Ashes of the Singularity's second beta gives GCN a big boost with DX12

Ashes of the Singularity is probably the first game that will come to most people's minds these days when we talk about DirectX 12. That title has been the source of a bunch of controversy in its pre-release lifetime, thanks to an ongoing furor about the game's reliance on DirectX 12's support for asynchronous compute on the GPU and that feature's impact on the performance of AMD and Nvidia graphics cards alike.

Ashes of the Singularity will be getting a second beta with a new benchmark ahead of its March 22 debut, and several outlets have been given early access to that software in advance of its official release. AnandTech, ExtremeTech, and Guru3D have all benched this new beta in both single and multi-card configurations, including the kinds of Frankenstein builds we saw when developer Oxide Games previewed support for DirectX 12's explicit multi-adapter mode. Explicit multi-GPU support is being added to the game's public builds for this beta release, too, so more of the press has been able to put Radeons and GeForces side-by-side in the same systems to see how they work together.

Performance highlights
While all three reviews are worth reading in-depth, we want to highlight a couple things. Across every review, Radeon cards tend to lead comparable GeForces every step of the way in single-card configurations, at least in the measure of potential performance that FPS averages give us. Those leads widen as resolution and graphics quality settings are turned up.

For example, with Ashes' High preset and the DX12 renderer, the Radeon R9 Fury X leads the GeForce GTX 980 Ti by 17.6% at 4K in AnandTech's testing, going by average FPS. That lead shrinks to about 15% at 2560x1440, and to about 4% at 1080p. Ashes does have even higher quality settings, and Guru3D put the game's most extreme one to the test. Using the Crazy preset at 2560x1440, that site's Fury X takes a whopping 31% lead over the GTX 980 Ti in average FPS. Surprisingly, even a Radeon R9 390X pulls ahead of Nvidia's top-end card with those settings.

As we saw last year in an earlier Ashes benchmark series from PC Perspective, switching to DirectX 11 reverses the Radeons' fortunes. Using that rendering path causes a significant drop in performance: 20% or more, according to AnandTech's results.

The new Ashes benchmark lets testers flip asynchronous compute support on and off, too, so it's interesting to examine what effect that has on performance. AnandTech found that turning on the feature mildly harmed performance on GeForce cards. Radeons, on the other hand, got as much as a 10% boost in frame rates with async compute enabled. Nvidia says it hasn't enabled support for async compute in its public drivers yet, so that could explain part of the performance drop there.

In the "things you can do, but probably shouldn't" department, the latest Ashes beta also lets testers turn on DX12's Explicit Multiadapter feature in unlinked mode, which we'll call EMU for short. As we saw the last time we reported on performance of cards in an EMU configuration, the feature does allow for some significant performance scaling over single-card setups. It also allows weirdos who want to throw a Fury X and a GTX 980 Ti in the same system let their freak flags fly.

AnandTech did just that with its Fury X and GTX 980 Ti. Using the red team's card as the primary adapter, the site got a a considerable performance increase over a single card when running Ashes at 4K and with its Extreme preset. The combo delivered about 39% more performance over a GTX 980 Ti and about 24% over an R9 Fury X. With the GTX 980 Ti in the hot seat, the unlikely team delivered about 35% more frames per second on average.

EMU does come with one drawback, though. Guru3D measured frame times using FCAT for its EMU testing, and the site found that enabling the feature with a GTX 980-and-GTX-980-Ti pairing resulted in significant frame pacing issues, or "microstutter," an ugly problem that we examined back in 2013 with the Radeon HD 7990. If microstutter is a widespread issue when EMU is enabled, it could make the feature less appealing.

As with any purportedly earth-shattering numbers like these, we think there are a few caveats. For one, this is a beta build of Ashes of the Singularity. AnandTech cautions that it's "already seen the performance of Ashes shift significantly since our last look at the game, and while the game is much closer to competition now, it is not yet final."

For two, each site tested Ashes with the Radeon Software 16.1.1 hotfix, AMD's latest beta driver. After the results from each site were published, AMD released the Radeon Software 16.2 hotfix, which contains some Ashes-specific optimizations. We're curious to see what effect the updated driver has on the performance of the game on AMD hardware, and it's entirely possible that the effect could be positive.

For three, as we mentioned earlier, Nvidia says that it still hasn't enabled support for asynchronous compute in its public drivers. GeForce software product manager Sean Pelletier took to Twitter yesterday to point this out, and he also noted that Oxide Software's statement that asynchronous compute support was enabled in the green team's public drivers was incorrect. Given how heavily Ashes appears to rely on asynchronous compute, the fact that Nvidia's drivers apparently aren't exposing the feature to the game could partially explain why GeForce cards are lagging their Radeon competitors so much in this benchmark.

Still, if these numbers are any indication, gamers with AMD graphics cards could see a big boost in performance with DirectX 12, all else being equal. It's unclear whether other studios will take advantage of the same DX12 features that Oxide Games has with Ashes of the Singularity. Just because a game claims DirectX 12 support, that gives us no insight about the number of API features a particular title includes. Even so, we could be on the threshold of some exciting times in the graphics performance space. We'll have to see how games using this new API take shape over the coming months.

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