Hey Chris! I am happy to chat with you about game development with a fellow indie dev!
This has been a goal for years, creating a similar-looking game to those AAA titles everyone raves about. Shaders are possibly the biggest difference between "indie" and "AAA" titles.
I strongly suggest you learn HLSL. I actually developed with DarkGDK for years, creating better and better looking games, but it's only in the past year when I am learning shaders that the games have actually looked decent.
Without shaders, there's just not a lot of "substance" to the models and textures. Sure, someone else can create good-looking shaders for you to put in, but if you need to extend the shader, you're stuck!
I had it capped at 60 FPS, it gets 140 FPS without the cap. I am running an absolute monster of a PC however: GTX670 with Core i5 3.2GHz!
In the above screenshots, I have added a bloom layer on top of a slightly sharpened scene with quad.fx. Post-process, in my opinion, should be an option in the menu.
I believe that post-process enhances the scene and adds a final layer of "polish" to the scene, but it is very GPU-intensive (especially at 1080p), which is why you should be able to turn it off - most PCs don't have the texel fill rate to apply all of these shaders *and* post-process.
My philosophy is that there should never
be a single stationary frame on the screen. Even if the character is completely still, with no camera movement, there should be atleast some animation with the trees rustling, or the grass flowing in the wind. It makes the game seem dynamic and best of all, seem *alive*.