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LDK

PC Report: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

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PC Reports are a series of quick first impressions regarding the technical aspects of a PC game. This report was written by PCGamingWiki contributor LDK. For an up to date account of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag fixes and improvements, please visit its respective PCGamingWiki article.

 

Every new gaming season a few series are returning with iron regularity and this season is no different. The Assassin's Creed series belongs to this group and this year is returning with a new title called Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. In this article we are going to analyze the PC version of this multi-platform title - how each graphical effect impacts framerate, how the controls are and the overall quality of the PC port.

System requirements

Minimum
  • CPU: Intel Core 2 Quad Q8400 @ 2.6 GHz or AMD Athlon II X4 620 @ 2.6 GHz
  • RAM: 2 GB
  • HDD: 30 GB
  • GPU: Nvidia GeForce GTX 260, AMD Radeon HD 4870; 512 MB of VRAM, Shader model 4.0 support
Recommended
  • CPU: Intel Core i5 2400S @ 2.5 GHz or AMD Phenom II x4 940 @ 3.0 GHz
  • RAM: 4 GB
  • GPU: Nvidia GeForce GTX 470, AMD Radeon HD 5850; 1 GB of VRAM, Shader model 5.0 support
Minimum system requirements are very modest, it is probably due to the fact the game is also being released on current gen consoles. There are even reports, that the game is playable on older cards like GeForce 9600GT (source). Even the recommended requirements are nothing to be afraid of. The recommended GPUs are more than three generations old and the required CPU clock is in laptop range.

 

Testing was done on a system with Core i7 clocked to 4.5 GHz, 32 GB RAM and AMD Radeon HD 6870 in 1920x1200 resolution. Unfortunately there is no build-in benchmark so I had to test directly in-game. My benchmark consists of running from one viewpoint in Nassau to another during daytime. The game locks framerate to 63 FPS and there is no way to unlock it. Because of it many values would be higher without the lock because in a few cases, I've hit the 63 FPS limit.

 

For detailed comparisons of all graphical effects there are many full resolution screenshots linked in this article. These screenshots are in lossless PNG format and each is around 4MB. Click with caution.

 

CPU utilization

In the section above you'll find the game requires a quad core CPU, however it turned out that the game is capable of running on a dual core system without any significant performance impact.

 

CPU threads

Here is a list of active threads in the main process. The most CPU time is taken by one main thread, around 12%, which is one core of an eight core system. The second most demanding thread is the GPU driver, around 5%. The rest of the interesting threads are a few 1% threads that presumably take care of AI, sound, physics etc. Cumulative CPU time of these is around 7%, which when combined with the GPU driver thread is also 12% and is the second core.

CPU eight core

This is how performance is spread over all cores. One main thread on the first core and rest on the other cores. CPU utilization is around 33%.

 

CPU quad core

The game is behaving a little bit differently on quad core systems. Load is spread over all cores evenly with no change of CPU utilization.

 

CPU dual core

When affinity is lowered to only two cores, the load is also balanced evenly between them. There is a 10% loss of CPU utilization.

 

CPU single core

And finally the game running on a single core system will utilize one whole core which is no surprise.

 

graph CPU performance

From the graph above it is clear that Assassin's Creed IV can be run on dual core systems without any performance hit. On single core systems there is a rather large drop so the game really needs at least a dual core CPU.

 

Video settings

The graphics option menu in Assassin's Creed IV features few items that can be tweaked. The shadow setting is very rich in that it features seven different levels of shadow quality. Anti-aliasing is similar due to how it contains five AA methods for AMD cards and eleven methods for Nvidia cards.

 

graphics

Some of these effects and their impact are explained in this video. Bear in mind that it is promotional material so the final look of the game can be very different.

 

 

There are unfortunately a few rather important settings missing. There is no aspect ratio option resulting in letterboxing on every aspect ratio other than16:9. Black bars are even present on AMD Eyefinity or Nvidia Surround systems which is surprising as this wasn't a problem in Assassin's Creed III.

 

There is also no native option for triple buffering resulting in unnecessary framerate loss when vertical synchronization is turned on.

