Dark Souls 2 PC port: mod god Durante's verdict

PC Gamer

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In 2012, Peter "Durante" Thoman wrote the popular mod DSfix for Dark Souls: Prepare to Die on PC, fixing its locked 1024x720 resolution and other issues. In 2013, he released a similar fix for Deadly Premonition . We asked Durante to analyze the PC port of Dark Souls 2 in a series of articles.

After an initial outing on PC which was barely serviceable—rendering at 1024x720, locked at 30 FPS with unusable mouse controls—From Software and Namco Bandai have a lot to prove with this sequel. For Dark Souls 2, PC was reportedly considered a major target platform from the start. In this article, I'll first investigate the technical quality of the port compared to Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition and the console versions of Dark Souls 2. Then I'll have a closer look at the options included in the game and analyze their impact.

A Good Port

Dark Souls 2 on PC is a massively improved effort compared to its predecessor. It renders at any resolution a given system supports, its framerate varies smoothly up to 60 FPS, it performs well even on modest systems—more on that topic later—and it comes with a wealth of graphical options. The following table summarizes most of the improvements:

The most egregious oversights in the first port—resolution and framerate—are completely solved. Even less pronounced issues like surround sound problems and faulty keyboard/mouse controls are fixed. Small touches make it obvious that the game was truly developed with PC in mind: for example, the EULA which shows up when you first start the game can be scrolled with the mouse wheel.

A common fear among gamers was that From would make good on their promise of 1920x1080 but stop there instead of supporting truly arbitrary rendering resolutions. Something similar happened recently with the otherwise excellent port of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Dark Souls 2 has no such limit.

Assessing the Assets

One big question has loomed over the PC port of Dark Souls 2: how different will it be from the console versions? Would the improvements be restricted to resolution and framerate, or would there be changes to the game's textures and models?

In the image above, the game data file archives (*.bdt) for the PC version of the game are shown. Note that their total size is ~10.7 GB. On the other hand, the following table shows the size of the data files for the PS3 version of the game – this was determined by inspecting a disc dump of the PS3 data:

Note that the total size in this case is ~5.7 GB, and that the files with the “ Hq ” prefix in the PC version have no equivalent in the PS3 version.

Previously, PC gamers were sometimes disappointed when, after large downloads, a given size discrepancy compared to console versions was entirely down to higher-quality movie files or additional localization data. This is not the case for Dark Souls 2: there is only one separate pre-rendered movie, and it is actually smaller in the PC version (likely due to better compression). The localization and font data only takes up around 30 MB in total, and is in fact the same on PC and PS3. In short, everything indicates that the 5 GB difference is caused by higher quality asset data, and a preliminary analysis of the content of these archive files confirms this assumption.

In addition to these main game asset files, the PC version includes a “sfx9999 hq res.ffxbnd” file in the “sfx_hq” folder, which appears to store higher-resolution assets for special effects (such as torch light or particles). It is also about twice as large as the standard “sfx9999res.ffxbnd” file, which is the same on both PC and consoles.

Performance

Before jumping into the options, a quick word on performance. I originally intended to provide measurements and graphs here, but Dark Souls 2 generally performs so well on my system that there's no need. With all in-game settings maximized and rendering at 2560x1440, I never noticed a single drop below 60 FPS on my PC (equipped with a Core i7 920 CPU and Geforce GTX770 GPU). In fact, the GPU was generally below 60% loaded in order to maintain that framerate. Even medium-range systems should easily maintain a solid framerate, particularly at the more common 1920x1080 resolution.

Another relevant aspect of game performance which is independent of framerates is the length of loading times, which is particularly relevant for Dark Souls 2 in light of their distracting duration in the console versions. The PC version, with maximized settings, consistently loads in 3-4 seconds from my traditional 7200 RPM HDD, and presumably installing the game to an SSD could further lower these times.

Opting for More

Dark Souls 2 comes with a nice selection of options, and most of them are straightforward. “Texture quality” sets the resolution of textures, “Anisotropic filtering” sets their filtering quality at oblique angles, while “Antialiasing”, “Motion blur”, “Camera motion blur”, “Depth of field“ and “SSAO” toggle their respective setting on and off. Some settings, however, merit a closer look.

