Death Stranding And DLSS 2.0 Gives A Serious Boost All Around
Death Stranding released back in November of 2019 with the announcement that the PC release of the once PS4 exclusive would be coming at a later day. That day has finally arrived. Polarizing as it was then it still will carry that love it or hate it response due to the unusual gameplay style and storytelling if you're interested in a review of the PC game we have you covered on that too and you can find out how it earned a 9/10 from our game team. This article is focusing in on the impact of DLSS 2.0 on the Decima Engine powered Death Stranding.
The Decima Engine was build and designed for PlayStation exclusives and was used in Horizon Zero Dawn (releasing on PC in August 2020) as well as Death Stranding. Originally concerned about limitations of the engine and porting it to DX12 introducing issues I'm happy to report that the move for Death Stranding has gone spectacularly. I've been playing the game in Ultrawide 3440x1440 (although the game doesn't natively fill that up as there are tiny black bars on either side) while sitting in the 100-120 FPS range with a Ryzen 5 3600x and RTX 2080 powered system, I've also been really enjoying it on my TV at a 4K locked 60FPS with my 3600 + RTX 2070 gaming system. Both of those feats where easily achievable thanks to DLSS 2.0, let's dig into that for a bit shall we?
What Is DLSS 2.0?
NVIDIA DLSS 2.0, a major update in the AI-powered Deep Learning Super Sampling technology, was discussed in a recent NVIDIA press briefing attended by Wccftech. Let's check what it's all about in detail.
First of all, the improved AI network is now using Tensor Cores in a more efficient way, which makes it much faster - about twice as fast, in fact. The performance tradeoff of DLSS 1.0 at low resolutions wasn't good, but the DLSS 2.0 network makes it a lot more viable across a wide range of GPUs and resolutions.
Secondly, while first-generation DLSS targeted a 2x boost in pixels, DLSS 2.0 can go up to 4x, effectively delivering a reconstructed 4K image from a base 1080p image. It also benefits from temporal feedback, accumulating data over time, and using multiple frames and motion vectors to generate the output frame. This results in higher quality, as the network itself has more data that is temporally processed, and it also allows higher scaling.
Arguably the most interesting feature is the latter, though, as the new 'fully synthetic training set' won't require to be trained specifically for each game implementing Deep Learning Super Sampling. Not only is this going to translate in much faster adoption among developers, but it is also important because a lot of games are not 'deterministic', meaning that two runs of an identical scene aren't exactly the same. This meant some of those generated frames weren't actually valid for training purposes, making it harder to get valid training data for DLSS.
Before jumping into the performance shifts of using DLSS 2.0 we want to take a look at some comparison images and talk about the image quality differences between the settings. Since we tested the performance with the 'Very High' preset as the starting point it only makes sense to use it as the best case native image quality. We chose 3 different locations that represent a fair portion of what you'll see throughout the game.
Before we get too far into the weeds I want to point out that the game's Very High preset does use TAA, the game also supports FXAA, and this is one game where you're going to want to use some form of AA period as the detail in the distance have a lot of shimmer in them. TAA and FidelityFX + TAA still exhibit quite a bit of this with hanging lines as well as small light sources found in the drop area will become quite distracting at times. DLSS manages to smooth out so much of the aliasing and reduce these flickers to a point they no longer distract you during gameplay.
This area at Port Knot City is quite useful for showing differences as there are many small details in the distance in the cranes with their wire suspension systems and hanging ropes. There are plenty of far off light sources as well that can cause that shimmer/flicker as you move. Feel free to compare the blow images for yourself but in the side by side. I wanted to highlight the details of the cranes in the distance. The native image is fin but you still see lots of aliasing, the FidelityFX + TAA image is quite a bit muddier, but the DSLS image is by far the sharpest of them with more clear separating and defined lines on these smaller distant objects. This is a pattern we'll see throughout.
The next area we explore is the path that leads you to the Weather Station, it is riddled with strangely formed geography on the way to a weather station with a large radar perched upon it. This is a common theme in the game where you can see your destination off in the horizon as the view distance in this game can be breathtaking at times. While the difference in the rock formations closest to the screen isn't displaying noticeable visual discrepancies it's once again the detailed objects in the distance that benefit greatly. The DLSS Radar and terrain are the most distinguished with the native image coming in close and the FidelityFX + TAA coming in a distant 3rd.
Central Knot City is where it all starts, and it's where I took the first set of screenshots while starting this journey that lasted over 23 hours of gameplay before starting to write. This time, looking off at some dilapidated buildings we see a very similar story as before except this time we see the native image having some broken sections that are just missing resulting in a floating piece of the floor while it's missing entirely from the FidelityFX + TAA version, and is wholly intact in the DLSS image. The addition to this scene is that we start to see some variation in those closer images a lot better. The Native and DLSS images show a very comparable detail level of the concrete barrier and railing along with the red beam that travels along with it. There is considerable degradation of image quality on the FidelityFX + TAA rendering
As well as DLSS 2.0 handles the final image in this game there is one caveat, it introduces a really strange 'ghosting' effect on small details that are in the distance but only on things like hanging ropes, power lines, and chiral spores rising. The effect is actually beneficial when looking for those visual identifiers when hunting down chiral parts to collect but is a bit strange on the ropes. It's one of those things you'll have to look for in gameplay because at first it simply comes off as part of the motion blur effect.
