GTA V: Technical Analysis PC
So this is the big one, many a PC gamer has been awaiting the arrival of the latest marker in the gargantuan GTA franchise, all the whispered rumours of a version, then the announcement and delay, followed by delay and another.Was this all a pre-cursor to a messy release on the very fractious PC market?
Like the fourth entry would this be labelled a “Bad Port” by the community and then modded to the moon and back? Would it even run well on a high end PC? SO many questions that hung in the air, but on April 14th 2015 these questions and more where answered when Rockstar finally stopped the delays and released it worldwide across PC….now all we need to do is answer these questions.
I am not going to cover the upgrades and improvements from the original PS3/X360 version as I went into large detail with the improvements in my Tech Analysis and Head 2 Head of the X1 & PS4 versions last year upon release, (link below) please check it out to learn more. Instead this is a full on analysis of what the PC DX11 (or other) versions offers up to owners and how it performs across a wide spread of PC hardware.
I now have 4 machines that I used to cover what I feel is a complete end to end range of most set-ups and you can make up the gaps in-between (and the little bit at the end) from this. To explain I have now the following:-
1) Entry Level PC with an AMD A10 7850K APU sporting 16GB ram (overkill but I can enable half for testing lower). This is the cheapest level desktop that allows you to have a PC and play games but just with cut-backs on many areas. But is a full DX11 GPU so it can run modern games just like GTA V here. This is on a medium AMD A88XM+ gaming board with a 1TB SSHD.
2) This is effectively the same machine above except it now sports the first step into a serious gaming card, Nvidia’s GTX750Ti. This is a great card as it not only runs most games very well at 1080 but it only adds £100-£110 to the budget so if you start with the above machine the biggest benefit of a PC is choice and the ability to change and upgrade.
3) This is my long term and medium range Gaming machine with 16GB DDR3, AMD 7870 with the FX8350 Octo-Core CPU at its heart. This card is really a R270 and like that sports 2GB ram like the APU and GTX 750Ti above. But if you are in the market to buy now I would recommend the R280 or 280x as this had 3GB of Ram and is more powerful for only £150/£180 respectively. With the now 270/7870 costing £130. All in this machine has a much better board, PSU, Case along with other extra’s.
4) And this is the big daddy, representing the High End gamer that comes with a Gigabyte Z97-X board, i5 4790k, 16GB DDR3, GTX970 3.5GB (lol) card. And aside X-fire or SLI rig for single GPU machines there is only going to be minor frame-rate differences between this and the uber cards of the 980 or R290x more suited towards higher resolutions than 1080. If you want to Titan X then this is certainly pushing the budget into orbit. Now this machine is not cheap with the GPU alone costing as much as a PS4 but this is not about cost this is about choice and should serve as the test bed for the games to see how they can be run.
So with that out of the way I just wanted to explain each machine so that whatever you have or intend on building/buying this range should allow you to have an idea of roughly where it will fall in performance wise, so let’s get started.
I have ran the test from the intro section on all with the frame-rate for each showing as you can see, for this analysis I have dropped my new average test but you will see a run of that in open play at the end to give you an idea. We can see that the GTX970 (now on called High-end machine) and the 8350/7870 (Medium Range) are locked 60 and near 60 with the Enthusiast Machine of the A10 + GTX750Ti not far behind the Medium machine. These are all running the same settings which I will go through shortly, aside the Entry machine of the A10 APU with its R7 on-chip GPU. Here I had to run the game at 1360*768 and drop everything to low and you can see that it is consistent…consistently bad with it running at 20fps pretty much all the time. But this is a low level machine and in all fairness does a good job of running the game around the last gen level. The bonus here is unlike the non K Intel CPU’s AMD can be overclocked so you could clock both CPU and GPU a little to bump up performance but at best this may see a 2-3fps increase.
But once we move outside to the firefight they all drop aside the High machine which keeps the locked 60 [note here that this machine is also running all settings aside the extra ones at full) so performance here is solid and consistent. The other machines do not fare as well aside the entry machine which keeps it constant at 20fps with its settings. Now we see the AMD powered Medium machine is dropping below or equal with the Enthusiast 750 machine even though this only sports an AMD 4-core @3.7GHz CPU against the much faster 8 core CPU @ 4.2GHz. This highlights the much better GPU driver from Nvidia that is easier on the CPU. All machines are running the latest GTA V ready game driver from both IHM’s with the AMD driver being a beta only. But right now they are trading blows at the same level.
