod you ever install purely in terms of file size, but it’s also among the most substantial. One of the game’s biggest shortcomings in its vanilla state is the shallowness of its characters. Unless they have a quest for you (or figure into a quest for someone else) most NPCs exist solely to bark at you about sweetrolls and add a dash of bare-bones life to the world. Interesting NPCs fills the land of Skyrim with a bevy of detailed characters, each with their own stories and, just as importantly, their own high quality voice acting. While every now and then you might find a slightly cringeworthy read, the creator’s standards for the voicework involved are high and it shows.
If you’re serious (and I mean serious) about giving Skyrim a makeover, Skyrim Redone is a set of mods worth some equally serious consideration. This is not just a new coat of paint or a novel little toy box (though it does come with grappling hooks, functional disguises and other nifty tricks borrowed from the Sneak Tools mod). It’s a complete overhaul of some of the most fundamental elements of the game, down to the perks, skills and stats a character can get. In some ways it brings Skyrim’s core systems closer to those in Morrowind and Oblivion, and in other ways it pushes them worlds apart. Because of the rather broad and complicated nature of this mod it can have some compatibility issues, so be sure to read all the fine print if you do decide to install it (or any other mod, for that matter) into your game.
On the other hand, maybe you’ve been an avid modder since the day Skyrim launched. In that case, it might be time for a fresh install and a trip down vanilla memory lane.
Janine Hawkins is a games writer based in sunny Canada. You can find her written and video work on HealerArcherMage.com or follow her on Twitter @bleatingheart.