The praise Skyrim has received is well justified, and although I'm generally not an RPG fan, I must admit to having some fun. The graphics are impressive, particularly considering how much detail the outdoor scenes contain and how well the game runs on modest hardware. Although there have been talks of adding some DirectX 11 features, we've received a DX9 title at launch. The limitations of this older rendering technology are quite apparent when comparing Skyrim to Crysis 2 or Battlefield 3 -- mildly disappointing, even.
Nonetheless, while Skyrim certainly isn't the best-looking game of 2011, its visuals are satisfying enough. And again, there is an inherent advantage to using DX9, and that was seen when testing some of the entry-level graphics cards. For example, while using high or ultra-quality presets with 4xAA enabled at 1680x1050, affordable products such as the HD 6750 averaged 45fps. Nvidia cards fared even better, as the GTX 550 Ti managed 65fps. You'll only need an HD 6790 or GTX 460 to play the game on max at 1680x1050.
Those wanting to play at 1920x1200 or 1080p can still get away with the GTX 460, while AMD fans will want an HD 6850 or greater. For highly playable performance at 1920x1200 on max, the GTX 570/HD 6970 or better is required. To accompany those mild baseline requirements, Skyrim's frame rate can be drastically enhanced by overclocking your processor. The harder we pushed the Core i7-2600K, the more performance the GTX 580 delivered. Increasing the i7-2600k from 2GHz to 4GHz nearly doubled the frames from 44 to 81fps.
We haven't seen those kind of results for a while when benching games and it was made more interesting because the game only fully utilizes a single core (it can place load on four, it just tends to favors one the most). A dual-core processor offers enough horsepower to play Skyrim, especially if it's aggressively clocked. We were also surprised by how fast the new Core i7-3960X was, delivering 20% more performance than the i7-2600K. Meanwhile, we were saddened to see AMD's FX series deliver a substandard showing.
Given that Skyrim isn't optimized to take advantage of extra threads and responds well to heavily overclocked processors, it comes down to core efficiency, and this is where Intel has AMD over a barrel. Overall, The Elder Scrolls V looks like a high quality RPG that shouldn't require you to build a new gaming rig. It scales very well, supporting older hardware while also supplying enough eye-candy to please those with high-end machines.