And when we get into open action with driving the advantageous of the High end machine are clear with it not dropping from its V-synced 60 aside a frame when colliding with traffic for a moment, this all at the maximum settings, the other machines running around the 35 mark with some occasional dips below. But even then the settings are slightly lower on these also which is a good time to move into that. Rockstar have delivered a full suite of options to tinker with and achieve the best performance for the machine. From the DX version within the menu you also get to change Population density, Draw Distance and variation of traffic and pedestrians (this eats into GPU Ram along with other options). Now although you can ignore the warning and set these all to more than the allocated GPU V-ram available it can cause minor stutters for cards that have less, not a big issue but if you do get this check this first. But it will run over the amount and simply page file from System ram when needed. With the game being in development for PC first and then most likely ported to XboxOne and PS4 mid-way the scalability of the engine is very clear and welcome. With the consoles sporting the highest level textures unsurprisingly this is the safest way to keep within any memory budget and drop them to high as you cannot notice this much within the game unless you are staring at areas, and like the console version there are still some lower quality textures even at the highest setting, again not unsurprising in such a vast open world.
You can tweak the shadows, particles, Post Processing FX the strength of Motion Blur, reflection, water, grass pretty much all you need to find the ideal balance. But the options also allow you to have extra modes that extend the shadow range around you, as I said on my GTA Console head 2 head the limit even on its highest setting draws a small space around your character as you draw towards a wall, this can be extended here along with the draw distance further still when flying, but be careful as these can make your frame-rate plummet. Controller options, Rockstar editing mode with improved graphic option for captured videos within the game editor all add up to a thorough and comprehensive set of options and show that Rockstar wanted to delay the game to make it right and they have done just that. Aside the really crappy and slow game launcher and downloader which having to install it on 3 separate machines would have been a nightmare was it not very easy to cross pollenate them from the one downloaded installation. This issue aside I have not had any crashes on all 4 set-ups from my many hours on each so far, the only thing that I have noticed is that memory leaks can happen with the system Ram increasing for long runs in game but an exit and re-load solved this and I have not experienced it again yet. I have not had chance to test the Online heist function yet but I will catch up on that later as I wanted to get this all done uploaded.
But we did not wait this long to get the same version as the console only…did we? Well yes and no, it comes as no surprise to learn that the game overall is the same with no real extra improvements aside the obvious frame-rate increase so long as you have the machine and be sure this needs a decent CPU and GPU to do that, with only my high end achieving that albeit with no real drama at all. To go through what the console version offers to what is extra on PC if you have the hardware and one important one that runs on the top 3 pretty well.
Aside the grass on XboxOne running what looks to be High settings with the PS4 running Very high the difference between the consoles is nothing more. But on PC you have some extra options, grass can go up to Ultra which adds self-shadowing AO on it, while also seeming to be more interactive with objects (no surprise to see pretty much all the extra’s come from a CPU bound limit on the consoles). This is a nice touch but can eat into the frame-rate with only the high machine able to run these without too much of hit.
Both Population density and draw distance on console look to be somewhere around the half –way to 2/3rd’s with variation of inhabitants being the same as max. But this highlights the strength of the engine and what Rockstar wanted to achieve, with the game hiding pop in well even at lower ends (aside shadows which seem to pop in even if at full visibly) of the scale. This is a surprise as I thought that the PC would offer up a 0 pop in option with the max being very close but still some LOD changes can be seen, but it is a welcome if minor improvement.
Console shadows look to equal High with the softer option on the edges on with PC able to go higher with Nvidia PCSS or AMD CHS shadows and some other options which are nice if hard to notice or really bother about (for me anyway) changing but again this can tank the frame-rate even on the GTX970 machine. Post FX is at least Very High on console but could also be Ultra as I could not really see any difference between them, certainly anything worth worrying about. Both DoF and Motion Blur can be turned off like console if needed with them only being available once you set Post FX to high at least.
Reflections in the game get their own option with consoles running these on Ultra in mirrors which is added to on PC with an MSAA option just for reflection’s if you want to admire your virtual self with no risk of aliasing present, lower than high they do get lower resolution but around this or above is good enough to not care, on streets and cars from the dynamic cube-maps that seem to use image probes at places the console’s look to be running these on High. Water is again treated to its own option and like reflections does not use SSR at all but the more computational heavy but near faultless planar reflection mixed with cube-maps or full dynamic cube-maps. Again not sure if Console run High or Very high but aside slightly better (see more detailed) cube-maps between them it matters not a jot as they both look great. See the benefit here and the biggest give away of any screen space trick like this is with SS Reflections when the objects being reflected are not within your FOV they disappear (see my The Order 1886 Analysis for a more detailed description of this). But here with planar reflections mixed with cube-maps this is not an issue. Planar reflection is drawing the reflected area again, from another angle (the reflecting source) and it has no concern for being in FOV or not. In GTA V they draw the dynamic objects (NPC’s) again using these and blend them with the cube-map, creating a convincing and very detailed reflection, with less than high these are turned off, aside this water looks the same.
