Tech Analysis: Grand Theft Auto 5 on PS4

Digital Foundry compares the reveal trailer with PS3 footage, making some remarkable discoveries.

Rockstar Games typically steers well clear of E3, but it did choose to make a big announcement to coincide with the event this year - the reveal of the much-anticipated next-gen version of Grand Theft Auto 5, coming to PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC in the autumn. Clocking in at just over a minute, the trailer takes us through a large number of environments across Los Santos and beyond, illustrating the changes and improvements made to the visuals.

Initially we weren't quite sure what to expect, but the closer we looked into the teaser, the more it became clear that Rockstar hasn't just been working on a simple up-rezzed port of the old game. Based on comparisons between the PlayStation 3 version and the new edition, the studio seems to have gone back and made sweeping changes across the board. According to Rockstar, all of the footage was captured on a PS4, so we're going to run with that assumption here and take a closer look, comparing the trailer with PS3 captures produced by YouTube channel GTA Series Videos, who saved us an immense amount of time by sharing their raw footage with us (check out their PS3 trailer reconstruction further on in this article).

Kicking off, perhaps the most obvious improvement concerns the sheer wealth of life added to the game. Traffic count is hugely increased and there are a wealth of NPCs compared to last-gen, transforming the city environments. More natural elements receive a significant overhaul as well: water looks more realistic, trees are almost entirely redrawn giving them a much fuller appearance while huge fields of grass have been added where once there were none. What's impressive about this is that all of this foliage now appears to react more realistically to objects and characters passing through. On top of that, Rockstar has also sought to increase the realism by introducing new wildlife, with the trailer giving the impression of richly populated environments outside of the cityscape - a new 'rural' class of NPC, if you like.

On a more technical level, a common element we see throughout every scene in the teaser trailer is upgraded texture work, where we see a huge bump in quality. Signs, building facades, roads, mountains, vehicles, tree trunks and more all appear to feature higher-resolution artwork. More importantly, texture detail appears to be retained at a much greater distance now, with increased draw distances evident on shots that stretch out into the distance.

"This isn't a simple port with a bump in resolution and an increased frame-rate. Rockstar has made huge changes across the entirety of the game."

A head-to-head comparison between the new PS4 teaser trailer for GTA 5 and carefully staged PS3 captures designed to replicate the reveal footage as closely as possible.

It's difficult to tell based on this trailer alone but it does appear that at least mild anisotropic filtering is in use this time - a welcome upgrade as this element of the visual presentation was rather lacking on last-gen consoles. The bottom line is that all of these elements combine to create richer texture detail throughout the scenes we see here - in short, Rockstar hasn't just upgraded to 1080p resolution, it has also tried to make the most of the additional pixel-count.

Beyond that we see plenty of models replaced and improved with higher-quality meshes. For example, the large yellow dump truck demonstrates a tremendous difference in model quality, with much rounder wheels alongside smaller details right down to modelled screws. The red vehicle shown later in the trailer doesn't appear particularly different on the surface but the quick view of the interior shows a complete transformation, with higher-resolution textures and much more detailed modelling work. Even incidental details, such as the train tracks next to the lumber yard, appear to feature more realistic geometry in conjunction with texture improvements to create a better illusion of depth.

Impressively, despite the increase in quality, higher levels of detail appear to be retained much further into the distance. How far it extends remains to be seen, but there is a definite improvement here. Vehicles and fully detailed objects appear visible at a great distance without a visible loss in definition. GTA 4 on the PC featured a similar set of sliders, allowing you to push out the view distance as far as you'd like at the expense of performance. It should prove interesting to see just how far Rockstar has taken things and what sort of options are available on PC.

"The PS4 version resolves full 1080p, although certain sections certainly show plenty of aliasing."

There's also object density to consider. Nearly every shot in the trailer featuring a major road shows significantly more traffic on-screen. It certainly creates the illusion of a busier environment and adds to the realism. Traffic patterns actually seem to more closely resemble the city Los Santos is based on, though we do wonder if this increased density changes depending on the time of day and whether or not it results in more frustrating road trips.

Post-processing is refined across the board as well. GTA 5 already featured some lovely effects on last-generation platforms, but these effects are all much stronger and more precise on PS4. It's difficult to know if the chosen shots represent what you will see during gameplay, but it does appear that a subtle depth of field has been added to objects along the distant horizon. It's a nice addition that delivers a more filmic look during gameplay, while hiding potential pixel-crawl.

The narrower shots demonstrate improvements to the bokeh-like depth of field implemented at night with distant lights taking on a more aggressive form of circular bokeh patterns. Perhaps we'll see the return of full-screen motion blur that was used in GTA 4 but removed from its sequel? There aren't any scenes in this trailer suggesting its return but the new depth of field implementations certainly suggest that it could now be possible.

"Performance remains a mystery for now but assuming the trailer is captured in real-time, we should see a boost over last-gen frame-rates."

It's difficult to determine if shadows have received a notable boost as they simply aren't present in huge quantities here. We didn't spot any of the typical shadow errors visible at steep angles in the original but we wouldn't expect them to be included in a trailer either. What is an improvement, however, is the apparent inclusion of ambient occlusion, working with the already present shadows to increase the apparent depth and realism of the environment. While subtle, we can see the improvements in a number of areas throughout the video.

Lighting and related effects see a nice boost as well. The fuller tree models now appear to more realistically reflect the lighting and shadow conditions around them. The effects used to accentuate vehicle headlights are intensified while the sunlight filtering through the ocean appears much richer. Light shafts were already in full effect in the original release but they appear to more realistically slice through volumetric fog, as seen around the lumber mill. GTA 5 already featured some of the most impressive lighting in a sandbox game to date which should make this updated version stand up pretty nicely against its peers.

Even the particle system appears to be improved in the shots with the dump truck and the RON tanker truck. Looking at the wheels as they kick up dirt and water, we see an increase in the density of the particles. The smoke billowing from smoke stacks in a couple of shots also suggest the move to a more volumetric solution giving such effects more body and fullness.

The teaser trailer as recreated on PS3 thanks to YouTube channel GTA Series Videos, who generously provided the last-gen footage for our comparisons.

Obviously the question of performance remains a mystery at this point and one we're eager to answer when the time comes. GTA 5 simply didn't run very well on PS3 or 360. Sure, for those particular platforms, it was an incredibly impressive game, but frame-rate rarely managed to stick close to the 30fps target leading to a rather inconsistent experience. This trailer certainly doesn't suffer from any such dips, but we'll have to wait and see if Rockstar can maintain a stable frame-rate this time out. We can tell, at least, that the PS4 version appears to be operating at a native 1920x1080, though certain sections certainly show plenty of aliasing. Image quality is a huge step-up from the last-gen versions, however.

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We're excited to see just how many improvements are being made with this updated release of GTA 5. Rockstar could very easily have updated the game with a simple resolution increase and a performance jump, but all the indications are that the studio has decided to go the extra mile and deliver a significantly upgraded experience, and provided that the final game matches what we've seen in this trailer we should be in for quite a treat.

Despite so many amazing mods, we can't help but feel that GTA 4 has never run quite as well it should have on the PC, but the excellent PC port of Max Payne 3 suggests that the Rage engine has been optimised quite a bit over the years. The transition of console technology over to the x86 platform also bodes well for the PC version of the game, which we would hope matches and exceeds what the PS4 has delivered in this initial trailer. Quite where Xbox One sits in the hierarchy remains to be seen - we'll be sure to update you as soon as we hear any news.

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