 

There is no field of view setting. This wasn't a problem in the previous games in the series as the default field of view isn't set very narrow. However, Assassin's Creed IV contains first person sections where field of view is awfully narrow and makes the game practically unplayable for many players. Although the majority of the game is in third person with a reasonable field of view, this is still a problem.

 

Performance

Assassin's Creed IV runs on a DirectX 11 renderer. Its engine, AnvilNext, has been used in the last game in the series so it should be a little bit more optimized as the developers are more experienced with this technology. Porting was done again by the Ubisoft Kiev studio that has done the not-very-good ports of Ghost Recon and Assassin's Creed III.

 

There are no presets so testing was done with everything on lowest and then everything on highest without anti-aliasing. On the lowest settings the average framerate was 52.5 FPS with 45 minimum. On the highest settings the framerate was more than halved, 22.2 FPS with 16 minimum.

 

As you can see from the screenshots, maximum details looks significantly better. The sea has real time reflections, building LOD is not that aggressive and there are generally many more details in the scene. Original screenshots: scene 1 low, scene 1 max, scene 2 low, scene 2 max.

 

Environment quality

This setting controls foliage and LOD of buildings. On the lowest setting there is no grass and the leaves on the trees disappear pretty close to the protagonist. On normal and high settings grass appears and the buildings are significantly more detailed. Original screenshots: very low, normal, very high.

 

The performance impact is not very noticeable, only around 8% from low to normal and from normal to high, so there is practically no difference.

 

graph enronment quality performance

 

Texture quality

Texture quality should control texture resolution, but I was unable to find any visual difference. Another strange thing with this option is its performance. There is no difference in performance between low and high settings but there is a 5% FPS drop on the normal setting. I have repeated the test several times with the same results and I can't figure out why it is behaving this way. The fact that there is no visual impact could mean that this setting is either improperly implemented or is simply bugged. Original screenshots: low, normal, high.

 

graph texture quality performance

 

 

Anti-aliasing

Assassin's Creed IV features a very rich amount of anti-aliasing options, some of which are unfortunately available only on Nvidia cards and I was not able to test those as my rig has an AMD card in it.

 

graph AA performance

 

As usual, anti-aliasing is a very power hungry effect. The two post-process filters, FXAA and SMAA, offer a very small performance drop of 8%. The true anti-aliasing option, MSAA, has a much larger FPS drop with almost 60% on MSAA 8x.

 

Anti aliasing comparison

 

The results are very disappointing as every tested method completely blurs whole image and causes a large loss of details on the textures. FXAA is the worst as usual, some jaggies are softer but fine details on the textures are gone and disconnected lines stays disconnected. MSAA offers the best anti-aliasing and there are no disconnected lines as this method works with subpixels and locally enlarges resolution thus adding geometry details. Unfortunately MSAA also blurs textures which should not happen.

 

Results with SMAA really surprised me. This method blurs sharp edges and gets rid of disconnected lines and although there is apparent texture blurring, it is not as bad as the other methods. As usual original screenshots: no aa, fxaa, smaa, msaa 2x, msaa 4x, msaa 8x.

 

I'm be interested in the Nvidia specific anti-aliasing methods, so if someone could take screens in .PNG format and upload it to any file locker, I will create a similar comparison.

 

Shadows

Another very rich option menu is shadows with seven different settings of shadows all in two categories, normal shadows and soft shadows. Soft shadows have their edges a little bit blurred to add a more realistic effect, while with higher settings the shadow resolution is increased. Original screenshots: low, normal, high, very high, soft low, soft normal, soft high.

 

 

The performance impact is not very large at first. From normal shadows up to high quality there is only about a 3% FPS drop but the very high setting will cost you 15% of performance. Soft shadows are much more demanding. Setting soft shadows on low will result in an 18% FPS drop with the highest settings a 29% FPS drop.

 

graph shadows performance

 

Reflection quality

This effect can dramatically change how the game looks as it introduces real-time reflections on water surfaces. It can be turned off or set to normal or high. The high setting just increases the draw distance of the reflections and does not affect their quality. Original screenshots: rain off, rain normal, rain high, sunny off, sunny normal, sunny high.

