Has Rockstar really downgraded GTA 5?

UPDATE: Patch 1.10 out now: "fixes graphical issues on PS4 and Xbox One introduced after Title Update 1.08".

UPDATE 2/4/15 5:41pm: Rockstar has just rolled out patch 1.10 for Grand Theft Auto 5, which it says fixes "graphical issues across GTA Online and Story Mode". After downloading the 4.7GB update on PS4, we can confirm that parallax occlusion mapping is back in the game, and based on initial observations, the performance improvements seen in patch 1.09 remain in effect on the Sony platform.

Original Story: Last week, YouTube footage emerged showing that Grand Theft Auto 5's 1.08 patch for PS4 and Xbox One had seemingly downgraded elements of the visual presentation. Parallax occlusion mapping was gone, anisotropic texture filtering had apparently been made even worse than it was already, while collision physics had been simplified. On top of that, long distance pop-in also seemed to take a turn for the worst. Had Rockstar really released an update for the game that made GTA 5 significantly worse, not better?

Our schedule was too packed to take a look at it at the time, but the video clearly had an effect on the developer, who posted this message: "We are aware of some graphical issues on the Xbox One and PS4 versions of GTA 5 after the most recent Title Update, and we are investigating a fix now."

That fix appeared to arrive shortly thereafter in the form of patch 1.09, and according to the "ElAnalistaDeBits"- creator of the original YouTube vid - collision physics and deformation, along with the distance pop-in had been resolved, but parallax occlusion mapping and texture filtering were still borked. And that's where we come in. It's been a while since we looked at GTA 5, but we archive as much of our work as we can, and we still retain our launch day assets based on version 1.02 - the day one patch. You never know when they'll come in handy.

Our take? Well, ElAnalistaDeBits has got it right when it comes to parallax occlusion mapping: the effect is now gone on the current builds of GTA 5 on both PS4 and Xbox One, and that's a bit of a shame - the effect adds an extra dimension to a vast range of incidental textures in the game, turning flat rock textures into fully formed 3D objects, for example. However, the effect is computationally expensive (POM was removed from Destiny prior to its release, for example) and also doesn't play nicely with anisotropic filtering. GTA 5 does appear to use AF, albeit a lower grade form of it compared to what we would expect from its utilisation on PC.

PlayStation 4 1.02PlayStation 4 1.09Xbox One 1.02Xbox One 1.09
Parallax occlusion mapping is a technology that allows developers to give an extra dimension to otherwise flat textures, as seen on the stones in the centre of the image here. Where once they extruded from the ground, now they're as flat as a pancake.
PlayStation 4 1.02PlayStation 4 1.09Xbox One 1.02Xbox One 1.09
Zooming up really close to the stones via the game's smartphone camera breaks the illusion a little but shows how detail extrudes on the old version of GTA 5 and how now it is completely flat.
PlayStation 4 1.02PlayStation 4 1.09Xbox One 1.02Xbox One 1.09
During general gameplay - most especially in third person mode, parallax occlusion mapping is a fairly subtle effect that doesn't add a huge amount to any given scene, but it's much more useful in first-person mode.
PlayStation 4 1.02PlayStation 4 1.09Xbox One 1.02Xbox One 1.09
During general gameplay - most especially in third person mode, parallax occlusion mapping is a fairly subtle effect that doesn't add a huge amount to any given scene, but it's much more useful in first-person mode.
PlayStation 4 1.02PlayStation 4 1.09Xbox One 1.02Xbox One 1.09
Reports that texture filtering on GTA 5 has got worse since the 1.08 patch didn't seem to check out based on our assets. In like-for-like scenes, the effect looks much the same.
PlayStation 4 1.02PlayStation 4 1.09Xbox One 1.02Xbox One 1.09
Reports that texture filtering on GTA 5 has got worse since the 1.08 patch didn't seem to check out based on our assets. In like-for-like scenes, the effect looks much the same.

However, the game's texture filtering set-up looks unchanged between versions 1.02 and 1.09, and based on the original video, we're unsure to what it extent it was ever changed - if at all. There also appears to be parity between our two tested versions when it comes to deformation and physics, so if there was a downgrade in 1.08, it does now seem to have been addressed, as suggested.

But with the focus on the negative aspects of the patch, are there are any actual advantages to the new code? Well, we have to bear in mind that we're unsure of what optimisations - if any - were rolled out between versions 1.03 and 1.08, but there's certainly good news for PlayStation 4 owners with the latest 1.09 code. Parallax occlusion mapping may be gone, but the noticeable frame-rate hits we originally noted while crossing busy junctions in downtown traffic are now gone. This proved to be a significant advantage to the Xbox One version of the game, which had the same issue - but to nowhere near the same extent.

However, the new patch is uniformly bad news for Xbox One owners. Parallax occlusion mapping is gone on the Microsoft platform too, but there are no plus points to the 1.09 version that we could find - performance is mostly a match for the launch game. Indeed, in one area, we actually see lower reported frame-rates compared to our original analysis.

Since launch, PlayStation 4 has benefited most from the patching process, with significantly smoother frame-rates in the busy downtown junction areas.

Alternative analysis:

Overall, it's a somewhat bizarre state of affairs. The smoother frame-rates on the current build of Grand Theft Auto 5 are clearly a boon for PlayStation 4 owners, with the overall performance profile of the game now shifting ahead of the Xbox One version in all areas - something that definitely wasn't the case during the game's launch period. Losing parallax occlusion mapping is a blow though, particularly if you're using the first-person perspective mode, where the effect is much more pronounced than the standard third-person viewpoint where the omission of the effect isn't so noticeable. If it is a straight trade of POM for frame-rate, we would take the smoother overall performance.

The thing is, it's difficult to believe that there is a straight trade going on here, particularly when the absence of the effect on Xbox One makes no difference at all to the game's overall fluidity. We would also expect to see texture filtering quality increase with the removal of parallax occlusion mapping, perhaps with improved anisotropic filtering. However, while it's no worse than the launch code, as has been suggested, it's no better either. Our gut feeling here is that the removal of POM is a bug, and hopefully one that will be rectified in an upcoming patch.

As things stand, typically we prefer patches to improve games by adding new features rather than removing rather established ones, but as things stand right now, GTA 5 is a bit of a mixed bag: PlayStation 4 owners get smoother performance, though a really neat visual effect is gone. Meanwhile, Xbox One owners get a double-whammy - the removal of parallax occlusion mapping and no noticeable improvements to fluidity whatsoever. The minor frame-rate drops at junctions remain, but the more impactful dips when heavy transparency effects are in play are unchanged from the launch version.

Patch 1.09 was released very, very quickly in the wake of the original video - our hope is that's just a placeholder of sorts until 1.10 arrives to restore the game's full visual feature set. We'll keep you updated.

Assets and additional reporting by Thomas Morgan.

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About the author

Richard Leadbetter

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.

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