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Performance Analysis: Grand Theft Auto 5

UPDATE: PS4 and Xbox One compared in new frame-rate stress test.

UPDATE 20/11/14 4:03pm: The final analysis is in. We've put together a wealth of GTA 5 clips culled from capture sessions spanning over 20 different missions, concentrating on areas where the title's 30fps target frame-rate faces its toughest challenges. In comparing PS4 and Xbox One, the end result is fascinating; it shows that while there are some scenarios that prove equally challenging for both consoles, specific areas can see one platform out-performing the other. On a native 1080p title like this, we might reasonably expect PlayStation 4's more powerful GPU to demonstrate an unassailable advantage across the game, but the reality is a little more complicated.

Travelling at speed through city junctions - such as Strawberry Avenue - turns out to be a particular Achilles Heel on PS4, with sustained drops to around the 24-26fps range at their worst. It's a situation that also applies to Xbox One, but to a consistently lesser degree when testing under the precise same conditions (and borne out in repeated tests). Put simply, in areas where junctions are stacked up one after the other, the Sony platform suffers more prolonged frame-rate drops when burning through traffic with your foot jammed to the floor. It's an interesting, recurring scenario that points to a CPU bottleneck, where Xbox One's increased clock-speed has an advantage when racing around these busy sections.

Another potential cause could be hard drive access, of course. GTA 5 is very intensive in terms of background streaming, a state of affairs that made the digital download versions of the last-gen version less desirable than the physical releases (where streaming bandwidth was shared between disc and drive). To lessen the impact of any streaming bottleneck, we installed the PS4 version onto an SSD for a re-test - the results showed no improvement.

Stress-testing Grand Theft Auto 5 across a range of scenarios demonstrates that each version has its own particular strengths and weaknesses.

However, while Xbox One enjoys an advantage during high-speed races in packed junction areas, it's clear the platform faces its own particular challenges. It drops a few frames during downtown driving outside of the problem junction areas, whereas PS4 remains solid. On top of that, we've already seen that Rockstar has made some visual cutbacks to its complex outdoor rendering, presumably to accommodate Xbox One's less capable graphics hardware, but in certain areas where cuts haven't been made, performance can dip.

Complex effects work, usually involving transparency effects (explosions etc) can also cause visible, sustained hitches in performance. Explosive missions with Trevor in Los Santos' outskirts show the biggest pitfall on Xbox One - with 24fps held at length during one shoot-out. Meanwhile, the PS4 has no issue with these segments, sparing one or two dropped frames just as alpha effects appear on-screen.

It's an interesting result overall, leaving us with different performance profiles on each platform. It's an unmistakable advantage for Sony's platform when it comes to shoot-outs, but on the other hand, the Xbox One typically avoids the heavy mid-20s frame-rates that can kick in during high-speed chases.

UPDATE 18/11/14 4:30pm: We've completed work on an initial performance analysis of the PlayStation 4 version of Grand Theft Auto 5, which you can find embedded below. At first blush, we're looking at a very similar release to the Xbox One version - with only one really noticeable difference, the implementation of a lens flare effect that appears either absent or dialled back on Xbox One. Frame-rate is confirmed at 30fps, though the rare dropped frames seen on Xbox One are even less of an issue here. We're working through the game as quickly as we can and our journeys are taking us out of the city, so yes, we're definitely looking into stuff like this and will report back when we have more to share.

Grand Theft Auto 5 running on PlayStation 4. Similar to the Xbox One version, we're looking at native 1080p with a capped 30fps target frame-rate.

Original story 18/11/14 8am: The 18th of November came a little early for Digital Foundry, allowing us to bring you this performance analysis of GTA 5 on Xbox One, along with some initial impressions about this brand new remaster. Living up to its word, Rockstar has indeed delivered a native 1080p release, and it adheres pretty closely to its target 30fps - a far cry from stuttering last-gen versions. The game's many enhancements are varied and worthwhile - however, our first impressions suggest an expertly crafted remaster with some lovely features, as opposed to a top to bottom revamp designed to exploit the capabilities of the new consoles.

We started our Xbox One playthrough directly after re-familiarising ourselves with the game via a couple of hours of PlayStation 3 gameplay, and the sense we get from the new title is that it's a brighter, crisper reworking of the original that eliminates the vast majority of the original release's technical shortcomings. The Xbox One version's consistent update is a radical departure from the lacklustre performance of its last-gen siblings - gameplay is mostly locked at 30fps with just minor fluctuations beneath its target. Curiously, despite a consistent update, judder can manifest a little during gameplay - a curious effect. We'll need to look into this a little more, but we can rule out frame-pacing as an issue, as the straight-line frame-time graphs in the video below demonstrate.

As it transpires, 1080p resolution is something of a doubled-edged sword. On the plus side, it's clear that the arrival of the new wave of consoles has really spoiled us. Returning to the PS3 game, the native 720p pixel-count looks decidedly sub-par in the modern era - a state of affairs not helped by the heavy-handed post-process anti-aliasing, which blurs jaggies well enough, but adds a heavy shimmer to gameplay in motion. A similar anti-aliasing technique is in play on Xbox One, but the good news is that the far higher pixel count makes for a much cleaner presentation. That said, the stark resolution increase highlights the lower poly counts though, and while the lighting model remains frequently stunning, it's not really on par with the materials-based lighting seen in next-gen engines. There are enhancements to the quality of the main characters though and textures are definitely improved, while an accomplished depth of field effect is a welcome addition. On top of that, view distances are demonstrably better than the last-gen versions too..

A big bunch of Grand Theft Auto 5 footage, with the game running at full 1080p on Xbox One. After the generally lacklustre performance of the last-gen versions, the close adherence to the target 30fps here is welcome.

If there is an actual game-changer to this remaster, it comes from the inclusion of the first-person perspective mode. It's a little disorientating at first, and takes some getting used to - but it's here that elements of the remastering process come to fore. Each vehicle is gifted with a completely redrawn dashboard for those all-important driving sections, and it's also here that the quality of the higher resolution textures becomes crucial to the experience. It's difficult to believe that the mode would have worked well at all with last-gen, lower resolution art in place - viewing the assets up close and personal in first-person mode practically demands the upgrade Rockstar has implemented here. The only minus point is that it also serves to emphasis that texture filtering isn't great (a common complaint with many PS4 and Xbox One titles), with ground art becoming very fuzzy not too far in front of the player.

First person mode is definitely intriguing though - a whole new spin on the game, and a substantially harder challenge too in that you're forced to be much more aware of your surroundings - something that the default third person camera helps with immensely. Of course, you can switch between the two at will, though we reckon that the GTA hardcore will be going for a complete playthrough in the new mode.

Overall, our first impressions of this spruced-up GTA 5 are positive. Technologically, the game demonstrates its last-gen roots quite clearly, but the quality of the original work still stands up overall. It's also great to see that Rockstar has gone the extra mile with this version, revisiting the game and improving the base assets considerably while adding a compelling new gameplay option. Quite where the PlayStation 4 version fits into the equation remains unknown at this precise moment. While we were able to acquire the Xbox One version ahead of time, we'll be buying the PS4 version on release day along with everyone else. We'll report back with more analysis and some initial comparisons as soon as we can.

If you want to really push the game to its limits, we've got a round-up of every GTA 5 cheat.

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Richard Leadbetter avatar

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.