VIDEO: See NaturalVision Evolved in action, also available on YouTube.
Released in 2013 on consoles, then a year later on PC, GTA 5 was a stunner, even back then. But now it's twice as old as my nephew, and folks, that's seven years old. Those old textures and lighting systems still make for a sharp, bright Los Angeles imitation, but look too close for too long and its age start to show.
Enter the NaturalVision Evolved visual overhaul mod, an ambitious attempt to bring GTA 5 back up to speed with modern hardware and graphics.
NaturalVision Evolved (NVE) is the, well, natural evolution of NaturalVision Remastered, an ongoing visual overhaul project by renowned GTA 5 modder Jamal Rashid (Razed in modding circles). Making GTA 5 look closer to Southern California is the goal, and it took some on location research, including "hundreds of photos and hours upon hours of video footage" to get to this point: an early access release.
I gave NVE a go, but right now it's only accessible via Rashid's Patreon (opens in new tab). You'll need to select the $10 tier for access today. A free, public release is in the works, so no worries. But hey, modders gotta eat too.
The overhaul includes changes to "the environmental weathers, lighting system, ambient colors, tonemapping, world textures, building models and much more." But more concretely, in PC gaming terminology, NVE adds "...Screen-space Raytraced Global Illumination, Skylighting, [and] Rain reflections."
Did you see it? The big buzzword? No, ray-tracing as we know it today is not part of the NVE overhaul. Total ray-tracing simulates natural light sources to light a scene, both on and off screen. Screen-space ray-tracing only reflects elements currently visible, or within the screen space. Full scene ray-tracing would murder GTA 5's performance. It's not a particularly well optimized game as is.
But even so, screen-space ray-traced illumination adds to the final image. GTA 5's moods are stronger. More light and detail filling every scene ties each scene together like a nice rug might to a living room, and makes it easier to ignore the smaller graphical blemishes. Sunny days pop with color and contrast, the dull grey concrete against the saturated blue sky tied together with the busier ambiance and diffuse that NVE's expanded lighting system affords. Watching the sun set as its light hits the more reflective buildings is pretty damn evocative of the real deal. It looks nice. Legions beyond what I remember GTA 5 looking like? Nah, but this is an improvement.
VIDEO: The official trailer is pretty damn impressive.
Things are especially nice when it rains and even better at night. Puddle reflection might be the most in-your-face upgrade, especially paired with the more detailed reflections rolling across nearly every car. The street becomes a mirror.
Keep in mind, this is an early access release and a visual overhaul by a few people bolted onto one of the most ambitious games ever put together by a team of hundreds. It's not perfect. We're still waiting on the final weather modifications for storms. The lightning cuts chunky lines through the sky—too thick, honestly. This is some supremely thick lightning. And here and there I noticed some reflections, particularly those in the middle to far distance, would flicker. Little aberrations like that can pop the illusion balloon pretty easily, but: early access, so.
I uninstalled the mod after a few hours to see how performance would improve, but also to remember what GTA 5 looked like before. It's been years since I played. My framerate more than doubled, going from the NVE Ultra High preset's 40-50 fps to vanilla GTA 5's 110-120 fps. With an i9-9900k and an RTX 2080, a nice 60 fps would be ideal for NVE. It's still an early release and there are some lower spec graphical presets to play around with if you want a smaller visual upgrade for a lower performance hit.
If you also haven't played GTA 5 in a while, the added graphical flourishes might not stand out immediately. Vanilla GTA 5 definitely looks flatter, almost blurrier. Without those extra reflections and light rays bouncing around the screen, GTA 5 looks closer to a pastel colored cartoon. It still looks great, but goes to show how much work lighting does in videogames.
With NVE (and a hefty rig), GTA 5 looks much more in line with modern PC games. It's just not a night and day transformation. Give it a shot if you're more into mood and juicing the LA-ness of GTA 5 than keeping the frames per second as high as possible.