Watch_Dogs GeForce vs. Radeon Performance Face-Off and IQ Analysis
Watch_Dogs was probably the most hyped new game of the year and we are pleased to see that it mostly lives up to it. We have been playing Watch_Dogs since Saturday morning and have had more time to explore performance since our release day review. We are going to look at expanded performance testing, now including Radeon results, and a closer look at Image Quality (IQ).
It appears that Ubisoft has taken the very best elements of the Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag gameplay and mechanics, along with good ideas from other games, and tossed out the boring bits and what doesn’t work. The result is a fast-paced, huge open-world game with a great story, superb voice acting, awesome music, and car chases to delight the most jaded gamers. There is nothing particularly original about Watch_Dogs, other than everything comes together well – including multiplayer and singleplayer – and it just works!
There are some issues with stability, and Ubisoft needs to patch the game as a player may occasionally experience crashes to the desktop. Generally, 3GB or more of vRAM on a fast video card seems to be enough for 1920×1080 at Ultra Settings and Ultra Textures, although 2GB vRAM-equipped video cards tend to stutter slightly with lesser settings than Ultra, even with High Textures.
This performance and IQ evaluation gives more a detailed performance analysis comparison between FXAA, temporal SMAA, 4xMSAA, and 2xTXAA, while comparing the IQ of the in-between settings – from No AA to 4xTXAA. AMD delivered a new 14.6 Beta 1 driver on launch day evening which increased performance significantly over the 14.4 driver set, and we have updated our evaluation with the Radeon R9 290X-uber, 280X and 270X results. Besides our original testing with the GTX 780 Ti/GTX 770/GTX 760/GTX 680 and GTX 680 SLI (GTX 690), we have added GTX 780 results at 2560×1600 and 1920×1080. You will note that the 2GB cards are unable to run Ultra Textures without significant issues, and they default to High although Ultra can be set.
Nvidia believes that the best gaming experience is on GeForce since Watch_Dogs features Nvidia’s GameWorks, and especially TXAA and HBAO+ technology. AMD cards cannot run TXAA, or Temporal Anti-Aliasing, which mitigates texture crawling and shimmering at the expense of blur. TXAA works well with Watch_Dogs giving it a cinematic effect while not blurring the text significantly. Nvidia’s HBAO+ technology brings a noticeable improvement in IQ with an acceptable performance hit to upper-midrange and higher-end cards of both vendors, and we run it enabled. Watch_Dogs has become ABT’s latest benchmark.
In Watch_Dogs, all of the major cities are networked, monitored and controlled by complex operating systems called the Central Operating System (ctOS) which controls Chicago’s technology and holds information on all of the city’s residents. The theme of hacking is central to Watch_Dogs, and differentiates it from similar games, like the Grand Theft Auto series.
You play as Aiden Pearce – both a brilliant hacker as well as a thug, who justifies his carnage by his belief that he is protecting his family. As Aiden, you become a voyeur and you will be able to monitor, hack and manipulate everything and everyone connected to the ctOS network. You can access and control security cameras, download personal information about anyone, change traffic lights and control public transportation, cause blackouts, and far more. You will earn experience points to upgrade your skills, including Focus which can slow time down in critical situations. You have a completely open world set within Chicago’s city limits, and you can follow the main story line, or pursue side games of which there are many, including expert Chess.
It may all sound a bit complex, but Watch_Dogs presents itself to the player naturally and without hand-holding. Best of all, the game is fun, and especially the car chases bring some genuine laugh out-loud moments as your car is basically a tank; not indestructible, but almost. And once the player gets used to the driving controls, it is a lot of fun to race through downtown Chicago at maximum speed, slowing for nothing and causing maximum destruction, all the while eluding the entire Chicago police force, including helicopter surveillance.
Let’s first look at our hardware and software testbed before we head to the benchmarks and images.
Test Configuration – Hardware
- Intel Core i7-4770K (reference 3.5GHz, HyperThreading and Turbo boost is on to 3.7GHz; overclocked to 4.0GHz; DX11 CPU graphics), supplied by Intel.
- ECS GANK Domination Z87H3-A2X motherboard (Intel Z87 chipset, latest BIOS, PCIe 3.0 specification, CrossFire/SLI 8x+8x) supplied by ECS
- 16 GB DDR3 HyperX Kingston “Beast” RAM (2×8 GB, dual-channel at 2133MHz; supplied by Kingston)
- GeForce GTX 780 Ti 3GB (reference clocks), supplied by Nvidia
- GeForce GTX 780 3GB (reference clocks), supplied by Nvidia
- GeForce GTX TITAN, 6GB (reference clocks), supplied by Nvidia
- GeForce GTX 770, 2GB reference clocks, supplied by Nvidia
- Nvidia GTX 680, 2 GB reference design and clocks, supplied by Nvidia
- Nvidia GTX 690 at GTX 680 SLI speeds; 2 GB (effective, per GPU) reference design and clocks, supplied by Nvidia
- PowerColor R9 290X PCS+ (3GB reference Uber clocks)
- VisionTek R9 280X (3GB reference clocks)
- PowerColor R9 270X PCS+ (2GB reference clocks), supplied by PowerColor
- Onboard Realtek Audio
- Genius SP-D150 speakers, supplied by Genius.
