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Watch Dogs Legion PC Tech Analysis

Ray Tracing, DLSS, and More

Poorna Shankar Posted:
Category:
Tech Analysis 0

Watch Dogs Legion is the latest game from Ubisoft, and the first of two major Ubi titles to hit this holiday season. While the game releases tomorrow on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Stadia, it’s the PC version we’re interested in here for our analysis. Featuring ray tracing and DLSS technologies, how does the PC version of the game hold up technically? This is our PC technical analysis of Watch Dogs Legion.

A fair warning – this analysis is going to be quite heavy in the technical details of Watch Dogs Legion. Personally, technology and graphics are the two things which interest me most in games. I aim to cover off the following:

  1. Specs of PC used in this analysis
  2. Keyboard, Audio, HUD, and Gamepad settings
  3. Accessibility settings
  4. Rasterized options
  5. Optimized settings recommendation
  6. Ray Tracing and DLSS
  7. Conclusion

PC Specs

The PC in use for this analysis includes the following:

  • CPU: Intel i7 8700k (OC’d @ 4.7 GHz)
  • GPU: RTX 2080 Ti (OC’d custom curve)
  • RAM: 16 GB DDR4 @ 3200 MHz
  • Display: Acer CG437K, 3840 x 2160p (Gsync) @ 120 Hz, HDR
  • Input: Keyboard/mouse, DualShock 4, Xbox Elite Controller 2
  • Nvidia Driver: 456.71
  • Day 1 patch installed
  • DirectX version: 12

Please note, the drivers used are not the official WHQL drivers from Nvidia for Watch Dogs Legion. I had reached out regarding beta drivers for purposes of analysis, but as of this writing, have not received any potential beta drivers.

Therefore, it’s important to understand that performance may differ slightly from my own analysis here compared to the game running under official game-ready drivers. However, I was playing the Day One patched version of the game. In theory then, this should be the version you all play on launch day.

Keyboard, Audio, HUD, Gamepad

Watch Dogs Legion has a metric ton of options for us PC gamers. Seriously, as someone who enjoys going in and tweaking every single possible setting, I had a massive smile on my face when I saw the sheer number of options available to adjust.

The mouse and keyboard options allow you to adjust multiple sensitivities for your mouse (including disabling mouse acceleration), in addition to some truly unique options such as selecting from various different keyboard layouts. You can also adjust your driving settings.

Key bindings are provided their own separate menu. There are separate tabs for changing on-foot controls, driving, drones, bots, and more. Each of these tabs allow you to completely rebind any of these controls to your heart’s content. However, there is no secondary key bind option. You can only bind one button per control. I find this to be a shame. Given the sheer expanse of controls and customization at our disposal, the omission to assign secondary keys seems like a major miss.

watch dogs legion key bindings

Gamepad support includes both DualShock 4 (which is my preferred controller of choice for certain games), and Xbox One pads. Here, you can adjust sensitivities in addition to tweaking your driving controls. There are multiple presets available, and, in a nice surprise, you can fully remap your controller.

HUD controls are extensive. You can fully customize your reticle shape and color. In fact, there are different reticles for enemies, hacking, and normal play. The HUD menu also features plenty of toggleable options for a busier or more minimalist HUD.

Audio options include multiple sliders to adjust voice, music, SFX, and more. There are also very extensive options for subtitles including language, subtitle color, background, and more.

Accessibility

Ubisoft must be commended for their accessibility options in Watch Dogs Legion. This dedication to accessibility is something I personally champion and is something which is increasingly becoming the norm in video games. This is a good thing.

Ubisoft provides plenty of options here for color blindness, text to speech, and more. Here are the options available and the settings for each option:

Accessibility

Option

Settings

Menu Narration

Off, On

Color Blindness Mode

Off, Protanopia, Deuteranopia, Tritanopia

Aim Lock-On

Off, On

Simplified Puzzles

Off, On

Camera Effects

Off, On

Text Chat to Speech

Off, On

Text to Voice Chat

Off, On

Text to Speech Volume

0 - 100%

Text to Speech Voice

Male, Female

Text to Speech Rate

Slow, Normal, Fast

Speech to Text

Off, On

Rasterization Options

While ray tracing and DLSS are the marketing bullet points for Watch Dogs Legion, it’s vital to recognize and accept that the vast majority of people who will play the game will not have a graphics card capable of ray tracing or DLSS. Therefore, it’s necessary to provide some context with respect to the rasterized (non-ray traced) performance of Watch Dogs Legion.

