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Today's mid-range GPUs in Skyrim

For the optimal dragon-slaying experience

In a landscape littered with cookie-cutter war shooters and tightly scripted action-adventure games, titles like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim are a rarity. I suspect the very idea of letting players loose in a massive game world filled with hundreds of hours of content would give most game designers an aneurysm. Bethesda Softworks has been cranking out Elder Scrolls games in the same vein since 1994, though, and it's gotten no shortage of accolades for them. Already, Skyrim has earned its place in Metacritic's all-time top 10, with more favorable reviews than Portal 2 and the original Quake.

It's not hard to see why. Skyrim's open world is a masterpiece of beautifully rendered forests, towns, moorlands, and snow-capped mountains. Yes, the huge open-world design does make for relatively formulaic quests, but the ability to explore freely and to develop your character however you please adds a dimension other titles simply lack. You can be anything from a thief to a mercenary to a master wizard, and the game lets you take sides in a huge civil war and turn the tide of battle. Oh, and did we mention you get to fight dragons?

To our knowledge, Bethesda hasn't talked about giving the PC preferential treatment like EA DICE did during Battlefield 3's development. So, while Skyrim certainly looks beautiful, it may not quite harness all of the horsepower top-of-the-line GPUs have on offer. Nevertheless, we expect PC gamers will want a reasonably quick graphics card if they wish to bask in the game's vistas and immerse themselves completely. They'd be doing themselves a disservice otherwise.

Since folks took a liking to our Battlefield 3 performance article earlier this month, we thought we'd put our assortment of mid-range graphics cards through the paces in Skyrim, as well. We've worked our benchmarking magic on the same six cards, with the GeForce GTX 460 and Radeon HD 6850 facing off below $150; the GeForce GTX 560 and Radeon HD 6870 duking it out at $180-190; and the GeForce GTX 560 Ti and Radeon HD 6950 1GB dueling just under $250.

Our questions are the same: which cards are needed to play the game at what graphical settings, and do either AMD or Nvidia GPUs have an advantage over the competition? Again, we weren't content to jot down average frame rates. We've also used elaborate frame-time measurements to assess how smoothly the game runs on each card. Read on to see what we learned.