'Cyberpunk 2077' Finally Shows What DLSS Is Good For

A rare instance of AI doing a job without taking someone else's.

Dec 10 2020, 3:08pm

More recent Nvidia graphics cards have a proprietary feature called Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS), and while it's often been touted as a powerful new rendering tool, the results have sometimes been underwhelming. Some of this is down to the oddly mixed-message around how DLSS was rolled-out: it only works on more recent Nvidia cards that are still near the cutting edge of PC graphics hardware… but DLSS is designed to render images at lower resolutions but display them as if they were rendered natively at a higher resolution. 


If you had just gotten a new Nvidia card and were excited to see what kind of framerates and detail levels it could sustain, what DLSS actually did sounded counterintuitive. Even games like Control, whose support of DLSS was especially praised, left me scratching my head about why I would want to use the feature. On my 4K TV, Control looked and ran identically well with and without DLSS, so why wouldn't I just max-out my native graphics settings instead rather than use a fancy upscaler? Intellectually, I understood the DLSS could produce similarly great looking images without taxing my hardware as much, but I neither fully believed it, nor had I seen a game where the performance gain was meaningful.

Cyberpunk 2077 converted me. DLSS is a miracle, and without it there's probably no way I would ever have been happy with my graphics settings or the game's performance.

I have a pretty powerful video card, an RTX 2080 TI, but my CPU is an old i5 overclocked to about 3.9 GHz and it's a definite bottleneck on a lot of games. Without DLSS, Cyberpunk 2077 was very hard to get running smoothly. The busiest street scenes would look fine if I were in a static position, but a quick pan with my mouse would cause the whole world to stutter. If I was walking around Night City, I would get routine slow-downs. Likewise, sneaking around and picking off guards during encounters was all well and good but the minute the bullets started flying, with grenades exploding everywhere and positions changing rapidly, my framerate would crater to the point where the game verged on unplayable. To handle these peaks of activity, I had to lower my detail settings way below what I wanted, and what my hardware could support for about 80 percent of my time with the game. Without DLSS, I never found a balance I was totally happy with. The game neither looked particularly great, nor did it run very well.


DLSS basically solved this problem for me. With it active, I could run Cyberpunk at max settings, with stable framerates in all but the busiest scenes.

I could do this because DLSS provides really good "best guesses" about how to render and display a scene without going through the full, far more intensive anti-aliasing process at your full display resolution. This is probably an oversimplification, but it's as if DLSS lets your video card create a lower-res picture and then DLSS uses AI to cleverly scale-up the image to your display resolution as if you'd been running at those settings. Upscaling has usually been a pretty crude process and upscaled images generally look a bit fuzzy, but DLSS can produce something that looks as good (or even better than) something rendered at your display’s native resolution. My framerates stabilized for all but the most intensive sequences in Cyberpunk. Beyond that, though, the game looked really good without having made many compromises for the sake of performance.

Cyberpunk 2077 has other ways to try and save on hardware load, including two forms of AMD’s FidelityFX Contrast Adaptive Sharpening and dynamic resolution scaling. However, on my PC the results for those methods were poor. The framerate was poor and the image quality seemed markedly lower. The compromises of DLSS were invisible, the compromises the dynamic texture resolution entailed were all I could see. That’s probably not a verdict on the two methods of using scaling to save performance, just that DLSS seems to work much better in Cyberpunk right now.

In fact, DLSS-capable hardware might be the only environment in which Cyberpunk could be said to run well. According to early performance testing by Tom’s Hardware, DLSS is giving Nvidia cards a huge framerate boost in Cyberpunk 2077. At 2460x1440 resolution, Ultra graphics settings and Ray Tracing, and on an Intel i9-10900k, an RTX 3080 GPU ran the game at 39 frames per second without DLSS, and 65 frames per second with DLSS on. The same rig with an RTX 3070 got a boost from 28 frames per second to almost 50 from DLSS, and a nearly identical boost for the same rig with an RTX 2080Ti.

CD Projekt Red and Nvidia will certainly release updates in the coming days that could improve performance, but from what we can tell on the day of the game’s launch, PC players who are expecting to run the game at 60 frames per second are basically going to have to use DLSS to hit that benchmark.

If you have the option and the need to save on hardware load, entrust yourself to DLSS. It's a feature that might have seemed underwhelming if you tried it on the first games that used it, but Cyberpunk 2077 seems like the use-case this process was made for.

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