Before we begin, it should be noted that every single option has its own tooltip explaining exactly what that option does, in addition to an omnipresent VRAM usage bar which provides information on the impact of that option to both CPU and GPU. Alongside this is a screenshot showcasing each setting for each option as you change it. This level of transparency is fantastic and should continue in PC gaming.

watch dogs legion setings

In the Video options menu, there are three separate categories: Display, Quality, and Image. Here are the options under the Display tab:

Display

Option

Settings

Video Adapter

Your graphics hardware

Window Mode

Windows, Windowed Borderless, FS Borderless, Fullscreen

Display

Dependent on how many displays you have attached

Resolution

Variable

Monitor Refresh Rate

Auto, 24, 25, 30, 50, 60, Your display refresh rate

Vsync

Off, Normal, Sparse

FPS Limit

Slider Off - Your display refresh rate

Field of View

Slider 70 - 110

Menu Position

Auto (depends on how many displays you have)

Multimonitor HUD

Auto (depends on how many displays you have)

As you can see, there are plenty of options in that one category. Ubisoft has taken care to cater for virtually every type of PC display setup here. There may be edge cases, but certainly, the options present here are gratefully accepted.

Let’s look at the Image category next:

Image

Option

Setting

Brightness

0 - 100%

Gamma

0 - 100%

Contrast

0 - 100%

Sharpness

0 - 100%

HDR

Off, On

HDR Peak Brightness

300 - 4000

HDR Paper White

100 - 400

HDR on PC is still, unfortunately, hit or miss. The good news is that it looks like recent titles are finally giving PC the attention and respect it deserves. To that end, the HDR implementation in Watch Dogs Legion is actually quite nice. Given the futuristic setting, the neon signage and various other colorful sources combine to create a truly impressive image. It creates a visually striking impression without being too overbearing. When combined with the ray tracing, the HDR is quite excellent indeed. It’s not the best implementation I’ve seen, but it’s far from the worst.

Finally, let’s look at the Quality category:

Quality

Option

Settings

DirectX

11, 12

Graphics Quality

Low, Medium, High, Very High, Ultra, Custom

Geometry

High, Very, High, Ultra

Environment

Low, Medium, High, Ultra

Texture Resolution

Lowest, Low, Medium, High, Ultra

Texture Filtering

Low, High, Ultra

Shadows

Low, Medium, High, Very High, Ultra

Headlight Shadow

Off, Your Car, 2 cars, 3 cars, 4 cars

Reflections

Low, Medium, High, Very High, Ultra

DoF

Off, On

Motion Blur (Camera and Per Object)

Off, On

Bloom

Off, On

Ambient Occlusion

Off, On

AA

Off, FXAA, SMAA, TAA

SSS

Low, High

Ray Traced Reflections

Off, Medium, High, Ultra

DLSS

Off, Performance, Quality, Balanced, Ultra Perf

Extra Details (%)

Slider 0-100%

Temporal Upscaling

Slider 25-100%

For purposes of testing, I played with Fullscreen, Vysnc disabled, FPS Limit Off, FOV 110, and DirectX 12. Tests were performed in rainy scenarios, further stressing the GPU. Therefore, the performance I experienced should – in theory – be similar to a “worst case scenario” in terms of load.

It should bear mention that Watch Dogs Legion contains a benchmark. For most people, I believe this benchmark should be a fine tool. However, for this analysis, I went into the game to test multiple scenarios to isolate specific graphics settings. In my experience, a benchmark cannot provide that level of granularity, regardless of its efficacy.

Optimized Settings

When the game is fully maxed out – that is, every option (except Extra Details) is at its highest setting or toggled on – my performance indicated roughly 35fps at full native 4K. Remember, this is with ray tracing and DLSS disabled.

Watch Dogs Legion is quite heavy at its maximum settings. For the virtually everyone, I recommend keeping Extra Details at 0%. This merely increases some geometry and higher level LOD models further out, but at a cost. This is truly a premium quality setting, one which I simply don’t recommend touching. The impact to visual quality is minimal, while the performance trade-off in many scenarios is simply not worth it.

If you’re looking to save performance, I also recommend decreasing Shadows. Going from Ultra to Very High saw a 23% increase to performance, while going from Ultra to High saw a staggering 46% increase to performance. Going from Ultra to Medium and Ultra to Low yields a 51% increase in performance.

