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Red Dead Redemption 2 PC Review: Part 1 - PC Port Analysis

By Poorna Shankar on November 11, 2019 | Editorials | Comments

Red Dead Redemption 2 PC Review: Part 1 - PC Port Analysis

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a massive sprawling game. To say the PC version has had a rocky start would be generous at best. However, given the size, scope, and technical makeup of Red Dead Redemption 2 on PC, we have decided to split our review into two parts. Part 1 (this one) will primarily focus on the technical stability, the quality of the port, discussion on graphics settings, and comparisons to the Xbox One X version. Part 2 will focus on, well, everything else from the mechanics, story, and online. The final score will be included in Part 2 and sum up Parts 1 and 2. With that said, we present to you our Red Dead Redemption 2 PC Review: Part 1 – PC Port Analysis.  

Crashes, Crashes Everywhere

I’m going to address this right off the bat. Red Dead Redemption 2 has had an awful launch on PC. Issues range from not even being able to launch the Rockstar Games Launcher, to the game exiting and crashing to desktop, to stuttering, freezing, etc. In fact, r/PCRedDead has an ongoing list of issues and potential user-submitted fixes to help alleviate them.

While I personally did not experience any issues for the first few days, I did begin experiencing crashes on Thursday November 7 evening onwards after Rockstar had issued a few patches to the launcher and game. Crashes were seemingly at random, with no rhyme or reason behind them. They occurred in Online mode and Story mode.

Sometimes I’ll be able to go long stretches without a crash only for Red Dead Redemption 2 to crash randomly. I’ve found success in deleting the settings.xml file (located here: %USERPROFILE%\Documents\Rockstar Games\Red Dead Redemption 2\Settings\) and then relaunching game forcing it to create a new settings.xml file. But this is only a temporary reprieve. There is simply something fundamentally wrong with the code which requires a comprehensive overhaul from Rockstar. No amount of troubleshooting and tweaking from the end-user will fix that.

The bottom line is this: no end-user should have to resort to a wiki or Reddit thread simply to launch the game. It is not the consumer’s job to troubleshoot and QA the game for which they paid. That is the job of the developers and QA testers at Rockstar. For a company with resources and talent of Rockstar, it is inexcusable that a game with the hype and visibility of Red Dead Redemption 2 has launched in the state it is in.

PC Specs, Keybindings, FOV, Audio

These are the specs of my PC to provide context on performance and visuals for the remainder of this discussion:

  • CPU: Intel i7 8700k (OC’d)
  • GPU: RTX 2080 Ti (OC’d)
  • RAM: 16 GB DDR4 @ 3200 MHz
  • Resolution: 3440 x 1440p (Gsync) @ 120 Hz
  • Nvidia Driver: 441.12 (game-ready drivers for Red Dead Redemption 2)

First and foremost, Rockstar does a good job exposing a ton of options to us PC gamers. We have primary and secondary key bindings for virtually every single command possible in the game (and there are a ton). However, you can only change your key bindings in-game. You cannot reassign keys in the main menu. This makes zero sense.

(Oh and for the remainder of this article, make sure to click on each image to see the full resolution expanded version for greater detail).

Mouse options allow for selection between Raw Input and DirectInput. I saw stuttering with Raw Input so I switched to DirectInput which alleviated the issue. You can completely disable smoothing as well. The mouse options in general are pretty excellent allowing customization of various sensitivities for both third and first person.

An FOV slider exists for both third and first person perspectives as well. You can even significantly reduce, though not outright disable, head bobbing. Audio settings are pretty good as well, providing multiple sliders for sound, score, and dialogue balance, as well as various push to talk voice options.

Graphics Settings

The graphics and other settings in Red Dead Redemption 2 are plentiful. Rockstar again does a good job exposing a ton of granular options for us in this regard. First off, ultrawide (near and dear to my heart) is supported for gameplay. However, certain interactions are 16:9. Additionally, cutscenes are 16:9 and ultrawide. This results in black bars on the top, bottom, and sides. I honestly wish these would simply fill my screen instead of giving me this tiny window. In practice, it looks ridiculous.

However, I did find a mod which allows for cutscenes to play out in ultrawide...

...and photo mode to work in ultrawide as well. It goes without saying, use it at your own risk.

Additionally, there doesn’t appear to be an exclusive fullscreen mode. We’re offered two APIs, Vulkan and DX12, and of the two, only Vulkan would remember my Fullscreen selection. DX12 would revert back to Windowed Borderless every time I started the game. From a performance perspective, both were incredibly close and I cannot definitively say which one is better given my hardware.