Tessellation and POM are all in play and comparisons from the Displacement tree here with console put the console at what looks to be high with PC going to Vhigh which just increases the Tess factor one more which can only be seen on other tree’s as a few more ridges or anything else using this. As many get confused with this and the other form of Tessellation process (adaptive Tessellation) which is based on the Camera view and position allowing the object to be sub-divided as it draws nearer the camera, see Shadow Of Mordoor for an example of this or here on the tree’s in GTA. This is a more cost-effective method of using it based on that culling process, again this is nice as it adds more depth and organic feel to these worlds and works well throughout.
So at this point their does not seem to be any great changes, and this would be right overall this is the same version that launched last year with some small extra’s that are welcome but not revelatory in action…aside one very welcome addition. Cars and shadows! in the console version only the Police helicopter projected a shadows casting light which looks very nice, here even though the shadow quality on console is the same as High from high upwards your car or bike, truck can also cast this same light source. High allows some tree’s and poles to emit shadows along with some walls, Very high bumps this up to most objects and NPC’s even railings like the copter can. Shadows are a huge part of making a game and lighting look more believable and this aside the 60fps is the single biggest improvement from the console versions, see here as the scene just looks much flatter without them and coming from one into the other it does stand out, a shame for the console version but not a deal breaker. Lighting and shadows are a very important part of this reality and this addition is very pleasing with all 3 machines able to run at least High with no real huge extra issue again a sure sign of the CPU limit.
Which branches off nicely into the usage, the game does use multi-core well (as expected) with 4 cores being extensively used throughout and then a dynamic use of another 2 but this is not consistent and the 6th core is mostly idle with only small bumps every now and again. Something I am sure they will be working on for the next release as we stride ever onwards into the Go Wide approach. But it does also flex the GPU when being fed well, both the 7870 and 750Ti can run around 90% in parts with dips below 30 most likely down to the CPU on both than the GPU though, this game is CPU bound aside the entry machine which is limited by its GPU all day long. And this is of no surprise that the game is a very CPU heavy deferred engine, my High end machine would most likely being able to swap the GPU with one of the other 2 and get much nearer the 60 target, the game want fast core’s to chug through work and clear deficit the PS4 and XboxOne have. But this engine was designed around a more serial design so expect this to be most likely the largest change in the next GTA aside the adoption of a physically based shading pipeline, pretty much all the extra’s in the PC version come from the more powerful (see more power use) CPU’s. If you are interested you can see the settings that replicate the Console versions pretty much identically having the slider for distance and density at 6 or 7 and all the other settings as shown.
As you can see here with my comparison of one of the early missions the High end machine handles everything with no issue never dropping from the 60 rate with even higher frame-rate options available of you have the screen to support them. But the other machines do not fair like this even at the slightly lower settings that match the consoles. But it does reinforce my point about unlocked frame-rates and with adding in an option to unlock the frame-rate like SS or KI had along with some minor changes to shadows/Draw distance (staying away from the sometimes vast selection on offer in PC games) etc this would allow console gamers to make some sacrifices to get near the 60 target which is always the preferred option, or just play at the low 40’s/high 30’s which still manages to be a little smoother. Some of these options have crept into the Console version and other games, with the slippery slope of full options not a good thing but just basic sliders or toggles allowing that choice of locked 30 or not to be within the player’s grasp. Here on the PC the choice to tailor the experience to suit those individual desires based on machine is its biggest benefit.
In essence Rockstar have delivered a pleasing, solid and welcome improvement on GTA V for its PC audience. So long as you have the hardware then 60fps can be achieved on lesser machines that my High end one here but above the other 2 (even with dropping to the lowest settings both never achieve 60fps in open play at all). But running at the same settings as console at around the same 30fps with some dips under but having the very welcome shadows from your car adding in a small but pleasing visual touch. The game was delayed but now it has launched and if you waited you can get to play the smoothest version yet just be under no illusions that a medium spec or lower machine can achieve this, but the game is a superb piece of work from Rockstar not only in creating such a vast and expansive world to while away days in but only bring a solid and scalable engine to PC that out of the box performs well across a vast range of hardware, not a small feat at the best of times let alone one on this scale.