Additionally, note that Ultra and Very High utilize some form of contact hardening, wherein the shadow is sharp at the point closest to its caster, and becomes increasingly defuse the farther it gets from its caster. High, Medium, and Low settings don’t utilize this. Therefore some shadows, such as the shadow cast from the telephone pole, appear unnaturally sharper by comparison. Also note how the shadows cast from the grated wall appear significantly less detailed at lower settings. Interestingly, Ultra seems to include more accurate occlusion. Note the poles on the grate fully in shadow at Ultra, but appear lit at every other setting. For a balance in quality and performance, I recommend the High setting for Shadow.

watch dogs legion shadows

The Reflections in Watch Dogs Legion are of the Screen Space variety. Curiously, their performance impact isn’t as heavy as I thought going into this analysis. However, once you go below High settings, the quality drops off dramatically with a negligible impact to performance. Therefore, I recommend sticking with High.

watch dogs legion reflections

Texture resolution will be entirely dependent on your VRAM usage. I typically recommend going for the highest quality textures you can afford given your VRAM. That being said, I wasn’t blown away with the quality, even at Ultra. Insofar as I can tell, while the engine utilizes PBR, texture quality appears a bit inconsistent. For example, brick walls, streets, and signage appear crisp and detailed. But some surfaces like columns, metallic roofs, and concrete appear less detailed. Notice the highly detailed bricks and graffiti compared to the low resolution concrete ground here.

watch dogs legion textures

Additionally, I couldn’t find examples of displacement mapping, even for cobbled streets. I find this odd and frankly disappointing given the use of displacement in many games to provide depth. Not even parallax occlusion mapping was utilized here, at least none that I could observe.

watch dogs legion pom

Texture filtering should remain at Ultra, though you can force better quality through your control panel. Motion blur includes both camera and per object. It’s disappointing that they were not separated into their own options. Regardless, keep motion blur enabled unless you are a heathen and don’t like nice things. Here’s an example of camera blur:

watch dogs legion camera blur

And here’s per object blur:

watch dogs legion per object blur

Ambient occlusion should be left enabled as well, lest your game looking quite “flat” by comparison. Subsurface scattering (SSS) should remain on High as well as I could find no discernable difference. Given that you cannot turn it off, I find no reason to decrease its quality.

watch dogs legion sss

Given that this is a modern game, I recommend TAA over SMAA and FXAA. Temporal stability is key in modern games and, as we’ll see, DLSS improves upon the TAA. However, I recommend selecting TAA and adjusting the sharpness of the image to taste.

Finally, temporal upscaling basically upscales your image from a lower internal resolution. This is key to providing improved performance, and should be used in lieu of manually selecting a lower resolution. The engine does a good job temporally injecting detail and provides a clean result.

All that said, here are my recommended optimized settings. Note the bottom where I provide further details into further options to achieve a desired framerate:

Optimal Settings

Option

Setting

Notes

Geometry

Ultra

Environment

Ultra

Texture Resolution

Variable

Maximum you can get away with on your VRAM

Texture Filtering

Ultra

Can also force 16x in your drivers

Shadows

High

Major quality decrease from High to Medium

Headlight Shadow

2 or 3

Reflections

High

Major quality decrease from High to Medium

DoF

On

Your preference

Motion Blur

On

Off if you're a heathen

Bloom

On

Your preference

Ambient Occlusion

On

AA

TAA

SSS

High

Ray Traced Reflections

Off

DLSS

Variable

See below

Extra Details (%)

0

Temporal Upscaling

Variable

See below

FPS

68

DLSS Performance

47

DLSS Off

53

DLSS Off, Temporal Upscaling 80%

57

DLSS Off, Temporal Upscaling 75%

I strongly suspect, however, that any performance issues I experienced – including issues with frame pacing – may be cleaned up with the game-ready drivers. As a reminder, I didn’t have access to such drivers. While I’m not guaranteeing that performance could improve, it’s a reasonable assumption to make.

Still, Watch Dogs Legion is quite a heavy game. I’m not entirely sure the visual return (sans ray tracing) merits the performance trade off. It’s not particularly impressive-looking unlike other open world games this generation like Red Dead Redemption 2 or Ubisoft’s own titles like The Division 2. It’ll be interesting to compare this open world city to that of the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077.

Ray Tracing

There are three settings for ray traced reflections: Medium, High, and Ultra. The differences between each are honestly not terribly easy to discern. However, after having pored over several instances in various different scenarios, here are the biggest differences I’ve found.

First, the higher settings utilize greater resolution of the actual ray tracing. It appears that perhaps Ultra utilizes full resolution, with High using half resolution, and Medium using quarter resolution. Keep in mind, these are my best estimations. I reached out to Ubisoft to confirm these differences, but have not heard back at the time of this writing.