Red Dead Redemption 2 also offers a benchmark. It consists of three scenes from different locations to test things like volumetrics, LOD (level of details), geometry, and the like, plus a fourth gameplay scene. This fourth scene, like GTA V, plays out over some time and features a robbery, escape, and shootout. I feel like the benchmark included here does a decent job of replicating real in-game performance.

Ok, let’s discuss the graphics options. There are a ton. I won’t go over every single one here, but what I will discuss is which settings to reduce in order to gain performance. But before I do, Rockstar really could have done a better job providing tooltips and screenshots for each accompanying option. Some of the tooltips provided are incredibly vague and do not help inform and educate the user when he’s trying to improve performance or visuals.

When every single slider and setting is set to its maximum, I average around 55-60fps when wandering around the world, shooting, and the like – with the one exception being water which I will discuss shortly. Check out the settings below and be sure to click on it to expand the image for better viewing.

To increase performance, lower the following:

  • Lighting quality
  • Global illumination quality
  • Shadow quality
  • Far shadow quality
  • Near volumetric resolution
  • Far volumetric resolution
  • Volumetric lighting quality
  • Soft shadows
  • Long Shadows (disable)
  • Water Physics Quality (reduce this slider)

Lowering these settings saw my performance increase up to 10fps. This is not an insignificant uplift. I was consistently above 60fps here. Reducing the Water Physics slider one tick below the maximum saw my performance increase significantly whenever I was near water. For example, I went from 42fps to 55fps near water simply by reducing this slider from maxed out to one tick below maxed out. Water physics dictates how water reacts to objects such as boats, horses, rocks, etc. Increasing this slider will increase the accuracy with which these physics are calculated and rendered. This is a costly one.

In short, the difference between maxing out the settings above and reducing them one notch results in a pretty hefty performance increase without a discernable visual loss for most people. Personally, I can notice the difference between Ultra and High on some of these settings. Increasing the quality of volumetrics, lighting, and shadows greatly enhances their accuracy and how far out into the distance they appear. However, I cannot discern the difference between maxing out the Water Physics slider vs just reducing it by one tick.

Additionally, there are a few graphics options I recommend you simply disable outright as they honestly will degrade the image or your performance needlessly.

  • FXAA
  • MSAA
  • Reflection MSAA

Stick with TAA and you’re fine as far as antialiasing is concerned. Don’t bother with MSAA nor Reflection MSAA. Apart from these, there are two other ambiguous options: Unlocked Volumetric Ray Marching and Full Resolution Ambient Occlusion. Let’s discuss these.

From my observations, ray marching only affects clouds and not other volumes like smoke from fires. If you don’t know what ray marching is, it’s effectively used to cast a ray line into a volumetric area (like clouds) to determine how many steps it takes to “march” into that volumetric area. This determines things like cloud shape, where the edges are, coloring, self shadowing, where light passes through each step on this ray as it passes through the volumetric shape (cloud), etc. I suspect utilizing the “unlocked” variant on PC increases these steps resulting in a more accurate looking cloud. If you want to learn more, check out this SIGGRAPH 2011 video explaining ray marching in greater detail (with visuals!)

The other ambiguous option is Full Resolution Ambient Occlusion. This one is actually less confusing that it may initially sound. In effect, ambient occlusion mimics the shadowing at the convergence point of two objects as they occlude the light source from each other. From testing, enabling the Full Resolution option on PC simply allows the ambient occlusion to render at your full in-game resolution. If you play the game in native 4K, this ambient occlusion will then render in 4K instead of a lower resolution.

How Does Xbox One X Compare?

Finally, I wanted to gauge where the Xbox One X quality settings translate to the PC version. The Xbox One X was chosen for a couple reasons. For one, it’s objectively the best looking console version. Second, and more importantly, it’s the only console version I own.

The methodology I used to test this was to look back at my swathe of screenshots I took of my time with the Xbox One X version of the game and compare those screenshots to my PC version. Below are the results of this experimentation and observation. Please note, these are my best estimations. I have made sure to call out any uncertainty with question marks.

Setting

Xbox One X

My Settings

Resolution

3840x2160 (native)

3440x1440 (native)

Texture

Ultra

Ultra

Anisotropic Filtering

4x

16x

Lighting Quality

Low

Ultra

Global Illumination Quality

Low

Ultra

Shadow Quality

High

Ultra

Far Shadow Quality

Low

Ultra

Screen Space Ambient Occlusion

Medium? Might be Low?

