Grand Theft Auto V Single GPU Performance Review Part 1

This is Part 1 of our full evaluation of Grand Theft Auto V's video card gaming performance. In this part we look at single-GPU performance on eight video cards at 1440p and 1080p. We discuss what settings are playable, architecture performance differences, and what settings have the biggest impact on your gaming performance.


Before you read this evaluation please read our Grand Theft Auto V Video Card Performance Preview for an introduction of this game, and its graphics settings.

We have spent the last week doing nothing but playing this game, and boy have we found out a lot. This evaluation today is a continuation of our look at Grand Theft Auto V video card performance. This is Part 1 of our full-evaluation into GTAV. There will be more parts as we dive deeper into each topic of this game in the coming weeks.

We have had to break up the article, since there is so much to test and talk about with this huge game. It takes a lot of time to do these types of evaluations, and instead of rushing an article or cramming everything into one big article, we are going to break this out into specific parts. By doing this we can focus on one aspect at a time and provide full attention to each part, without sacrificing important topics.

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In Part 1 today we are going to look at single-GPU performance, find the highest playable settings, and look at apples-to-apples performance at 1440p and 1080p. We also have VRAM utilization tables to show the VRAM utilization we managed out of each video card. We will talk about performance and architecture generations affecting performance in this new game. In Part 2 we will test dual-GPU video cards, SLI and CrossFire, as well as TITAN X and TITAN X SLI at 4K performance. Finally, in the last part we will go in-depth on image quality comparisons and individual image quality selection performance, so stay tuned for all of that.

How We Tested - Run-Through

Grand Theft Auto V is a game of epic scale. This game has a massive open world, and also includes indoor as well. This game can be played in first person mode or third person mode. Considering the scope of this game, we have to test it in a way that takes into account the worst performance you'll experience in the game. By testing in scenarios that have the lowest performance, and determining what is playable from those parts of the game then everything else in the game will most definitely be playable, as the rest of the game renders with much higher performance.

GTA V has a diverse world scope that makes performance vary by drastic amounts on the same video card. Let's take a GeForce GTX 980 as an example. With a GeForce GTX 980 installed performance can vary in-game (at the same settings) from 40 FPS to 140 FPS. Yep, there is that much variance in framerate in this game depending on where you are and what you are doing. If we were to test only in the high-FPS areas, then when you hit the low-FPS areas the game would be unplayable.

Therefore, we had to find out first where the low-FPS areas are compared to the high-FPS areas and test in those areas for our actual run-through of data and base the highest playable settings off of that. In that way, you are assured the game is playable from the lowest framerates, to the highest framerates. Hopefully a "set it and forget it" approach, as no one wants to stop their gaming to figure out what is going on with frame rates that all of a sudden break the immersion.

In our testing we found that the highest framerates were while indoors. This is where we saw framerates of 100+ FPS on the same GPU at a given setting. Therefore, indoor testing isn't a good scenario to use for our actual run-through. Next, we went outdoors and spent a lot of time driving in the city itself. You would think the city would exhibit the lowest framerates, but in fact, it did not. The framerate was lower, now averaging in the 60-80 FPS range, but it still wasn't the lowest framerates in the game. Yes we tested in a complete cycle of time-of-day lighting change, as well as heavy rain.

To find the lowest framerates we actually had to drive out of the city, around the coast, and through the mountains filled with vegetation, grass, and other towns along the way. We experienced framerate drops down to 40 FPS in these areas at the same settings that we were getting 80 FPS in the city downtown and 100+ FPS indoors.

Now it is important to know we do NOT base what is playable solely on this run-through or these areas. We load up different levels of the game from indoor, to downtown city, to farther out city, to day, to night scenes, to chase scenes including driving chase scenes and running chase scenes and gun fights to find the highest playable settings. Our run-through actually consists of some downtown city driving as well in heavy rain, and is long enough that time of day changes and so does weather. Therefore, our run-through consists of city driving, in the rain, to coastal driving, in the bright sunshine.

We sample every bit of this game we can to find the playable settings, and then use what we found as the lowest framerates for the run-through itself. This game is large in scope, but we cover that entire scope for our highest playable settings. You can rest assured that with the settings we are going to show you today the game is playable from the lowest FPS areas, to the highest.

How We Tested - Graphics Settings

In a future part we are going to dive into each graphic setting more granularly and show you image quality and performance of each option. For now understand we used the highest possible settings we could, and painstakingly found out which settings affect performance the most and which ones look better and which ones can be sacrificed for performance.

We know this game supports AMD CHS and NVIDIA PCSS shadows. In fact, these shadows may be more accurate than the default Rockstar settings available, however, these have been proven to eat away at more performance. In a game like this where performance is already not enough on single-GPU video cards, we need every bit of performance we can save. To that end, we solely used the Rockstar shadow setting of "Softest" for this entire article today.

The Rockstart Softest shadow option provides very good looking shadows, at a performance savings from AMD CHS and NVIDIA PCSS. Until we figure out which one is actually better, AMD CHS or NVIDIA PCSS, this setting offers a better balance of performance and image quality.

A setting that may affect shadow quality more than this setting is actually the "High Resolution Shadow" option under the Advanced settings. You can toggle High Resolution Shadows On or OFF; these are OFF by default. We actually found this setting can affect the quality of shadows to a greater extent as more accurate shadows are drawn, with better edges and detail when this option is enable. This makes the biggest difference indoors.

This setting is very GPU intensive. Therefore, we have to balance it with other settings. We opted to put priority on this setting, over AMD CHS or NVIDIA PCSS for this article, as it just simply made the biggest difference. Softest Shadows + High Resolution Shadows Enabled = "really really really good shadows."

We also found the grass setting makes a huge performance difference outdoors. When the grass is set to "Ultra" grass is drawn much farther in the distance, and more full. However, the important part is that under "Ultra" the grass casts real-time dynamic high resolution shadows, and this can eat up performance. It looks great, but does cause a performance drain. Lowering the grass setting outdoors can allow you to raise other settings.

Otherwise, we tried to keep every other setting in the game at its highest setting of either "Very High" or "Ultra" on the main graphics menu. We succeeded in this, and you'll find "Very High" tessellation, and "Ultra" reflections and "Ultra" Post FX were all playable on each card with everything else maximized. The only menu we could not maximize was the Advanced Graphics Settings. We didn't have the performance to extend to extra view distance or shadow distance. Only in some cases could we use the "High Resolution Shadow" option.

In each case, there are so many settings available it is actually possible to lower some settings in favor of other settings in contrast to what we chose. Some people prefer some settings over others, and that is subjective. We tried to balance image quality and performance best we could, opting for the highest possible settings wherever possible for each setting.