Additionally, I’ve noticed certain objects culled from the BVH structure at lower ray tracing settings. For example, the image below shows Medium, High, and Ultra ray tracing settings. However, notice the red smoke is only reflected in the Ultra setting. Smoke is typically rendered as a transparency (alpha) in game engines. Including such alpha transparencies in the BVH structure is, expectedly, prohibitively expensive.

watch dogs legion ray tracing alpha

Moreover, it’s important to note that – even at Ultra settings – ray tracing reflections is not some catch-all to imply that everything in the scene will be reflected. This is a game, after all. Watch Dogs Legion utilizes hybrid rendering – that is, both rasterization and ray tracing. As such, there are real rendering costs to keep in mind. Including every on-screen object in the BVH, even at Ultra, would be ludicrously expensive.

For example, take a look at the image below. You’ll notice that while many objects are indeed reflected, several are not. This could be down to the proximity of those objects to the camera, in addition to optimizations to simply exclude certain objects from the BVH structure. You’ll notice several vehicles and objects like trees (thus alpha transparencies) not reflected back. Both of the next two images are taken with ray traced reflections set to Ultra.

watch dogs legion ray tracing bvh limits

Other transparency objects like this flying hologram are not reflected either.

watch dogs legion ray tracing limits

Finally, even if you enable ray traced reflections, SSR will be used on water bodies at a distance. Meaning, while objects close to the camera may be ray traced in a canal, for example, distant objects in that canal will be reflected using SSR. We’ve seen this hybrid approach used in games like Battlefield V.

Overall, the ray tracing is impressive. This is especially so in the constant drizzle afforded by London, providing ample wet reflective surfaces to show off this tech. I couldn’t help but smile in such scenarios.

DLSS

It goes without saying that if you enable ray tracing of any kind in Watch Dogs Legion, it behooves you to use DLSS. DLSS, or Deep Learning Super Sampling, is exclusive to RTX-branded cards. Essentially, it takes a lower internal resolution and upscales it using machine learning to present an output image which matches and – in many cases – exceeds the quality of a native resolution image.

There are four options for DLSS: Performance, Quality, Balanced, Ultra Performance. That last one, Ultra Performance, is specifically called out for use in 8K gaming. We’ll get to this momentarily. However, let’s take a look at how native 4K compares to Performance and Quality DLSS.

watch dogs legion dlss compare

You can clearly see that DLSS Quality actually resolves more detail than Native 4K. Additionally, in my own experience, the native 4K image appears to be temporally unstable at times. This is evidenced by sub-pixel shimmer which can be seen on edges of buildings, windows, and other fine edges. In motion, it’s quite distracting. DLSS clears up this temporal instability and produces an impressive image, especially when using Quality or Balanced mode.

I reached out to Ubisoft to understand the internal rendering resolutions for the various DLSS modes. I have yet to receive a response, however, I have gone through the liberty to render the game itself at various resolutions. My best estimations at this point is that if your native resolution is 4K, then the DLSS settings could break out as follows:

  • Ultra Performance – 720p
  • Performance – 1080p
  • Quality – 1440p
  • Balanced – between 1080p and 1440p

Note these are estimations. I compiled this table with framerates and respective GPU usages at these DLSS and resolution settings. Keep in mind, ray tracing was disabled here for more accurate measurements:

Ray Tracing Disabled

Setting

FPS

GPU Usage

DLSS Ultra Perf

70

72%

DLSS Balanced

68

86%

DLSS Quality

65

98%

DLSS Perf

70

87%

Native 4K

46

99%

1440p

68

88%

1080p

73

73%

720p

75

60%

You’ll notice that, compared to my DLSS-equivalent estimations – the resolutions themselves present lower GPU usage. For example, DLSS Quality provides 65fps while 1440p provides 68fps. However, DLSS Quality GPU utilization is 98% compared to 1440p’s 88%. We know that DLSS incurs a cost on the GPU, but exactly what that cost is eludes me at the moment. Again, these are my best estimations. Don’t take them as gospel.

