Performance issues notwithstanding, this is the best way to experience one of the best games of this generation.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is finally out on PC, a little more than a year after launch. By Rockstar’s standards, this is actually earlier than expected. Grand Theft Auto V took more than two years to make its way over to the platform of choice. And the original Red Dead Redemption never did.
Lots of people badly want to play Red Dead Redemption 2 on PC. Considering how long Rockstar kept everyone waiting with Grand Theft Auto V, and considering that the original Red Dead Redemption didn’t even arrive on PC, a one year delay is perfectly acceptable.
Rockstar likes to take its time to polish the titles it works on. Red Dead Redemption 2 is no different in this respect. This isn’t a straight port of the console version, warts and all. Instead, it’s clear that a lot of attention has been lavished on making this a benchmark title for PC owners. There are clear upgrades across the board over the console versions of the game.
Let’s take a deep dive into the improvements the PC version brings. We’ll also see how it stacks relative to the PS4 version of the game.
Settings, settings, and more settings
The first thing you’ll notice when firing up the PC version of Red Dead Redemption 2 is the absolute plethora of graphics settings. There are over 40 adjustable options for everything from distant volumetric effects and fur quality to regulars like texture quality. Tweaking settings beyond simple presets always takes time. This is because you have to use trial and error to find out which settings hit performance the hardest. Rockstar’s been extra thoughtful in this respect: they’ve created a large number of presets that range from “favor performance” to “favor quality.” Each notch ramps up particular settings. It’s not quite as reliable as doing it by yourself. Nevertheless, it helps you find your baseline much faster.
Almost a generational improvement
There are some big surprises to be had here. For starters, the usual suspects like shadow quality don’t incur the biggest performance penalties. Leaving shadows at ultra gives you a noticeably better presentation than the PS4 iteration of the game, without hitting performance too much.
What’s really surprising is the massive impact that reflection quality has on performance. At ultra, reflection quality incurs a 40 percent performance penalty, the single highest of any of the standard settings. This is puzzling to us since Red Dead Redemption 2 only appears to be using standard screen-space reflections. It is quite possible that this is an optimization issue. Plenty of open world titles using screen space reflections–Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, for one, scale well with ultra-reflections. This could be something that Rockstar addresses in future patches. As things stand now, we’d suggest leaving reflections on medium, irrespective of your graphics card.
Other settings outliers include Water Quality and Volumetrics Quality, which incur 34 percent and 25 percent performance penalties respectively. Volumetrics are a known performance fiend. In Borderlands 3, for instance, dropping this alone was enough to boost performance to playable levels on a range of hardware. In Red Dead Redemption 2, you get controls for both overall volumetrics quality and tweaks for near and far volumetrics. Together, these three settings control the resolution of volumetric effects, as well as LOD scaling for volumetrics. Because of the inherently fuzzy look of volumetric effects, this is one setting we’re perfectly happy to drop, even down to medium. You really won’t be able to tell the difference. And your PC will thank you.
What about Water Quality, though? This is one area where Rockstar’s really taken things to the next level on PC. More than anything else, this is the one graphical aspect of Red Dead Redemption 2 that think is a genuine generational upgrade. Water physics at max settings are incredible. Water caustics are accurately simulated, to the point that moving in quick circle will create whirlpools. We’re fairly certain Rockstar’s leveraging GPU compute for its water simulation. This is likely why the effect is so incredibly demanding. We suggest dropping this down a notch or two, though: it only applies in water surfaces and it drags your overall performance down massively.
LOD settings are also, unsurprisingly, major performance hogs. You get five options for geometry LOD scaling and 10 options for grass LOD scaling. The poorly-named “tree quality” setting also apparently controls draw distances for trees. Pushing the LODs out does a lot for Red Dead Redemption 2 as an open world game: it fills out those huge vistas in the far background, especially on higher resolution displays. This is another area where visuals take a clear leap over the console version.
Vulkan and DirectX 12
We’re happy to see Rockstar finally transition to the new APIs. As a legacy seventh-gen title, Grand Theft Auto V was still built on a DirectX 9 backbone. You got some additional visual goodies on DX11 but that was about it. With Red Dead Redemption 2, they’ve moved to supporting both Vulkan and DirectX 12. But, as we saw earlier with Rage 2, Vulkan Support doesn’t automatically translate into better performance. Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t exactly CPU intensive. However, scaling tops out at 4 cores. This means that single-threaded performance still matters: you’ll get better overall framerates with Coffee Lake parts like the 9700K here, compared to Ryzen. There are no huge differences between Vulkan and DirectX 12 performance in-game. If you have a higher-end GPU–the 1080 Ti onwards, you may see better Vulkan performance at lower resolutions. But as soon as you start hitting GPU bottlenecks, the API doesn’t really matter here.
Scaling up for higher resolution gameplay
The ability to run the game at arbitrary resolutions is a big improvement for Red Dead Redemption 2 on PC, compared to base console versions like the PS4 edition. However, the higher-end PC presets are absolutely brutal. At ultra, the 2080 Ti is literally the only GPU able to breach the 30 FPS barrier at 4K. You need to drop down to the high preset in order to viably run this game on GPUs like the 2070 Super at 4K. However, while the collective PC improvements are a big step forward, it’s still important to remember that this is a title built with the base consoles in mind. We’ve found that medium settings more or less mimic the presentation on base consoles. Dropping down to medium, it’s suddenly viable to crank resolution up. And, keep in mind, even at those settings, this is a breathtaking game.
How does it stack up to the PS4 Pro version?
When connected to a 4K monitor, PS4 Pro outputs a 1920×2160 resolution with checker-boarding along with the TAA implementation covering up any aliasing. With a consistent 30 FPS update, this is a perfectly viable way to experience this game.
But PC takes things to the next level. As we mentioned earlier, water physics sees a generational improvement on PC. Meanwhile, at higher quality settings, LODs on the geometry and the environment are pushed way into the background for a denser, lush presentation. And, of course, the game scales to 4K (and beyond) if you have the graphics horsepower. This is a game that plays reasonably well, even when locked at 30 FPS. 4K/30 Ultra from 1080 Ti-class hardware is a massive leap over what the PS4 Pro delivers.
All in all, Rockstar did better than we expected here. We got Red Dead Redemption earlier than expected on PC and, performance issues notwithstanding, this is still the best way to experience one of the best games of this generation.