The Division 2 settings and performance: what you'll need to save Washington DC

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January and February used to be a quiet time for PC gaming, but that's certainly not the case for 2019. There's a gaming bonanza slated for next week, but March has plenty happening as well. Along with the launch of the AMD Radeon VII (though that may be purely coincidental), Ubisoft is doing a 'private beta' for The Division 2. Much like our look at Anthem last week, this is a performance preview—things can and likely will change before the game releases next month.

The Division has had DirectX 12 support for a long time, and the sequel carries that forward—unlike Hitman 2 which for reasons unknown (to me) dropped DX12. I did limited testing with both the DX11 and DX12 APIs and found that DirectX 12 performed better in most cases. (The exception: GTX 1060 at 1440p and 4k did better in DX11 mode, though that could be due to variations in time of day or other factors.) For now at least, I'm sticking with the DX12 API, because these results are likely only valid for the private beta, and I'll be retesting everything when the final game is released.

One caveat before going any further is that The Division 2 is an AMD promoted game. What that means is AMD is more likely to have had input on game optimizations and such, and AMD's most recent 19.2.1 drivers are also Game Ready for The Division 2. Nvidia's current 418.81 drivers meanwhile make no mention of the game, and I don't expect that to change prior to the March launch. But if you're playing The Division 2 this week, or are curious as to how it performs, that's what I'm here to discuss.

Our standard GPU testbed is being used (see boxout to the right), which focuses on graphics cards rather than CPUs. I may test some CPUs as well over the next day or two if I get a chance, but right now I'm only looking at a few popular GPUs, plus some alternative high-end cards. What's it take to hit 60fps, and how do the various settings affect performance? Let's find out.

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Woah, that's a lot of settings!

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Are you still reading this!?

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The Division 2 settings overview

There are a lot—and I mean, a LOT—of graphics settings you can tweak in The Division 2, 25 of them to be precise. But as is often the case, the visual impact from many of the settings is slight at best, and likewise many of them won't affect performance much either. I'm just going to lump everything that affects performance (in limited testing) less than 3 percent into one large group, and focus the rest of the settings discussion on the things that might help improve framerates.

The following only had a minor affect on performance (see chart above): Sharpening, Particle Detail, Reflection Quality, Vegetation Quality, Sub-Surface Scattering, Depth of Field, Lens Flare, Vignette Effect, Water Quality, Chromatic Aberration, Projected Texture Resolution, High Resolution Sky Textures, and Terrain Quality. Some of those are a bit surprising, like reflection and water quality, but that might be due to the area used for testing performance. Regardless, if you're keeping score that's half of the settings that only cause a minor difference in appearance and performance. You could turn those all the way down or all the way up as you see fit.

What's more, there are several more settings that only cause a modest change in performance: Shadow Quality (9 percent), Contact Shadows (5 percent), Parallax Mapping (7 percent), Ambient Occlusion (8 percent), and Extra Streaming Distance (8 percent). That leaves us with seven settings that can give you a significant boost in framerate, at the cost of image quality.

Spot Shadows (15 percent): determines the number of spotlight shadows that can appear onscreen.

Spot Shadow Resolution (14 percent): sets the resolution of shadow maps used for spotlight shadows.

Resolution Scale (85 percent): renders at a lower resolution and scales that up to your output resolution, while keeping the UI at the output resolution. It's a lot like changing the resolution, but the result looks slightly different (some might even say better).

Volumetric Fog (28 percent): determines the rendering quality of fog volumes, used for things like god rays and other effects. This can cause a pretty severe hit to framerates and many don't find the presence of 'fog' that important, so this is a great one to turn down if you're looking to boost performance.

Local Reflection Quality (14 percent): sets the frequency and quality of local scene reflections. Even turning this off doesn't radically change the appearance of the game, so this is another good setting to turn down.

Anisotropic Filtering (11 percent): In many games turning down anisotropic filtering doesn't impact performance much, but The Division 2 is a bit of an exception. AF helps textures look better when viewed at oblique angles, but there's rarely much benefit going beyond 4x, so this is another item where it's easy to boost performance a bit with minimal loss in image quality.

Object Detail (27 percent): A better name for this might be object pop-in. Set this to 0 and The Division 2 almost feels like a pop-up book. View distance for many objects is severely reduced and the result is very distracting. I prefer setting this at 100 personally, but it does drop performance quite a bit.