 

 

Surprisingly, I have not observed a significant framerate drop. I have even changed my benchmarking route to include much more ocean than my standard route but I had the same results.

 

graph reflections performance

 

Ambient occlusions

Assassin's Creed IV has three ambient occlusion settings, SSAO and two levels of HBAO. Both of these techniques add very subtle shadows around corners and even SSAO looks very nice. HBAO on low is only visible in direct comparison and I wasn't able to notice it in the game. On the other hand, HBAO on high is much more visible and looks better than SSAO. Original screenshots: AO off, SSAO, HBAO low, HBAO high.

 

 

Performance-wise, this is usually a very expensive effect, but the implementation in the game results in only a 13% FPS loss on SSAO and 18% on HBAO on high.

 

graph ambient occlusion performance

 

God rays and volumetric fog

The god rays effect enables sun shafts in the game. On the low settings, it isn't very visible, but on the high setting, it is a very different story. The performance drop is quite large on the highest setting, around 18%.

 

I haven't noticed any dramatic changes when enabling volumetric fog. According to the technical showcase video linked above, it should add much better smoke and fog during sea battles, but it seemed very similar to me. The FPS drop is around 9%.

 

graph God rays performance

 

Controls

Assassin's Creed IV supports controllers and mouse and keyboard. Default controls for keyboard and mouse are changed from the last title as usual so returning keyboard and mouse players will be little bit confused. Keyboard can be remapped with exception of Caps Lock, Num Lock and Scroll Lock keys. Only one key can be bound to the action. Weapons select wheel has been removed completely and weapons and tools can be selected by numeric keys, while mouse wheel controls tool selection, and one key can be assigned to cycle thru weapons.

 

Mouse settings features X and Y axis sensitivities, both axis can be also reverted. Unfortunately there is slight positive mouse acceleration in the third person mode and slight negative acceleration when character is aiming with a gun. Both accelerations are present even if acceleration is disabled in operating system.

 

controls

 

Xbox 360 controller works fairly well but its mapping cannot be changed.

 

xbox mapping

 

Audio

Sound option menu does not offer much setting for tweaking. There are three volume slider, toggle for crew singing. Language setting is interesting though: you can choose different languages for menu, subtitles and spoken language.

 

Surround sound support is also present but only with 5.1 system limitation. Sound quality is on par with current titles but sometime audio get out of sync in cutscenes.

 

sound

 

Conclusion

I would consider Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag an average PC port. CPU optimization could be better, GPU optimization is done fairly well and I have not encounter any major problems, there are reports about bad performance on some systems though. Lack of field of view setting and letterboxing isn't something to be really proud of, same with mouse acceleration, blurry anti-aliasing and framerate lock. On the other hand the game looks very good even on the lowest settings and performs very well.

 

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I'm having fun with it. There is so much stuff to do and main story introduces new mechanics all the time. Ocean simulation is technical marvel. Overall it is a great game.

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i7 4790 

Asus Sabertooth z97

16GB Corsair DDR3 2400 XMP

SSD Kingston 240gb

GTX 970 4GB

 

and still runs really bad. I have to put most things on normal to get a 60fps, with frame drops on regions with high foliage density.

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      Graphics and video options in Far Cry 4 are rich and allows to set many different levels for each effect. Display modes are also nicely done and the game supports many resolutions, common aspect ratios and even borderless windowed mode. Unfortunately the game is forcing 16:9 aspect ratio by using letterboxing (black bars) on different aspect ratios. Far Cry 3 didn't have letterboxing and it is shame to use it in this title.
       
      The game unfortunately doesn't support multi-monitor setups very well. There are problems like field of view slider not working, stretching 16:9 aspect ratio, letterboxing and other similar issues. More information about it can be found at Widescreen Gaming Forum.
       
      Additional setting contains field of view slider and few modes of vertical synchronization with option to turn on 30 FPS frame limiter to smooth out performance.
       