Ultra

Reflection Quality

Low

Ultra

Mirror Quality

High? Medium?

Ultra

Water Quality

Medium

Ultra

Volumetrics

Custom

Ultra

Particle Quality

Medium

Ultra

Tessellation

Medium

Ultra

TAA

Medium

High (highest available)

FXAA

Off

Off

MSAA

Off

Off

API

DX12

Vulkan

Near Volumetric Resolution

Lower than Low

Ultra

Far Volumetric Resolution

Lower than Low

Ultra

Unlocked Vol. Ray Marching Res.

Off

On

Particle Lighting

Medium

Ultra

Soft Shadows

High

Ultra

Grass Shadows

Low

High (highest available)

Long Shadows

Off

On

Full Res SSAO

Off

On

Water Refraction

Medium

High (highest available)

Water Reflection

Medium

High (highest available)

Water Physics

Lowest on slider?

75% of slider

Resolution Scale

Off

Off

TAA Sharpening

Off

Maxed slider

Motion Blur

On

On

Reflection MSAA

Off

Off

Geometry Level of Detail

Maxed slider?

Maxed slider

Grass Level of Detail

20% on slider?

Maxed slider

Tree Quality

Low

Ultra

Parallax Occlusion Mapping

Medium

Ultra

Decal

Medium

Ultra

Fur

Medium

High (highest available)

It goes without saying that the Xbox One X version definitely still looks good. There’s no denying that. However, there are certain settings on Xbox which appeared to be lower than the Low setting on PC, such as volumetrics which appear much lower in resolution. Other differences include reduced draw distance of vegetation, shadows, and water. Here’s a quick sample of grass, shadows, and draw distance, with Xbox top and my PC below.

But by far the biggest difference is in the lighting. The lighting on PC is simply astounding and pushes way beyond what the consoles can achieve. The accuracy, fidelity, and sheer density of volumetrics, lighting, global illumination, and general atmospherics are so incredibly exquisite and use every ounce of the significant power advantage of our platform to push to the absolute limit. Just look at this:

In fact, that’s my general consensus of the graphics on the PC version of Red Dead Redemption 2. Whereas in most ports where the console settings will be High on PC, the console settings here are mostly Medium and Low with the Ultra setting on PC in Red Dead Redemption 2 more akin to an Extreme or Uber setting in other console-to-PC ports. Red Dead Redemption 2 at Ultra on PC is seriously pushing the boat out on what is feasibly possible and is a significant step beyond console.

As such, you should expect performance to decrease should you utilize these Ultra settings. This isn’t because of a lack of graphics optimization, rather, it’s due to the fact that the accuracy and density of these Ultra settings are truly insane and warrant this performance trade-off.

Rockstar has effectively built in scalability for future hardware, but instead of holding back, they gave it all to us today. And as someone who loves graphics and technological advancement in this industry, that makes me so happy. This is a trend I hope to see continue. Give us all the graphics, and let us decide how much or how little to use. Choice, after all, is at the heart of PC gaming.

Conclusion

To round out this discussion, Red Dead Redemption 2 is frustrating. It is without a doubt one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played. The lighting, shadowing, macro and micro detail are almost without equal. The animations, modeling, character work, and more all combine to create a truly stunning experience.

However, you cannot enjoy all of this if the game is inherently broken. And that’s the reality of Red Dead Redemption 2 on PC. What good are the massive vistas, beautiful lighting, and dense vegetation if you cannot get into the game?

This then is the frustrating duality of Red Dead Redemption 2 on PC. The rendering and art on display in the PC version is truly without equal. It stands head and shoulders above its console counterpart. But the technology underpinning this art is fundamentally broken. It should not have launched in the state that it did. Period.

For now, I hope you found this analysis helpful. Stay tuned for Part 2 where I’ll discuss the mechanics, story, online, and more as we conclude our review of Red Dead Redemption 2 on PC.

Full disclosure: Red Redemption 2 code was provided by publisher for review.

Poorna Shankar / A highly opinionated avid PC gamer, Poorna blindly panics with his friends in various multiplayer games, much to the detriment of his team. Constantly questioning industry practices and a passion for technological progress drive his love for the video game industry. He pulls no punches and tells it like he sees it. He runs a podcast, Gaming The Industry, with fellow writer, Joseph Bradford, discussing industry practices and their effects on consumers.
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