Why this month’s PC port of Death Stranding is the definitive version

Enlarge / We’re not allowed to talk at length about those Valve-specific segments just yet.

Kojima Productions / 505 Games

For some video game publishers, eight months between a title’s console launch and its PC port would be galling. In the case of Death Stranding, on the other hand, that timeframe is astonishingly fast.

The peculiar, critically acclaimed game, and first from industry vanguard Hideo Kojima after his departure from Konami, emerged in 2016 as an apparent PlayStation 4 exclusive. That was the operating assumption for some time, considering Sony rarely ports its console exclusives to PC, but we’d seen hints to the contrary, and the publisher was bold enough to announce the PC version a mere week before the game’s PS4 launch. The whole thing felt like a dare to PC gamers: will your Kojima fandom make you cave and buy a PS4 early, or can you wait until Summer 2020 to strap a naked baby to your post-apocalyptic chest?

In my case, an eight-month wait for the PC version was easy to stomach. I had plenty of other games to catch up on, and the prospect of a higher-performance romp through Kojima’s United Cities of America tided me over.

I’m five days into testing the game’s preview version ahead of its July 14 launch on Steam. Now that its preview embargo has lifted, I’m here to report incredibly good news. This port is the definitive way to play Death Stranding, and it scales incredibly well in terms of getting PC gamers to that crucial 60-frames-per-second performance threshold while offering PC-grade customization options.

Our testing conditions

Our early access comes with one serious concession, however. We are not allowed to show you our own gameplay capture until the PC version officially launches on July 14. This article includes images of the PC version supplied by publisher 505 Games and Nvidia, along with a single capture from the game’s original version running on a PlayStation 4 Pro. All of those images are clearly marked, and they’re used to drive points home about what I noticed in my hours of testing the PC version.

My PC testing suite consists of the following: a desktop sporting an Intel i7-8700K CPU, 32GB of DDR4-3000 RAM, and an M.2 SSD; and this late-2016 Alienware laptop, which is powered by an Intel i7-7700HQ CPU, 16GB of DDR4 RAM, and a PCIe SSD. I tested the desktop with an Nvidia RTX 2080 Ti and an Nvidia RTX 2060 Super, while the laptop includes an Nvidia GTX 1060 with 6GB of VRAM.

The desktop system is obviously on the bleeding edge in terms of budget; even its RTX 2060 Super version isn’t a bargain, with that GPU costing no less than $400. Meanwhile, the laptop’s performance level is equivalent to an affordable modern-day gaming PC, since its notebook-specific parts run at slower clocks across the board.

Thus, we’ll start with the laptop as a good baseline spec to ask: Can we get Death Stranding, a gorgeous, console-stressing showcase for the Decima Engine, running at a smooth 60 frames per second on a middle-tier gaming PC? The answer is an almost resounding yes. I’ll break this down by talking about some in-game toggles.

When Death Stranding isn’t asking players to sit back and squint quizzically at cut scenes, it puts players in control of Sam “Porter” Bridges, a post-apocalyptic deliveryman who must run and drive through a massive wasteland. Hillsides, valleys, and mountains stretch widely across the game’s field of view, and the game is keen to wallop you over the head with its enormous scale every step of the way.

60fps on mid-grade hardware: Yes, it’s possible

Since I cannot post the PC version’s screens, I have to present its graphics customization options as a list:

  • Aspect ratio (16:9, 21:9)
  • Maximum frame rate (as low as 30fps, as high as 240fps)
  • Model detail (low, medium, “default,” very high)
  • Memory for streaming (low, “default,” high)
  • Shadow resolution (low, medium, high)
  • Ambient occlusion (on, off)
  • Screen space reflections (on, off)
  • Nvidia DLSS (off, “performance,” “quality”)*
  • AMD FidelityFX Contrast Adaptive Sharpening and Upsampling (CAS) (on, off)
  • Anti-aliasing (off, FXAA, TAA)
  • Depth of field (on, off)
  • Motion blur (on, off)

A few things about this list. First, “default” appears to be matched one for one with the PlayStation 4’s equivalent in each category. Second, that ultra-wide ratio option is great, but it’s a reminder that arbitrary resolution options won’t fly. If you’re not using a pure 16:9 or 21:9 display, you’ll get black bars. (Still, native 21:9 support is a reasonable concession to the ultra-wide crowd.) And the frame rate is indeed as unlocked as suggested here, with the exception of cut scenes, which are always capped to 60fps. We appreciate those not being capped to 30fps, but the jump back and forth from 60fps to an unlocked rate is noticeable enough.