Test Setup and Method
Testing Death Stranding was actually pretty easy despite the game not having a built-in benchmarking tool. I played the game for several hours monitoring the frame rates and found them to be quite consistent only really fluctuating during times of heavy Timefall events and boss battles, cutscenes are also limited to 60FPS so using one of them for an ultimately consistent run was out of the question.
The performance measurements were taken from a 60-second jog at Port Knot City where I ran from the Bridges terminal down the street towards the dock. Once we had the results from 3 runs, after discarding an initial burner run for loading purposes, we took the average of average frame rates as well as the 99th percentile results from the run. We report our performance metrics as average frames per second and have moved away from the 1% and .1% reporting and are now using the 99th percentile. For those uncertain of what the 99th percentile is, representing is easily explained as showing only 1 frame out of 100 is slower than this frame rate. Put another way, 99% of the frames will achieve at least this frame rate.
|CPU||Intel Core i9-9900k @ 5GHz|
|Memory||32GB Mushkin Redline DDR4 3600|
|Motherboard||EVGA Z370 Classified K|
|Storage||Western Digital SN750 Black Edition|
|PSU||Cooler Master V1200 Platinum|
|Windows Version||2004 with latest security patches|
Normally I just let the results speak for themselves but this one is a bit interesting as the Decima Engine already runs like melted butter on all of these cards at 1080p. The interesting use of DLSS in this title at 1080p are going to be most beneficial to the 2060 Super and 2060 for those wanting to get the most out of a 144hz panel, but even still all of these cards are breaking 100 FPS at 1080p. I will say that them image benefits shown at 4K in the images are just as prevalent at 1080p so I would recommend enabling and seeing if you can notice the smoother distant objects and reduced flickering. Besides, the more powerful cards are going to see so little benefit at 1080p from a performance standpoint it'll likely be turned on for the image improvement rather than performance eeking.
1440p starts to really show the benefit of DLSS in this title from a performance standpoint with now massive gains being seen. Massive to the point where the DLSS 99th percentile is performing better than the native's average frame rate performance. Also, the image quality difference really starts to become noticeable at this point. While cards like the RTX 2060 are already pushing respectable performance numbers without DLSS in this one, enabling it gives the card performance pushing past the RTX 2070 Super's non DLSS performance, that's a huge boost (admittedly the 2070 Super also gets a massive boost that puts it on par with a non-DLSS 2080Ti so wins all around).
2160p, 4K UHD, however you want to classify it, is where the real gains are found. The RTX 2080Ti pushes past 100 FPS and that's impressive but the RTX 2060 is now pushing a 66% performance increase and breaking the 60 FPS barrier at 4K Very High settings. While I wouldn't suggest buying the base RTX card with the intent of using it as a 4K card I can admit it's really cool to see it get that kind of uplift and being able to deliver that kind of performance.
There's FidelityFX Too
We've mentioned FidelityFX quite a bit through the image comparisons and it's worth mentioning because in this game it doesn't just add Contrast Adaptive Sharpening, it drops the render resolution and upscales it in the game to give a performance boost. Now when you do this you're going to need to add back in some AA and sharpening, we opted for TAA along with 30% sharpening to get the images you see earlier and the performance results below. While FidelityFX wouldn't be my first option in this game I'm glad it's there for those who don't have an RTX card capable of utilizing DLSS as the performance can be comparable if you're willing to lose a bit on the image quality at higher resolutions or are running lower-end hardware and need a bit of a performance boost.
Since the release of DLSS 2.0, we've been seeing the adoption rate increase and the quality along with it as well. Normally we would be looking just at how close the DLSS image quality can get to the native result along with the performance increase, but Death Stranding has changed the game on that topic. We actually see improvements in some areas when using DLSS rather than TAA or FXAA in Death Stranding. The performance benefit at 1440p and 4K is worth taking in along with the improved aliasing methods even at the expense of the slight ghosting effect you get in smaller on-screen details.
My experience with Death Stranding, after 20+ hours of play, on both my gaming PC (3900X + RTX 2080) at 1440p Ultrawide and my living room gaming PC (3600 + RTX 2070) at 4K, have been overwhelmingly positive with no hiccups to speak of. I found the performance of my living room PC to stay locked at 60FPS while using VSYNC and that resulted in a very very smooth and enjoyable experience.
But, FidelityFX cannot be ignored in this title for those not rocking an RTX line of cards. While the visuals do take a hit because of the lowered rendering resolution and upscaling we are able to see a quick performance gain for everyone not on the RTX train. This means even those who own GTX cards will get a benefit as well along with those rocking Radeon cards as well.
Death Stranding's performance alone and paired with the benefits of DLSS have proven quite valuable of a feature for the Decima Engine powered title. A port that had people concerned about potential performance issues, and one that people are looking to for a glimpse of what to expect with Horizon Zero Dawn, has given a very much overwhelming positive showing. The team that handled this has set a new standard on ports for games people never expected to see happen.