Performance Analysis: Mafia 3

Console versions analysed in depth. Plus: what does it take to run the PC game at 1080p60?

One week on from release and we think we finally have a handle on Mafia 3, in terms of its console performance and perhaps more crucially, what it actually takes to run this game at 1080p60 on a mainstream gaming PC. What's clear is that this is a game that somehow made it to gamers in a highly unoptimised state, and the amount of bugs, glitches and crashes back to the desktop are legion. Fundamental questions need to be asked about the QA process here - and also of the console platform holders, whose own technical requirements demand a far higher level of stability than what we're seeing here.

Regardless, it's all a bit of a shame. The lighting engine is a real high point, and parts - at least - of Mafia 3 feel like they're genuinely built with modern machines in mind. There's a subdued beauty to Mafia 3 at its best, and there's an apparent attempt to match the oil-painted concept art that pan across its loading screens. Seeing flashes of sunlight play across a rain-soaked streets is a purely incidental moment where all its effects combine to create something spectacular. And likewise, there's a good use of volumetric lighting in interiors to give that a dim, chiaroscuro effect we see in film noir classics.

But that's the city of New Bordeaux at its best. Elsewhere, it's often a dark foggy place, which can only go so far to hide the obvious pop-in as you drive fast down its streets. There's an almost last-gen appearance to the world as a result; not helped by the low resolution, flat textures maps and basic NPC models. Some parts look superb, but others feel like they're plucked straight from a PS3 or Xbox 360 version that never came to be.

And then there are the glitches. It's usually simple stuff, but it does add up. We've seen AI cars flip out and drive off the road ahead of us for no reason. We've seen effects like passing clouds run at a ridiculous, accelerated speed overhead. We've even fallen through the floor, taking us to a psychedelic abyss where Lincoln is left floating in space for eternity. It all subtracts from the authenticity Mafia 3's trying to build in its world and characters - a technical scaffolding that shakes way too much to overlook. And that's a real shame given there are some quality ideas underneath all these issues.

A look at Mafia performance and visual features on PS4 and Xbox One.

The setup for Mafia 3 is a solid one, built on a cast of characters that are realised with a degree of care we didn't expect going in. But tellingly, the plot is told entirely though pre-rendered cinematics - encoded 1080p movie files that switch in whenever we need the next beat in the story. In other words, the best looking parts of the game are pre-baked by brute force of sizable video files, often with weather conditions at odds with the gameplay itself.

Once we return to in-engine action though, the difference is a familiar one: here it's a native 900p on Xbox One, against the clearer 1080p image on PS4. In truth, both suffer from similar degrees of pixel crawl in motion owing to an ineffective anti-aliasing pass. Be prepared to see rough lines and flickering edges as you drive around, especially on power cables or the bright chrome finish on cars, regardless of machine.

In terms of the core graphical setup we're otherwise looking at near-identical visuals otherwise. For the volumetric lighting quality, shadow and reflection resolution, and overall texture detail, it's all in the same ballpark between PS4 and Xbox One. Admittedly it's hard to match the time of day and weather conditions perfectly in Mafia 3 - this being something we can't control - but world geometry also appears to draw in at the same points too while driving.

What does it take to run Mafia 3 at 1080p60 on a mainstream gaming PC? And to what extent can we boost visual features over the console version without sacrificing too much performance?

So resolution aside, the games are much alike, and there's overall parity in the performance profile too. Both console editions run at a capped 30fps, albeit with shockingly poor frame-pacing, giving the illusion of a much lower frame-rate. And there are genuine performance dips too - forest areas can see an impact to frame-rate, and these are palpably worse on PS4. So the bottom line is clear; it's an equivalent experience overall, but Sony's platform has slightly cleaner visuals while Xbox One has fewer performance issues.

But what about PC? Infamously, the game shipped with a 30fps cap (since removed), and users were dismayed about the generally poor level of performance, even on good hardware like Nvidia's GeForce GTX 970. We tested Mafia 3 at 1080p on an i7 system paired with GTX 1060 and the Radeon RX 480 and can confirm that at max settings, we're looking at a 38fps average on the Nvidia setup and 37fps on the AMD side. A locked 30fps shouldn't be a problem - except that the game's in-built frame-rate limiter has the same awful frame-pacing issues as the console game. So to the big question: is 60fps actually viable with this hardware, and what compromises need to be made?

We did have some luck by dropping a few settings, and the hit to visuals isn't as drastic as you might think. Mafia 3 falls into a now increasingly common category of PC game where the variance between each preset can be very small - both in the hit to performance, and what they actually change. Take the geometry and shadows settings for example. Going between low, medium and high options only subtracts around 1fps from your average frame-rate between each switch on a GTX 1060, evidently due to there simply not being much difference between each preset.

settings
Mafia 3's settings screen. Accept the inevitable - you'll need volumetric effects and reflections on the low quality preset in order to open the door to 60fps gameplay on reasonable hardware.

However, other settings have a profound impact on performance. Running anti-aliasing on the high setting tanks frame-rate by 6fps on the GTX 1060, but medium still looks better than console (which runs equivalent to the low setting) and doesn't have so much of an impact. By far the greatest leech on performance comes from the reflection quality setting, and keeping it at low is the only way 60fps is possible on the GPU. In fact, going from low to medium incurs a 14fps hit to the card. This bottom setting just matches PS4 and Xbox One, and cuts the real-time reflection resolution down a touch - meaning sub-pixel information for scaffolding and power lines start to break up. It still looks very close, but the saving on performance is huge.

It's also worth mentioning that dropping volumetric effects to low does have a noticeable drawback on visuals. Going from medium to low like this adds dithering - a kind of speckle artefact - to light shafts falling from lamps. Again this is what we get on console, but it's a shame to miss out on the more precise implementation at medium or above - but it's a necessary step to hitting 60fps.

With the settings above, it is possible to hit a pretty much sustained 1080p60 on Mafia 3, but the inclusion of low settings in some instances is bound to rankle. However, to put this into perspective, we should point out that the console versions run at the equivalent of PC's low setting. Indeed, in terms of foliage view distances, there's a strong argument that the PS4 and Xbox One releases are actually using a more aggressive preset that visibly reduces quality compared to the PC's lowest option.

It's not an ideal state of affairs, but a console-beating 1080p60 experience is possible on PC - and it's all about embracing compromise in terms of quality presets while accepting that in some cases, you'll need to engage the dreaded low setting. On the plus side, the cut to image quality by using low quality reflections and volumetric lighting isn't severe - and the payback in terms of the vast performance increase is more than worth it. The bottom line is that it's possible to run Mafia 3 at 1080p60 without the need for stupendous hardware, but from our perspective, that's one of the title's less pressing issues. The bugs, crashes and glitching intrude too much on the game's other qualities, and it's clear Mafia 3 has a few patches ahead of it.

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About the author

Thomas Morgan

Thomas Morgan

Senior Staff Writer, Digital Foundry

32-bit era nostalgic and gadget enthusiast Tom has been writing for Eurogamer and Digital Foundry since 2011. His favourite games include Gitaroo Man, F-Zero GX and StarCraft 2.

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