      Overall performance and image quality
      The game offers five quality presets - Low, Medium, High, Very High and Ultra. Ultra preset does not set maximum anti-aliasing but leaves it at post process SMAA instead of MSAA 8x. Although MSAA 8x has massive performance impact so I can understand this reasoning.
       


       
      At low details the game runs very well even on older GPU. Medium preset cost about 10% of performance but it looks much better with added ambient occlusion effect. High preset is rather costly and prepare for losing about 30% of framerate. In this preset ambient occlusion is much stronger, textures are sharper and mountains are much more detailed. Anti-aliasing is also turned on. Very High preset is not very different from High preset. Shadows are in little bit higher resolution and billboards of distant trees are more detailed. Performance drop is about 5% from High preset. Ultra preset is turning on several advanced volumetric and post process effect that has very strong performance impact of 20% from Very High preset and almost 50% from Low preset. Performance scaling in different resolution is rather linear.
       


       
      Here we can see drastic difference between Low and Ultra presets. At Low details the image is very flat without any ambient occlusion effect, textures are blurry due to lack of anisotropic filtering. At Ultra the game comes to life and show beautiful scenery with detailed environment.
       

      The game unfortunately suffers from heavy stuttering during faster movement in game's environment. Developer suggest to install it on SSD but I've went further and created virtual hard drive in system memory and copied all the game's files directly into RAM. But even that didn't leave a dent and game kept stuttering.
       

      After few tries I've managed to completely eliminate stuttering after all. The key was lowering VRAM heavy effects and resolution. Anti-aliasing, ambient occlusion turned off, textures kept at medium helped a lot so I suspect the game is not very economic with its graphics memory utilization. I suspect this is due to bad optimization from console code as the current generation of console have unified pool of system and graphics memory that is much larger (4-5GB) then graphics cards today normally have.
       
      After getting rid of stuttering the game performed flawlessly on my system with framerate around 60FPS with few effects turned to moderate settings.
       
      Full resolution screenshots: Scene 1 Low, Medium, High, Very High, Ultra; Scene 2 Low, Medium, High, Very High, Ultra.
       

      Field of view
      We are very happy to see Far Cry 4 featuring field of view slider. Unfortunately the implementations is not consistent and on few instances it can completely break the game. First of all the slider is not working at all in windowed borderless mode and on multi-monitor systems. There are reports, that field of view slider completely disappeared with 1.4.0 patch for some users, but personally I have not encountered that.
       

       
      Then there are annoying issues with this slider. The slider is working nicely when character is running in the game, but any other activity is on default and very low field of view. Activities like riding in a vehicles, using grappling hook and in a cutscenes.
       
      And then there are game breaking bugs: Conquering bell tower starts cutscene where camera fly though few locations but after that field of view reverts to ridiculously low value about 50 degrees. Messing up with slider does not help, only remedy is getting back to main menu and reload save.
       


       
      Completely opposite story is flying with wing-suit where field of view jumps to ridiculously high value above 150 degrees. With this jump game obviously stutters for a moment as it has to render much more of the scene often resulting in players death. Same thing with mortar aiming where field of view is much, much higher.
       


       
      There is also no indication of what field of view values slider represents but its maximum value seems to me to be just about right for a single large screen. Performance impact is noticeable with about 20% of framerate loss from lowest setting. Full resolution screenshots: FOV on min, FOV on max.
       

      Controls
      The game offers nice controls customization even for gamepads although no full button bindings. Keyboard keys are fully customizable though with the exception of Tabulator key which can be fixed. There are few multiple actions on one key scenarios, but I haven't found them problematic. Very nice addition is plenty of toggles for GUI elements.
       




       
      What is problematic though is mouse acceleration. There is a switch and a slider that can turn off mouse acceleration, then there are additional entries in the configuration file but none of these can turn mouse acceleration completely off, only reduce its strength. But at least there is no negative acceleration as it was in Far Cry 3. Additionally the mouse movement felt jumpy and not smooth at all although I got used to if fairly quickly.
       

      Audio
      The audio options menu is very disappointing. There is only one slider for master volume and toggle for turning off music. Surround sound is supported but only up to 5.1, additional channels are ignored. Positional audio is nicely done though and the game otherwise sounds very good, I'm particularly impressed with weapon's sounds as each gun has very distinct and rich sound with slight echo.
       