The Division 2 private beta performance

With the settings overview out of the way, let's look at performance. I tested on midrange, high-end, and extreme graphics cards from AMD and Nvidia, including the new Radeon VII. As noted already, the DX12 API generally performed best, but I'll include the full DX11 vs. DX12 results for the two cards I checked in the charts.

I tested at 1080p using the low, medium, and ultra presets (with vsync disabled in all cases), plus 1440p ultra and 4k ultra. There are a few settings that aren't quite maxed out with the ultra preset, and cranking those to maximum quality drops performance another 15-20 percent. Limited testing of the high preset meanwhile shows the it falls nicely at the midway between the ultra and medium presets, with image quality generally closer to ultra.

One other thing worth pointing out is how performance compares to the original game. The Division launched in March 2016, nearly three years ago, and it has received numerous content updates. The Division 2 doesn't appear to have radically altered things—if Ubisoft revved up the engine and increased the complexity of the game world, it's managed to do so without tanking performance.

That's nice, because while running around the streets of post-apocalypse New York may have seemed a bit gritty in the original, the streets of DC have had several more years to deteriorate and look suitably grim. In terms of performance, The Division running at ultra performs about the same as The Division 2 running at high—or with both at ultra, the sequel runs about 10 percent slower is all.

With a fast CPU, 1080p low quality ends up being a walk in the park for all of the GPUs I tested. The RX 580 8GB beats the GTX 1060 6GB, and DX11 clearly drops performance on the two cards I tested, but with DX12 the slowest card still averages 150fps, with minimums above 100fps. And given the way the faster GPUs all cluster around 170-180 fps, I'm probably hitting a CPU limit. Of course that doesn't say much about budget GPUs—a GTX 1050 should still break 60fps, but probably not too much more than that. Let's move along.

Moving up to the medium preset drops performance by a third. Everything I tested still maintains 60fps or more, and The Division 2 definitely looks better than at low quality, but budget cards and older GPUs will likely drop below 60fps. The RTX 2080/2080 Ti and Radeon VII/Vega 64 are still bumping into CPU limits, but the mainstream GPUs have started to fall behind.

Ultra quality drops performance by a third yet again, so most cards are now far below half the level of performance offered at 1080p low. The RTX 2080/2080 Ti continue to lead, as expected—and the Radeon VII isn't at parity with the 2080 at these settings. But the Radeon VII is only running 15 percent faster than the Vega 64, probably because it's not yet benefitting from the heaps of memory bandwidth on tap.

1440p at ultra quality will require a beefy GPU, with the Radeon VII and RTX 2080 still easily clearing 60fps. Things are now taxing enough that the Radeon VII can stretch its legs, outperforming the Vega 64 by nearly 30 percent. The RX 580 meanwhile is about 10 percent faster than the 1060 (using DX11 for Nvidia—the DX12 results dropped quite a bit at 1440p and above). If you want to play 1440p on a mainstream GPU, you'll need to drop several settings quite a ways to get 60fps, but it's still possible.

4k ultra demonstrates yet again why this isn't the primary target for most PC gamers. Even the 2080 Ti fails to maintain a steady 60fps, though obviously with a bit of tweaking it could do so. Meanwhile, the 1070 at low quality might break 60fps, but that's about as low as you could go. This is why we continue to recommend 1440p 144Hz displays as the best gaming monitors.

Initial thoughts on The Division 2 private beta

I've heard some complaints about performance and stability for The Division 2—someone even went so far as to compare it to Anthem's public demo. That hasn't been the case for my testing, where the stability has been generally excellent. I've had one or two occasions of getting booted back to the main menu, but that's about it. I've also heard about performance degrading over time, but again I couldn't reproduce it—I even left the game running for several hours (with a key held down to 'move' me forward into a wall), and at the end of the three hours I reran my benchmark and got similar results: 1fps slower. But then, I only tested on one PC, and a high-end build at that, so others may not be as lucky.

Performance isn't quite so rosy. For high-end PCs, you can run at 1440p ultra or 4k high and still get good framerates. 1080p 60fps is well within reach of mainstream graphics cards, just not necessarily at maxed out quality. For budget cards, or cards that are a few years old, I'd suggest sticking with the DX11 API and lower quality settings, because the ruins of Washington DC look great, and allowances should be made for games that want to push the level of detail beyond current limits. If you find your PC is struggling, try dropping the settings and resolution—and if that doesn't work, well, I'll be looking at the final release next month with a full suite of benchmarks, including CPU testing, so maybe just wait for that before pulling the trigger on a PC upgrade.