Hands-On With GTA 5 on PC at 4K
That was it, really. But I wanted to ride that train, and I couldn’t in the PlayStation version. The PlayStation port of the original Grand Theft Auto was a brilliant game way back in 1997, but it wasn’t as brilliant as its big brother on PC. As usual, the latter could do just that little bit more. Push that little bit further. It was something my jerk mate pointed out with clockwork regularity.
Back then it was a largely inessential and surprisingly fragile 2D train. Today, it’s a fair bit more.
Grand Theft Auto V for PC has been a long time coming. Upon its release on April 14, 2015 PC gamers will have waited almost 19 months since GTA V originally shipped on PS3 and Xbox 360 back in September, 2013. That’s actually almost three times the wait for the PC debuts of the likes of GTA IV and GTA III, which took just over six months apiece to make their way from console to PC. More recently, the gap between Max Payne 3’s arrival on console and its arrival on PC was mere weeks.
Quite a long wait here, then.
I expect it’s been an agonising one for some, too; the pain perhaps exacerbated by the fact that the Grand Theft Auto series’ first home was PC (albeit followed in short order by PlayStation).
Has it been worth it? After our first play of the game on PC there’s no reason right now to suggest it hasn’t.Rockstar describes Grand Theft Auto V on PC as “the most graphically and technically advanced version” of its world-beating blockbuster. Exactly how much you’ll be able to wring out of GTA V will obviously depend on how much of your hard-earned you’ve sunk into your PC set-up but, after a morning playing it on a 4K screen tethered to what I was assured was a very capable rig, I can attest that “graphically and technically enhanced” is an exceedingly suitable description. The GTA V remaster for PS4 and Xbox One is a fine looking game but GTA V on PC takes that and dials it up across the board. Indeed, GTA V on PC is being explicitly pitched as the “definitive” edition. It’s tough to disagree.
The visual differences between GTA V on PC and GTA V on current generation consoles are admittedly less stark than they are between the current generation version of GTA V compared to the original PS3 and Xbox 360 versions, but they are immediately noticeable. There’s an increased sharpness to all that additional granular detail Rockstar massaged into the current gen remaster. There’s also definitely an undeniable smoothness added to proceedings by virtue of the fact GTA V on PC runs at 60FPS; it’s the only version to achieve a framerate higher than 30FPS.
After playing hundreds of hours of GTA V across Xbox 360 and PS4 it’d be disingenuous of me to say I’ve ever taken issue with either console version’s dependable and very steady framerate, but GTA V at a seemingly unwavering 60FPS is nonetheless a very pleasant experience. You can check out what GTA V looks like at 60FPS here.
Depending on your hardware GTA V on PC also supports resolutions “up to 4K and beyond” and this brings an incredible amount of additional clarity to the world, both close up and particularly over long distances. The draw distance for the PS4 and Xbox One version was doubled over the previous generation versions but on PC that’s been blown out even further. Parachuting high above the Mount Chiliad side of the Alamo Sea I note Los Santos’ tallest buildings are not only completely visible from this distance, but amazingly crisp. Impressive, considering they’re nearly the entire length of the map away at this moment.
Impressive too is the lighting, which was already remarkably nuanced even back in the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions but appears even more striking here. Interestingly, Rockstar North’s director of technology Phil Hooker, director of engineering Klaas Schilstra, and technical director Adam Fowler (who are on-hand to jointly discuss GTA V for PC) explain that the lighting itself actually hasn’t changed a great deal over the last 18 months; rather it’s the increased quality of the effects that combine to compose it.
“It is the overall experience that adds to that feeling,” explains the team. “With each iteration of the game we’ve been able to push the quality level of the effects that support the lighting, while the lighting itself hasn’t actually changed much since the PS3/Xbox 360 version.”
“All the effects that compose our lighting (reflection, ambient occlusion, skin and post effect) are higher quality and higher resolution (where settings permit), which gives the PC version a smoother and more nuanced picture.”
For PC players who lack the hardware to fully exploit GTA V’s 4K capabilities Rockstar assures me 1080p is achievable with average specifications, and that the game is optimised to look and perform well on a wide range of machines. Rockstar has also baked in a wide selection of options that players can fiddle with in order to either increase performance or visual fidelity, one of which is a city density slider which allows us to determine just how bustling streets and footpaths are and how busy the city can be around us at any given time.
The Rockstar North team explains there were plenty of difficulties taking a game with the girth of GTA V from the one-size-fits-all world of consoles and making it behave itself in an environment where it needs to scale itself based on the eclectic hardware combinations different players may have, but they made sure they had the time to address them.
“We had prepared for PS4, Xbox One, and PC versions so we could rebuild the map at higher fidelity for each platform,” says the team. “And we do normally use scaling to dial some aspects of the game so we can fine-tune the game’s look and performance – that was in part already present in GTA on PS3 and Xbox 360.”