       

      Performance analysis
      In this section we are going to look at how each effect impacts framerate and how does each setting looks on screenshots. Be sure to check full resolution uncompressed PNGs linked in each section. Also visit gallery for additional benchmark and screenshots.
       

      Textures
      This setting is little bit complicated as it contains several different effects. I haven't found increase in resolution with higher levels of this options, however there is increase of anisotropic filtering that results in much sharper textures. Another effect bundled in "textures" is parallax mapping that adds very strong 3D relief to the textures. I don't know, why these effects cannot be separated as both have very different performance and memory impact.
       

       
      Performance impact is around 8% up to High level, Very High and Ultra cost 12% and 15%. This setting is very dependent on graphics memory and even if your framerate is high and stable in static scenes, not enough VRAM will cause the game to stutter when camera is turned quickly or character moves fast. Full resolution screenshots: Scene 1 Low, Medium, High, Very High, Ultra; Scene 2 Low, Medium, High, Very High, Ultra; Scene 3 Low, Medium, High, Very High, Ultra.
       


       

      Shadows
      This option sets up shadow resolution and distance of shadows level of detail. There is special level of Soft Shadows that blurs edges of shadows to appear more natural.
       



       
      Performance impact is surprisingly not very high and Soft Shadows are causing only 10% FPS drop. But as with Texture option, this is very memory demanding effect that can cause stuttering. Full resolution screenshots: Low, Medium, High, Very High, Ultra, Soft Shadows.
       

      Terrain
      This sets terrain details. Low and Medium options are almost identical, very strong difference is on High level and Ultra offers very little improvement. Performance impact is very little, up to 3%. Full resolution screenshots Low, Medium, High, Ultra.
       



       

      Anti-Aliasing
      The game offers few anti-aliasing methods, three levels od MSAA (up to 8x), SMAA and Nvidia specific TXAA which I was unable to test.
       


       
      MSAA is very performance heavy and surprisingly does not offer very good image quality. MSAA is for some reason creating slight bright outline around some edges that can be noticeable. SMAA on the other hand soften edges very nicely and does not blur textures at all. Additionally SMAA also blurs edges on foliage as these are in a form of transparent texture that is ignored by MSAA. Performance impact is not very strong with SMAA, as it is form of post process filter. Full resolution screenshots: No AA, MSAA2, MSAA4, MSAA8, SMAA.
       


       

      Ambient Occlusion
      Far Cry 4 also offers three methods of ambient occlusion - SSAO, HDAO and Ubisoft brand new SSBC. Ambient occlusion adds subtle shadows around objects and in corners that creates much richer scene. Performance impact is moderate from 5% of SSAO and SSBC to 11% of HDAO . Full resolution screenshots AO Off, SSAO, SSBC, HBAO.
       



       

      Godrays
      This option creates light shafts in a fog and dust. Additionally it tweaks contrast of sky and clouds resulting in very nice dramatic sky. Performance is between 13 to 14%. Personally I prefer option Volumetric Fog instead of Enhanced.
       



       

      Rest of the effects
      Rest of the effects only quickly as they didn't seem to improve image quality dramatically. Post FX and Water quality performance drop is around 5%, but without noticeable visual impact, same with Vegetation and its 2% FPS drop. Geometry affects level of details of further objects and has 11% FPS drop from Low to High and 16% from Low to Ultra. Fur is switching advanced fur on animals with 16% FPS drop, but the effect is noticeable only when animal is very close. Trees Relief should turn on tessellation on trees, but I haven't found any changes. Performance impact is 11%.
       

      Conclusion
      Far Cry 4 is a step in right direction, there are many toggles and sliders for tweaking, the game runs rather well and looks very nice. Unfortunately as with the previous Ubisoft games, Far Cry 4 suffers from premature release and severely lacks polish. There are unnecessary problems with field of view implementation, mouse acceleration, multi-monitor support (or lack of), limited audio option and stuttering. Sad thing is, these problems could have been easilly avoided if the game was in development little bit longer.
       
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