Watch Dogs Graphics And Game Play: PC vs. Xbox One

Introduction, Image Quality

Normally, the question of whether a game runs better on the PC or a console is a no-brainer -- at least, for PC users.  Watch Dogs, however, with its problematic PC play, challenges that concept. And since the gap between consoles and PCs is typically smallest at the beginning of the console generation, we decided to take the Xbox One out for a head-to-head comparison against the PC with this long-awaited title.

What we've found may surprise you. Based on our results, and depending on just how much horsepower your PC has, the Xbox One (and possibly the PS4 option, though we didn't compare against it) might be the better option. Here, we'll step through the game's pre-rendered movies as well as some actual gameplay and perform some video comparisons for you all.

Watch Dogs: VRAM uber alles

One thing to keep in mind is that Watch Dogs is ridiculously hard on frame buffer memory. If you've got 1.5GB or less on your graphics card, you're going to be compromising on visuals to keep the frame rate steady. Comments in that thread bore out the idea that frame buffer memory is the principle performance culprit; multiple readers claimed that they saw excellent performance from lower-end GTX 760s with 4GB of RAM, while others with smaller frame buffers ran into more erratic performance, even with more powerful GPUs.

If you don't have at least 2GB of VRAM, you're going to be cranking the details lower to compensate in Watch Dogs -- and that may effectively cut visual quality below what the Xbox One or PS4 can offer. Let's take a look.

Image Quality Comparison: Xbox One vs. PC

Which detail settings you can choose has a significant impact on how good Watch Dogs looks on the PC compared to its console cousin. We're going to show you three detail settings -- in every case, the Xbox One is on the far left, followed by the PC on Medium Texture / Medium Detail, followed by the PC on High Texture / High Detail. We'll start with a scene from the opening of the game, in which the protagonist has a calm discussion of principles with a fixer, Maurice.

Click to enlarge: Xbox One (left), PC Medium (middle), PC High (right).

Compare the three images above, and you'll notice that while the Xbox One doesn't have the same level of shadow detail, its textures are clearer than the PC on Medium. A distinctly polygonal baseball in the lower left hand corner of the screen on Medium is round in the console version.

Between the Xbox One and PC with High Quality settings, the PC is clearly better. Adrian's coat is cut differently and the texture detail on clothing and other items is noticeably higher.

For our next set of comparisons we're going to look at the same three images -- but for one set I've applied an Auto-Leveling filter in Photoshop. Doing so highlights certain background details and makes it easier to see how the Xbox One and PC compare in the shot. First, here's the image the way it actually looks in game.

Click to enlarge: Xbox One (left), PC Medium (middle), PC High (right).

There's some really interesting differences here. First, the PC Medium settings clearly aren't using tessellation as much as the High settings, if they're using it at all. The collar of Aidan's shirt loses its ribbing, his jacket loses some of the deformation over the right shoulder, and its texturing takes a step downwards. Facial details are blurred, as is his facial hair. Oddly enough, the boxes in the rear of the shot are actually noticeably sharper in the Medium setting compared to High. It looks like the engine uses a Depth of Field filter to keep your eyes focused on Aidan's face when set in High mode, whereas Medium uses no such filter.

Compare the two PC shots against the Xbox One shot, and we've got a different set of tradeoffs in play. The lighting model looks simpler, but Aidan's detail levels are closer to the PC High settings than PC Medium. Texturing on the coat and undershirt is generally better, and the Xbox One uses a similar depth-of-field effect as the PC with High Quality settings, though not to the same extent. Overall, however, we'd say that the Xbox One is putting more detail on the screen -- but with a simpler lighting model. 

Now, here's the same shot but with the lighting corrected.

Click to enlarge: Xbox One (left), PC Medium (middle), PC High (right).

The dramatic difference in the blur effect is easier to see here, as are the differences in Aidan's facial features and texture details. The PC High settings are better than the Xbox One, but the Xbone is unambiguously better than the PC on Medium.

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