- Two 2TB GB Toshiba 7200.10 hard drive identically configured; 1 for Nvidia and 1 for AMD
- Thermaltake ToughPower 775W power supply unit supplied by Thermaltake
- Thermaltake Water2.0 Pro watercooler, supplied by Thermaltake
- Thermaltake Overseer RX-I full tower case, supplied by Thermaltake
- ASUS BW-12B1ST 12X Blu-Ray writer
- HP LP3065 2560×1600 thirty inch LCD.
Test Configuration – Software
- Watch_Dogs, digital reviewer’s copy; Supplied by Ubisoft/Nvidia
- Nvidia GeForce WHQL 337.88. High Quality; Single-display Performance mode; Prefer Maximum Performance. Shader Cache on, Vsync off.
- AMD Catalyst 14.6 beta Version 1. High quality, all optimizations off, use application settings, Vsync off.
- Windows 7 64-bit; very latest updates
- EVGA PrecisionX 4.21 overclocking and monitoring software; temperature and power targets set to maximum.
- Latest DirectX
- Varying AA enabled as noted – No AA, FXAA, SMAA, Temporal SMAA, 2xMSAA, 4xMSAA, 2xTXAA, and 4xTXAA
- All results show average frame rates; 3GB/6GB vRAM-enabled cards benched with Ultra textures (except as noted with R8 280X at Ultra and High textures), and 2GB vRAM cards tested with High textures
- Highest quality sound (stereo) used in all games.
- Windows 7 64, DX11
- Latest version of Fraps
The Settings and Performance
Watch_Dogs requires a fairly powerful PC with 6GB of RAM just to run the game. To run fully maxed out Ultra settings at good framerates requires a high-end quad-core Core i7 Intel CPU and a 3GB GTX 780 or 4GB 290X – for 1920×1080!! All of our tested settings are completely maxed out – Ultra where available. This universal setting is “Custom” since HBAO+ is not enabled by the default Ultra setting. All 2GB cards are restricted to “High” textures. It is possible to enable Ultra textures on a 2GB card, but the results are less than satisfactory.If you try to run high textures on a 2GB card – or set AA setting too high – there will be issues that include slowdowns and visible artifacting. The 3GB vRAM-equipped GTX 780 Ti had serious chugging and artifacting issues at 2560×1600 with 4xAA, and to a lesser extent at 2xTXAA; issues that the 6GB vRAM-equipped, but slower, TITAN did not experience.Missing textures as above are just one of the issues that become noticeable when a card’s settings are exceeded.
The Main Summary Chart
The only performance variables that we charted by measuring framerates are the levels of Anti-Aliasing. No AA is not really a good option but gives the best performance, if absolutely necessary. FXAA provides a lower level of AA that eliminates some of the jaggies at the expense of a slight blur, but does nothing for texture crawling and shimmering. Playing with Temporal SMAA gives the gamer a slightly better experience than using FXAA or with regular SMAA, but it also incurs a slightly greater performance hit, and Temporal Aliasing is still noticeable. 2xTXAA provides a level of Anti-Aliasing close to 4xMSAA plus Temporal Aliasing which gives the game a cinematic effect by blurring the entire scene slightly.
Here are our performance results by varying the levels of AA. We tested the R9 280X 3GB card with Ultra, and also with High Textures to give a closer comparison to the GTX 680 and GTX 770 which were only benched with High Textures.
A single GPU is best suited to 1920×1080 resolution at maxed-out settings. Using a GTX 780 or a R9 290X, it is possible to play up to 2560×1600 resolution if Temporal SMAA is used instead of MSAA or TXAA. It seems that even the 3GB GTX 780 Ti has issues playing at 2560×1600 with 4xMSAA or 2xTXAA that the TITAN and the R9 290X don’t have. Couple that with some stuttering issues that come with using 2GB vRAM-equipped cards, and it is likely that a patch will come soon from Ubisoft. We will update our readers on ABT forum when this occurs.
Tessellation and IQ in Watch_Dogs
Watch_Dogs offers support for DirectX 11 tessellation which is a good way to increase the level of detail in a scene with a relatively minimal performance impact. The character models are well-tessellated which gives them a much more natural look. Also, the rendering of the hair is greatly improved although some of the character models are lacking (as with Aiden’s sister).
We quote Nvidia as we have confirmed this several times: HBAO+ provides noticeably better IQ with a reasonable performance hit for most high-end and medium high-end cards from both AMD and Nvidia. We generally run with HBAO+ on instead of just using SSAO or HBAO.