The biggie for performance comes in the form of two upsampling options: Nvidia’s DLSS, should you own an Nvidia RTX GPU, and AMD’s FidelityFX CAS, should you not. We’ve written a decent amount about the former—particularly in our coverage of the recent Minecraft RTX patch—while the latter is a platform-agnostic model that we’ve rarely seen built into games. In either case, the idea is that the game will render at a lower resolution, then smartly upscale to the resolution you chose.

My GTX 1060 system is not compatible with DLSS, but this is the one that must compromise the most to run the game at a consistent 60fps refresh. Hence, I began flipping FidelityFX CAS on and off while playing this version, and what I found was surprising: I got better, and arguably clearer, performance by setting my laptop’s native resolution to 1440p and then toggling FidelityFX CAS than I did at the same settings at pure 1080p. (This laptop is underpowered enough for me to opt for 1080p resolution on a regular basis.) CAS at 1440p coughed up an average of 5fps compared to equivalent settings with a pure 1080p signal. To reach a mostly locked 60fps threshold at CAS 1440p, I set everything above to “default” or “medium,” with anti-aliasing disabled.

I also had to reduce the settings for ambient occlusion and/or screen space reflections to get to 60fps or turn shadow resolution down to “low.” I hate to lose any of those tweaks, but I prefer to dump water reflections to preserve the subtle, all-over-the-screen boost you get from good shadows and ambient occlusion. (If you’re wondering: I have to reduce all three of these settings to reach a comfortable 60fps average in native 1080p resolution.)

A surprising case for CAS

Those are small sacrifices that otherwise put the Alienware laptop right up there with PlayStation 4’s 1080p performance, and with double the frames, to boot. I can’t help but ask a question as a result. Does the PS4 version render close to that 60fps threshold, only to apply a 30fps cap to avoid uneven frame pacing? Or is the Decima Engine (developed by Guerrilla Games, makers of Horizon Zero Dawn) that much more efficient when rendered by a medium-grade gaming PC?

Either way, there’s still the matter of jacking this port all the way to 4K or pushing higher resolutions on 144Hz and 240Hz monitors.

I’ll get an easy one out of the way: if you’re a proud owner of an Nvidia RTX 2080 Ti, you can rest assured that your GPU can push this game at a native 4K resolution, with all graphical settings up to max, and cruise at a nearly locked 60fps. On the other hand, you’ll need to play with lower resolutions, reduced settings, or one of the upscaling options to get anywhere near 144fps at 1440p resolution. I’d argue that the game’s pure pixels at roughly 110fps are better than adding mild up-sampling fuzz to teeter closer to 144fps.

With the Nvidia RTX 2060 Super, meanwhile, you might expect Nvidia’s proprietary DLSS standard to be your preferred option to get up to 4K resolution at 60fps. Yet astoundingly, AMD’s FidelityFX CAS, which is platform agnostic, wins out against the DLSS “quality” setting.

Both of these systems generally require serious squinting to make out their rendering lapses, and both apply a welcome twist on standard temporal anti-aliasing (TAA) to the image, meaning they’re not only adding more pixels to a lower base resolution but also smoothing them out in mostly organic ways. But FidelityFX CAS preserves a slight bit more detail in the game’s particle and rain systems, which ranges from a shoulder-shrug of, “yeah, AMD is a little better” most of the time to a head-nod of, “okay, AMD wins this round” in rare moments. AMD’s lead is most evident during cut scenes, when dramatic zooms on pained characters like Sam “Porter” Bridges are combined with dripping, watery effects. Mysterious, invisible hands leave prints on the sand with small puddles of black water in their wake, while mysterious entities appear with zany swarms of particles all over their frames.

