Skyrim is the biggest game to release in 2011. It may not have the sales numbers of, say, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, but it didn’t suffer with over 10 million copies sold. And with over 100 hours of gameplay in a single run, it’s by far one of the deepest and literally biggest games to ever come out. So I did what any sane man would do: I put in 100 hours in 3D.

First, the test rig. My PC isn’t anything special, but it’s powerful enough to get the job done. Here are the specs:

  • 3GHz Quad-Core AMD Athlon Black Edition
  • 8GB RAM
  • ASUS P5N-e Motherboard
  • Zotac GTX 580 (courtesy of Nvidia)
  • ASUS VG278H 3D display (courtesy of Nvidia)
  • Seagate 7200RPM 1TB
And for those who are interested in the rest of my hardware:
  • Mouse: Logitech G700
  • Keyboard: Razer Blackwidow Ultimate Stealth
  • Gamepad (used to play Skyrim [in full lean-back mode]): Wired Xbox 360 Controller
  • Speakers: Razer Mako 2.1
  • Headset: Logitech G930 (my main headset, though I switched between several tested headsets as well)

Technically speaking, there are 115 hours of logged play time (though roughly 10 hours is unplayed, just me leaving the game on while doing chores or grabbing a bite, while another five are my brother giving it a try). 33/50 achievements have been unlocked, and the majority of the game has been completed. The only main quests I haven’t done are joining a side in the civil war, joining the Dark Brotherhood (when given a choice to join, I chose to kill the Brotherhood interviewer and then kill the rest of the Brotherhood), and actually completing the few last major missions. For all intents and purposes, the game is nearly complete; I expect roughly 10-15 hours to finish, if I complete all additional missions without picking a side in the civil war.

I played countless hours with the Nvidia 3D Vision 2 glasses, which in many respects proved to be one of the best 3D gaming experiences I’ve ever had. I believe this is for two reasons: first, the larger 27″ display is better suited for 3D (the bigger the screen, the better the 3D effects). Second, the world of Skyrim is extremely well done for 3D. It’s not perfect (far from it), but all too often I was left impressed with the quality of 3D employed in the game.

To get the full 3D effect, several adjustments must be made to Skyrim. First, depending on your hardware, turn down the performance. Without 3D enabled I could almost max out the game, but with 3D enabled I turned it down to high spec, turned off antialiasing and anisotropic filtering, lowered texture quality to medium, and turned of FXAA. I hate radial blur, so I turned it down to low (though for performance it wasn’t necessary). I left all viewing distances at max. The screen resolution was 1920×1080.

Next, in Skyrim itself, I did two things immediately after trying to play. First was remove the in-game crosshairs, and second was to lower the HUD opacity. Other players may want to do more to remove static and non-3D artifacts, such as subtitles and navigation arrows as well. All of these take away from the 3D effect because they are in 2D. If you’re feeling especially hardcore, turn the HUD opacity off completely and rough the game without a HUD. With the opacity low enough the HUD bars won’t mess with your vision.

3D Quality

Once you’re all set, the world of Skyrim looks pretty fantastic in 3D. Depth is very subtle, and it doesn’t strain the eyes. It’s one of the few games I’ve been able to play for hours on end looking about and, when I took the glasses off, realized just how far I was focusing into the screen.

Because Skyrim is such a giant open world, 3D helps in several key ways. First is enemy distance. While distance can generally be measured by the size of enemies, those sizes vary greatly in Skyrim. Giants, Dragons and Mammoths are huge, bears are pretty big, people are mid-sized, and there’s a ton of smaller creatures. But when a Dragon attacks and it’s flying around, trying to shoot it with an arrow is tough because it’s hard to gauge the distance. 3D actually helps here.

For combat, 3D is mostly helpful for archery. It makes distance less tricky to determine. While I generally played as a heavy armor combatant, with 3D it actually proved easier to play the part of a thief, sneaking around and closing in on the kill, or keeping enough distance to never be spotted. Distance is extremely important in this sort of gameplay.

Coming back from Vegas, I can safely say that if you ever go, don’t walk to a hotel that looks like it’s a few blocks away. It’s not New York; a block is a mile walk. The reason we have trouble telling that is because of how massive the hotels and buildings are. Then again, most people don’t pay attention to depth perception in Sin City.

In Skyrim, depth perception proved helpful as well. Some distances are just too hard to tell properly playing in 2D. I’ve tried scaling mountains and climbing 90 degree walls (on my horse, of course), and sometimes it’s just impossible to get up a certain path. From a distance, it’s nearly impossible to see  just how far they are.

Throw on those 3D glasses and after adjusting to the depth, suddenly that distance becomes clear. It still takes some practice; after all, we make the mistake in everyday life, so we’re just as likely to make the same mistake in a game. But I will say that with the 3D glasses I was able to avoid trying to scale some ridiculous mountains because, as I looked from a distance and getting closer, it was very clear how far they were (and that the fast travel feature would save me some time and hassle), and that some things just were not meant to be climbed.

Flaws in Skyrim’s 3D

The 3D isn’t perfect though. My biggest complaint is the night sky. Stars appear in 2D, so they appear in double with 3D enabled. And because they’re each tiny specks, that turns out to be a pretty big problem (though how often do we stare up at the night sky, let alone in a game?). The 3D crosshairs (not the in-game, but NVidia’s) aren’t perfectly tuned and jump in and out of focus, especially when the object aimed at is very close.

Additionally, as mentioned above, the HUD layout is completely flat, so when focusing on something very far, health, stamina, magic, and navigation all appear in double. Especially for health this proves to be very troublesome, and I found myself bouncing between focusing on something far and close, but only a few centimeters apart. To feel that experience, imagine sitting on a laptop and staring at the very top, and then focusing on something 20 feet away just above the laptop from your point of view. Then go back and forth a few times. It’s exhausting.

A final issue is depth, or rather too much of it. I turned my depth setting down as far as they went because even focusing on distant objects, I’d have double vision. This generally occurred with static objects, like walls or buildings. Moveable objects appear to be more malleable, but if you look at a chair or wall, very often it appears in duplicate form.

Final Thoughts

Skyrim is definitely a winner for 3D, with several precautions to be taken first. With a powerful GPU it will certainly be a lot of fun, and I think it makes the nature of the game – the entire world as a playground, a second life in an ancient Nord world – more real. More exciting. During my testing I went through several versions of NVidia drivers as well, each offering better performance than the last and fixing minor gripes here and there, so there’s no doubt it’ll look and feel better as time goes one.

James Pikover

Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.