“However, PC capabilities at the high end really push that into the red zone, well outside of ‘established parameters’ – 4K shows every last blemish. So we had to go back and look at the art and adjust some of the systems to be more flexible.
“The best way of tackling them is preparing the game as far as you can, performing plenty of tests, over and over, and spend the time to get it right. Everything has to be scalable, from the draw distance, the render buffer sizes, texture sizes, post-FX and shader complexity to character and vehicle population counts. We have a list of about 25 parameters you can edit to make the game run faster or look better. Implementing all of this takes time.
“The first time you run the game we choose the best setup for your hardware, but if you don’t like it you can edit the settings to your preferred setup.”
I played GTA V on PC on a single screen but the game will feature support for dual- and triple-monitor set-ups and 3D. I expect multiple monitor arrangements will be a particularly excellent way to enjoy firing out the side of a vehicle while still being able to maintain some sense of what’s ahead of you – something that’s sacrificed on a single-screen set up.
“One of the goals with GTA V on PC was to be sure that PC players at all levels could get something exciting out of the experience, and that was a factor in all of our decision-making,” says the team. “As we have said before, we are not in the business of making or selling hardware – we want everyone to be able to experience the games we make.”
“That affects our approach to minimum and recommended specs so that the game was playable for as many people as possible, but it’s also a factor in offering up options for people at the really high end. We know 3D and triple-head are features some PC players really enjoy and to us it’s another new way to experience the game and we are really happy with the results.”
Rockstar has learnt a number of key lessons since the release of GTA IV on PC, the most crucial of which being that it’s very important to have a game’s core development team more closely involved with Rockstar’s PC-focused developers.
“The PC version of Grand Theft Auto V is the result of a collaboration between the core Grand Theft Auto team and our lead PC developers from across all of Rockstar’s studios,” explains the Rockstar North team. “Over the past few years, we realised that in order to really improve our PC versions, the core games team had to work a lot more closely with our PC-focused developers.”
“We first put this into practise with Max Payne 3 and we were really happy with the results, so the same key group that worked on Grand Theft Auto V was much more involved in the development of the PC version this time around.
“[H]aving the original team on the PC title has made a huge difference to the final game, and both our PC focused devs and the GTA team have learnt a great deal from each other.”
While there’s obviously been a great deal of desire from a lot of gamers to see GTA V on PC for quite some time, the silver lining here is that the additional time has allowed Rockstar “to concentrate on the PC specific features in much greater detail.”
“We have been able to properly support more of the esoteric setups you get in the PC community such as triple-head and 3D,” explains the team. “Another good example is in the fact that 4K has had proper development support. It’s easy to allow your screen buffer to resize to 4K, but effectively dealing with the consequences isn’t so easy. Suddenly a scene can be examined a lot more closely and small issues can start to become more prominent. We spent a lot of time ensuring those tiny details weren’t a problem for us.
“We also spent a lot of time ensuring the keyboard and mouse controls have been extensively thought through. And of course there is the Rockstar Editor, which really opens up the mechanics of the game and makes a ton of variables available to the player, which required a huge amount of work.”
The keyboard and mouse controls work exceptionally well in the game’s first-person view and I can definitely see them becoming my preference on the format. Playing with keyboard and mouse the experience here feels to me like a fusion between the unparallelled scope of the GTA and the more intimate, first-person chaos of Far Cry, and that’s a combination I can get behind.
Experimenting with the returning Rockstar Editor, which allows us to easily capture and edit real time gameplay footage, was also a lot of fun. In just a few minutes I’d made a short reel of a high speed burst across Los Santos International Airport, passing narrowly under a landing jumbo with the cops in tow. Some of the video content that players will create with more time to hone their productions will no doubt be fantastic, especially now that Rockstar has augmented the system with a new option it has dubbed Director Mode.
Director Mode will allow us to stage elaborate scenes and control characters and animals, adjust weather and time of day on the fly, and trigger actions like gestures and dialogue phrases. Players will also be able to warp to different locations around the map and activate in-game cheats. Rockstar confirms animals, special pedestrians and heist crew members will unlock for use here as you progress through the single-player game.
Happily, while PC players have had to wait on the sidelines for a long time for the game itself, they won’t be waiting any longer for additional content; going forward GTA V on PC will be synced into the schedule of post-release support and receive future updates alongside the console versions.
“Yes, we will be syncing our content releases so PC users will get everything new alongside consoles,” confirms the team. “PC will be shipping with everything the consoles have right now, including Heists on release.
You’ll be able to commence being a smug jerk to your console-playing pals when Grand Theft Auto V hits PC on April 14, 2015. In the meantime you can check out the system requirements here, and a gallery of brand new 4K screenshots below.
GTA V PC Hands-On