This <em>Death Stranding</em> screenshot was captured on a PlayStation 4 Pro, not on PC. Notice that sparkling bodybag at the bottom? Nvidia's DLSS method is confused by this particle effect and renders a mostly black patch in that spot, while AMD's CAS method renders it almost perfectly.
Enlarge / This Death Stranding screenshot was captured on a PlayStation 4 Pro, not on PC. Notice that sparkling bodybag at the bottom? Nvidia’s DLSS method is confused by this particle effect and renders a mostly black patch in that spot, while AMD’s CAS method renders it almost perfectly.

Kojima Productions

The above image is taken from PS4, and you’ll notice a sparkling effect of particles on the open bodybag, generated in part by rain falling all around. It’s the kind of detail Kojima Productions likely agonized over to get right, since the studio is obsessed with visual storytelling (and this moment is a reveal of a major supernatural force). Nvidia’s DLSS, unfortunately, gets confused by this field of sparkling pixels and messes it up, turning the exposed body into a simple, black mass. Other moments and entities in the game, particularly the swirling-particle creatures known as BTs, suffer from similar issues when put through the DLSS wringer, though in many cases, these occur during live gameplay and are thus less noticeable.

High-falutin’ auteurs, y’all

DLSS has made some serious strides as a smart, efficient form of TAA, particularly in its “2.0” upgrade in games like Control. Its “quality” setting in this game looks incredibly handsome in terms of general gameplay; in my tests, I captured images immediately after a major screen transition, and DLSS preserved an astonishing amount of detail while also applying TAA-like anti-aliasing. (Upsampling typically stumbles over quick screen transitions, so I made sure to test it with both protocols, and it passes the best in both.) Plus, if you want it, DLSS’ “performance” setting offers a more aggressive upscale option for anyone trying to reach a crazy-high frame rate. (I’d argue that “performance DLSS” in 4K resembles 1600p resolution, which isn’t perfect but is sharper than 1440p, while “quality DLSS” and FidelityFX CAS are both right around 1800p, which is sometimes good enough for the naked eye.)

But Death Stranding is a high-falutin’ game with auteur aspirations, and this means that tiny details, like sparkly highlights in a cut scene, matter. Until Nvidia straightens this DLSS wrinkle up, or until the game includes a “disable DLSS for cut scenes” toggle, you’ll want to favor FidelityFX CAS, which looks nearly identical to “quality DLSS” while preserving additional minute details and adding 2-3fps, to boot.

Both Fidelity CAS and “quality DLSS” upsampling options get my RTX 2060 Super configuration close to 60fps range in 4K resolution, though both options require a mild settings downgrade from “maximum” to lock to 60fps. If you opt not to use either with the RTX 2060 Super, a pure 2160p signal will drop the frame rate into the high 40s.

The above stats are a great sign for how performative Death Stranding should be across a range of PC hardware. Plus, these are good indications for anybody hoping to drag the game kicking and screaming onto a weaker gaming-grade PC… and then toggling a 30fps cap. Expect plenty of headroom if you’re willing to sacrifice frames instead of sacrificing dollars.

Stealing the PS5’s thunder?

Death Stranding PC version trailer.

Best of all, this game’s PC port is a great reason to get hyped for another Decima Engine game coming to PC. Sony Interactive Entertainment has confirmed that former console exclusive (and Ars Approved game) Horizon Zero Dawn will launch on Steam by the end of 2020, perhaps as early as “this summer.” Death Stranding feels phenomenal to play at a locked 60fps, since it revolves so much around careful, awkward navigation of a savage landscape. Stumbling, climbing, and crawling are weirdly crucial to this game’s mechanics, and it’s lovely to get a more responsive version.

Now take that sensation and apply it to Horizon‘s quick-dodging, arrow-launching, robo-safari madness. Then take comfort in that game’s 60fps table already being set on a wide variety of PCs. Sony may prefer that fans begin drooling over the upcoming PlayStation 5, but I’d argue that the publisher’s older hits landing beautifully on existing PCs could steal more PS5 thunder than anyone might have assumed.

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