So then, we come to the performance achieved when enabling both ray tracing and DLSS. I have compiled the following tables showcasing the raw framerates, in addition to the percentage above or below when both ray tracing and DLSS were disabled. This first set of tables shows performance when all other graphics settings are enabled or maxed out, except for extra details which remains at 0%. Temporal resolution is set to 100%:

Everything Maxed/Enabled, Extra Details 0%, Temporal Resolution 100%

DLSS Ultra Perf

DLSS Balanced

DLSS Quality

DLSS Perf

Off

RT Ultra

55

39

33

44

18

RT High

58

38

33

45

19

RT Medium

60

43

35

47

21

RT Off

66

60

54

65

35

Everything Maxed/Enabled, Extra Details 0%, Temporal Resolution 100%

DLSS Ultra Perf

DLSS Balanced

DLSS Quality

DLSS Perf

Off

RT Ultra

57%

11%

-6%

26%

-49%

RT High

66%

9%

-6%

29%

-46%

RT Medium

71%

23%

0%

34%

-40%

RT Off

89%

71%

54%

86%

0%

Clearly, achieving 60fps with ray tracing and maxed settings running on a native 4K display is impossible even when using DLSS – unless you use Ultra Performance but more on this below. However, let’s take a look at what happens when we use my optimized settings recommendations from earlier:

Optimized Settings Extra Details 0%, Temporal Resolution 100%

DLSS Ultra Perf

DLSS Balanced

DLSS Quality

DLSS Perf

Off

RT Ultra

60

42

37

51

23

RT High

61

45

39

51

24

RT Medium

61

50

43

57

27

RT Off

70

67

68

70

47

Optimized Settings Extra Details 0%, Temporal Resolution 100%

DLSS Ultra Perf

DLSS Balanced

DLSS Quality

DLSS Perf

Off

RT Ultra

28%

-11%

-21%

9%

-51%

RT High

30%

-4%

-17%

9%

-49%

RT Medium

30%

6%

-9%

21%

-43%

RT Off

49%

43%

45%

49%

0%

Here, it becomes clear that you can achieve fairly decent performance when using DLSS Performance with any combination of ray tracing. Using DLSS Balanced coupled with Medium ray tracing also achieves decent performance. If you’re using a variable refresh rate display, this will feel pretty good. However, we still cannot achieve a locked 60fps. Again, I believe additional performance may be found with game-ready drivers, but I cannot test that here.

Let’s talk about DLSS Ultra Performance. I measured GPU utilization at these settings to bear this out. At optimized settings, RT Off, and DLSS Ultra Performance, the CPU becomes the bottleneck. GPU utilization drops to 71%. At optimized settings, RT Ultra, and DLSS Ultra Performance, GPU utilization remains at 82%.

Even with everything maxed/enabled, RT Ultra, and DLSS Ultra Performance, GPU utilization remains at 90% - far below optimal usage. The bottom line is this: don't use DLSS Ultra Performance unless you're part of the one tenth of one percent who has an RTX 3090 and an 8K display. Compared to DLSS Performance, the degradation in quality is disproportional to the comparatively similar performance. It’s not worth it.

Conclusion

Watch Dogs Legion is an odd one for me. On one hand, Ubisoft must be commended for the sheer breadth of options they expose to the user. It’s amazing to be able to go in and tweak virtually everything. Ubisoft continues to lead the pack in this regard, especially for their penchant for including tooltips, VRAM usage meters, and comparison images.

Much should be said about the accessibility settings. More people playing games is a good thing. It warms my cold, cynical heart to see each successive game build on the previous in this regard. This is just great to see.

However, the graphics and visual presentation is perplexing to say the least. The ray tracing and HDR implementations provide a pleasing look. But character models and some odd animations leave a lot to be desired. The seeming lack of displacement mapping and POM are puzzling for a AAA game in 2020, especially when so much care has been put elsewhere in this PC version with respect to options. This leaves the overall graphical presentation to feel imbalanced.

On top of this lies the real issue of performance. Watch Dogs Legion feels far heavier than it should given the visuals on display. For a game that – apart from the ray tracing – looks good but not great, it’s puzzling to see performance as low as it is. Again, I’m wondering how much of this can be addressed in game-ready drivers.

We also know the PS5 and Xbox Series X | S versions will receive ray tracing. However, we have no idea if the consoles will have reconstruction tech like DLSS to do the heavy lifting in terms of performance. This begs the question: if performance is this heavy on PC – even with DLSS – how on Earth will the consoles fare? Perhaps the key lies in dramatically reduced settings and lower internal resolutions to hit a desired 30fps with ray tracing enabled. We’ll see.

In conclusion, Watch Dogs Legion contains some truly next generation technology. It’s yet more proof that Nvidia’s big bet into ray tracing and AI have paid dividends in 2020. However, the overall visual presentation doesn’t feel next gen. When compared to previous games using ray tracing and DLSS, like Control and Battlefield V, Watch Dogs Legion feels like a step down.

Full Disclosure: Code was provided by the publisher for purposes of this analysis.


ShankTheTank

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.