Shadow Quality

This option has three settings: low, medium and high. They adjust the quality of dynamic shadows. “Low” produces blocky, poorly filtered shadows, while “medium” and “high” incrementally improve both the shadow map resolution and filtering. As far as I can tell, the console setting is either “low” or “medium”, or perhaps a combination with the resolution of “low” and filtering of “medium”. The image below illustrates the settings, but it cannot convey the full extent of the difference in motion – the lower resolution shadow is more prone to blotchiness and instability between frames.

Click for full resolution image.

Depth of Field

The depth of field effect in Dark Souls 2 is not particularly unusual, but it is very well-implemented and beautiful without being overstated. It is also quite efficient performance-wise, so I suggest keeping it on. Unlike initial versions of Dark Souls 1 with my resolution fix, the effect scales up very nicely to high rendering resolutions.

Click for full resolution image.

Motion Blur

Dark Souls 2 gives us the option of individually toggling camera motion blur and object motion blur. The former is caused by quick camera movement, while the latter applies to objects or characters moving quickly.  Separating the two into individual options is very welcome, as some people dislike camera motion blur, but no one should miss this excellent object motion blur implementation. The screenshot below illustrates the object motion blur effect in battle.

Click for full resolution image.

Water Surface Quality

This accurately named option adjusts the rendering quality of water surfaces. “Low” appears to completely disable reflections, while “high” adds dynamic highlights on top of the static reflections enabled by “medium.”

Click for full resolution image.

Effects Quality

This setting appears to control the quality of a variety of alpha-blended effects (such as torch flames), but further investigation will be required to find out what it adjusts exactly at each level. One very fitting new feature in Dark Souls 2 compared to its predecessor are so-called “god rays,” a dynamic effect which approximates light shafts from bright light sources:

Click for full resolution image.

Texture Quality

Here we can see the likely cause of the (almost) doubled size of the PC version compared to the console versions. While texture quality is already decent at the default “medium” settings, it is truly excellent at “high,” with most textures even holding up well when playing at 2560x1440 – not something you can say for many games. The following screenshot compares at the more common 1080p resolution, but if you look at it in full size and compare the details in the moss on the tree trunk you can still easily see the step up in quality (sorry for the slight misalignment of camera and models, you have to exit and re-enter the game to change texture settings).

Click for expanded, full resolution image.

Model Quality

I could not, at least in my current preliminary investigation, determine what this setting does. It could be related to model quality in multiplayer, since this is something that I could not test yet, or it may only influence a select few models, none of which I saw in my short period of evaluating the setting.

So far, I checked the player character model, a variety of early-game NPCs, level geometry in the starting levels and a few enemy models. Of course, one option is that the setting is quite simply broken at the moment. A small indication supporting this idea is that changing the “model quality” setting does not require exiting and re-entering the game, while any changes to e.g. “texture quality” prompt the player to do so.

Antialiasing and Ambient Occlusion

The former of these settings enables the game's built-in post-processing anti-aliasing, which appears to be the high quality version of FXAA3. The latter turns the ambient occlusion effect on or off. Both of these settings, and some higher-quality alternatives, will be discussed in more detail in our upcoming Dark Souls 2 tweak guide.

Conclusion

With Dark Souls 2, From Software and Namco Bandai deliver a PC version of their game which not only fulfills all the standard expectations in terms of resolution and framerate support, but also adds additional options beyond that. Crucially, they have included high-resolution texture assets which generally fit even the expectations of gamers who play beyond 1080p.

One might also claim that, even if they never acknowledged the modding of their first port, they did certainly learn from it. Whether it is large changes like the inclusion of ambient occlusion, higher resolution textures and good mouse controls, or smaller but equally useful additions such as the ability to turn off the UI or skip the introduction logos, there is a lot in Dark Souls 2 at launch which modders only added to the PC port of the first game over time.

While it is not quite the (almost generational) leap which was initially shown in previews, Dark Souls 2 on PC is a better experience and a more beautiful game than even a fully modded Dark Souls 1, and it also performs well on a wide range of hardware. It adds effects which greatly enhance the visual impact of some scenes, such as dynamic godrays, improves the resolution of environment textures, greatly improves shadow resolution and filtering, and maintains the highly detailed equipment models, textures and ambient specular reflections which were a hallmark of the original Dark Souls' graphics.

Of course, we wouldn't be PC gamers if we were not always looking to get even more out of our games. In future articles we will look at some tweaks using generic tools in order to further improve Dark Souls 2's graphics, and later on investigate its technology in more depth to determine what else might be possible with game-specific modifications.

Come back soon for more from Durante. In the meantime, have some Dark Souls 2 4K screenshots .

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