Following Rockstar's warning to Xbox 360 users of sub-optimal GTA5 performance should both discs be installed to its hard drive, our attention has turned to the PSN digital release of the game. This edition is played in its entirety from the hard drive as opposed to utilising both disc and HDD, opening up the game to a variation of the 360's streaming issues when both discs are installed.
In our testing we saw contrasts between the disc and digital PS3 releases, where the Blu-ray version has clear advantages that make it the preferred buy. To begin with, things seem fine. Installing the digital version to a PS3 with a freshly formatted stock 60GB HDD, the entire heist prologue section with Trevor plays out flawlessly across five separate playthroughs. There are no cases of abrupt pop-in for geometry or textures during gunplay here, and similarly the getaway drive across the snowy wastelands shows up no glaring issues either.
However, the opening montage across Los Santos' beaches reveals some glaring issues. Cutting rapidly across several areas, the digital version has ground textures popping in half a second late - plus delays in the drawing of shadow maps and objects like grass. For the disc release, these issues don't manifest to nearly the same extent, with the odd delay in rendering a plant or chair being the worst we see during several retrials. As compared to playing the 360 release with both discs installed to its HDD, the digital PS3 release isn't quite as nefarious with its object draw - but it's enough to take you out of the moment.
But what of gameplay? Fortunately, the early (and lengthy) sports car race with Lamar to the dealership reveals few extra pop-in issues over the disc release - perhaps a sign that this route has been better optimised. However, within five minutes of freely coasting around Los Santos' busier Downtown streets there are major instances of geometry bursting into view and textures taking too long to fully resolve. In one case we see an entire skyscraper fizzle in and out of sight, while buildings to either side struggle to update their textures. Our many hours of disc-based testing produced nothing like this. For a game occupied with drawing in new objects and textures while hurtling through Los Santos' more detailed districts, it's clear that the extra bandwidth from allowing the game to stream from both disc and hard drive offers a clear improvement compared to the digital edition.
"While most scenes remain unaffected, we ran into several areas of ugly pop-in on the PSN digital version of GTA5 in just the first 20 minutes of gameplay. The disc version simply offers a better experience."
It must be stressed that pop-in to this level isn't a constant, and only hits in at full force when travelling at breakneck speeds through the busiest streets - and it is largely absent when driving around less built-up areas and almost completely non-existent during on-foot action. Also, this isn't to say the disc-based release is entirely exempt from pop-in; minor objects like boxes and telephone booths can fade in during synchronised high-stress runs on the very same street, but it's fair to say the disc version never reaches the same level in these worst-case scenarios.
All in all, considering that the digital PS3 release of Grand Theft Auto 5 carries a premium price over what you can expect to pay for the disc version, it's very disappointing to encounter technical issues mostly unseen by those who buy it in a box. These are just sampled highlights of the issues we found from the first 20 minutes of capturing the game, and there's every chance they'll continue to manifest over the course of the game.
To make matters worse, in researching this piece two members of our team struggled to even finish the download of the digital PS3 version, suggesting real issues with PSN infrastructure. This is despite being based in two separate locations with individual ISPs - one being on a 60mbps Virgin Media fibre connection and the other on 40mbps Sky fibre line. The infamous error code 80029563 popped up following several separate corrupted 18GB downloads. Eventually, we managed to break through with a complete download - taking an unusually slow two hours and 54 minutes, with the installation clocking in at 55 minutes.
Taking the PSN route to Los Santos turns out to be hardly convenient or cheap, nor the most technically refined way to play the game. In our experience playing from a newer Western Digital 500GB HDD the results proved less glaring, suggesting faster drives may yield improved performance, but if you'd rather sidestep the issue altogether then we'd recommend sticking to the retail Blu-ray copy.