In Watch Dogs, gamers can enable Ubisoft’s half-resolution, console-quality Ambient Occlusion technique, MHBAO, and NVIDIA’s HBAO+, a DirectX 11 AO technique that renders shadows at full resolution with an unprecedented 36 occlusion samples per AO pixel. Compared to other AO techniques, HBAO+ is more detailed and more precise, and has a significantly lower performance impact per occlusion sample.
Let’s look at each of the individual AA settings available in Watch_Dogs. Although AMD cards cannot run TXAA, the Radeon screenshots show similar levels of FXAA, SMAA, and MSAA. All of the screen shots are taken at the same location at the beginning of an autosave, however, they are not identical. The scene will be presented randomly with different cars in the scene, and also the horizontal viewing angle may vary. However, by looking at the temporary fence in the left background and the lines on the building and on the signs, we can see the varying levels of AA applied.
FXAA is a shader based image filter developed by Nvidia which reduces visible aliasing. It is applied along with other post processing steps like motion blur and bloom. For game engines making use of deferred shading, FXAA provides less of a performance and memory hit over using deferred shading with MSAA. Not only does FXAA cost less in terms of a performance hit, but the visual difference is very clearly better with FXAA over not using it at all.
Our first scene from Watch_Dogs is taken without MSAA or FXAA applied. All of the details are set to Ultra at 1920×1080 including Ultra Textures (except as noted). Screenshots were taken using a GTX 780 Ti.
It is probably best to open two or three images at a time in separate windows or tabs and compare between them at full size, 1920×1080.
First up, we see no Anti-aliasing, and the jaggies are obvious plus we get the buzz-saw action with the camera in motion when we focus on the vertical lines of the temporary metal fencing. Also, look at the readability of the small warning sign to the upper center right of the image.
Next up, FXAA is applied and we see a mild blur applied to the entire scene. We also notice that the ‘jaggies’ of the fence are smoother somewhat – a tradeoff for slight blur in exchange for less jagged edges. The Warning sign is slightly less readable.
SMAA is another ‘blur-type’ filter that uses a different algorithm that many gamers prefer to FXAA. There is a little less blur than with FXAA but arguably also slightly more aliasing. Both SMAA and FXAA are clearly superior to not using AA at all, and if you can afford the performance hit, use SMAA.
Temporal SMAA looks identical to SMAA in screenshots, but it provides a level of temporal anti-aliasing below TXAA. It does help to ameliorate some of the jaggies and a little of the texture crawling, without the performance hit that TXAA demands.
2xMSAA is a definite step up over No (1x)AA, and it provides a similar level of AA to FXAA without the slight blur. However, given a choice, we would prefer Temporal SMAA over using 2xMSAA. On the other hand, only applying 4xMSAA is a bit of a step-up over Temporal SMAA, and a noticeable improvement over 2xMSAA, but the shimmering and texture crawling remain with the camera in motion.
4xMSAA looks much better than 2xMSAA but takes a serious performance hit. And as the next image shows, 8xMSAA looks very good indeed!
The only issue with 8xMSAA is that it makes the game completely unplayable, even at 1920×1080 resolution. Framerates drop into the teens even with a GTX 780 Ti or TITAN, or with a R9 290X
2xTXAA offers Anti-aliasing very close to 4xMSAA but with a temporal filter that trades blur for reduced texture crawling and shimmering. TXAA looks much better with the camera in motion and gives the game a cinematic look.
4xTXAA offers Anti-Aliasing very close to 8xMSAA, but with the same issues as with 2xTXAA. For reading the text of the small warning sign, one might well prefer MSAA for screenshots.
Ultra versus High Textures
4xMSAA – ULTRA TEXTURES (again)
4xMSAA – HIGH TEXTURES
There are some differences, but if performance is an issue, do not hesitate to drop the setting down from Ultra to High.
8xMSAA – ULTRA TEXTURES (again)
8xMSAA – HIGH TEXTURES
The differences are there but they are not something anyone would likely notice while playing this fast-paced game.
This editor prefers 2xTXAA as a good balance for using a GTX 780 Ti with great overall image quality and good performance. The shimmering and crawling that is eliminated by TXAA is preferred coupled with the slight blur that gives the game a cinematic look. Our second choices would be between using 4xMSAA and using Temporal SMAA.
Watch_Dogs comes highly recommended and we give it a solid 8.0. The graphics are extraordinary, the gameplay is enhanced over Ubisoft’s other games, and the story and voice acting are absolutely top-notch. We are looking forward to playing future installments in the Watch_Dog series. Recommended!
Watch_Dog is definitely not for those who are easily offended by over-the-top violence. Nitpicks include the lack of originality, irritating checkpoint saves, unoptimized performance, and some serious bugs. We are quite sure that Ubisoft will address these issues quickly.
Stay tuned as we have many more reviews and evaluations coming up. This weekend, we are working on an Optical Storage review as we evaluate OWC’s new external Blu-Ray burner, and the following week we will look at Kingston’s 240GB mSATA drive. In the meantime, join us on ABT forum and speak your mind.