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Can Steam Deck play AAA games? If it can, what are the limitations at play that should be expected? What are the exceptions that the Valve Steam Deck simply cannot work around? In this article, I’ll be tackling these questions and more, so let’s dive right into it!
A Brief on The Steam Deck’s Hardware
Before I start talking about AAA gaming expectations on Steam Deck, I do need to take at least a moment to talk about the hardware we’re dealing with inside the handheld. If you’re gaming on Steam Deck, it generally expects you to be playing at the 800p* native resolution offered by its display.
While you can output to 1080p or even up to 4K with a Steam Deck Docking Station, I’m going to be writing this article under the expectation that you’ll be targeting 800p or 720p (*in games that don’t support 800p) as your primary in-game resolution and upscaling using FSR whenever you’re docked to a larger display.
The Steam Deck’s display is the centerpiece around which developers optimize their games and Valve targets their “Verified” status on Steam. The actual CPU and GPU hardware is no slouch either, boasting a custom AMD Zen 2 APU with 4 cores and 8 threads, as well as 8 RDNA 2 GPU Compute Units. With the CPU and GPU on the APU having 16GB of LPDDR5 RAM and 15 Watts of power to share, we’re looking at a gaming PC built down to the wire, especially for its price.
Can Steam Deck Play AAA Games at 120 FPS?
So, first and foremost, let’s just rip off the bandaid. 120 FPS is not happening on Steam Deck. It’s honestly barely happening on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X as-is.
Even if you dock the 60 Hz Steam Deck to an external display that supports 144 Hz and turn all the settings down, you’re still fairly unlikely to see the Deck run games at such a high refresh rate. The reason why isn’t even necessarily that the APU can’t do it— it’s instead a matter of that 15 Watt TDP limit.
When the TDP limit is so strict and has to be shared between the CPU and GPU, there are inevitable compromises to performance when either the CPU or GPU need to be pushed to full utilization. With a plugin manager Decky Loader, you can alleviate this by disabling SMT on the APU (meaning 4 cores and 4 threads only), but even then you just aren’t working around the low-power design of the handheld.
Deck also doesn’t see a boost to performance when Docked, unlike the Nintendo Switch, though it’s still much more powerful than any version of the Switch in Docked or Undocked. As a shorthand to console performance, Steam Deck is most comparable in power to an Xbox Series S or PlayStation 4 Pro before we start diving deep into Deck-unique settings and PC graphics configuration.
Can Steam Deck Play AAA Games at 60 FPS?
Now, this is where things get a lot more interesting! There actually are a fair few games that Steam Deck can play at 60 FPS, especially if you choose to enable FSR or in-game resolution scaling settings. Titles like Doom: Eternal, Resident Evil 4: Remake, and even Street Fighter 6 can be made to run at 60 FPS on Steam Deck! More recently, Petar also tested Lies of P running on Deck.
Some other titles (due to optimization or sheer scale) can be harder to push to 60 FPS, but you would be surprised just how many can still be pushed to 50 FPS on the handheld, which is the next best thing. Add the Steam Deck’s option to set per-game FPS and Refresh Rate limits, and you’d be surprised how smooth you can make a non-60 FPS game feel on a device that doesn’t even support Variable Refresh Rate without being Docked*.
*The actual update to the Dock that will add VRR support is still pending, but has been promised.
Can Steam Deck Play AAA Games at 30 FPS?
Now, more realistically, if you’re going to be playing AAA games on Steam Deck that make proper use of modern console graphics hardware, you’re going to have to target 30-40 FPS pretty often.
For example, Elden Ring from From Software is a cross-generation game that can only run at about 40 FPS stable on Steam Deck, with optimizations. Compared to the 30 FPS targeted by the PlayStation 4, though, that’s pretty dang good for a handheld!
In the video I’ve embedded from Digital Foundry above, the Steam Deck shows itself to be quite comparable to the Xbox Series S when used in handheld mode. As long as the PC version of a given AAA game is well-optimized, you can very much reach a console-level of graphics performance when playing that same game on Steam Deck in handheld mode.
Games with poor optimization or games that really push the graphical limits of the current-generation consoles may not work as well, though.
Can Steam Deck Play AAA Games with Real-Time Ray-Tracing Enabled?
Surprisingly enough, the Steam Deck actually can run select AAA games with real-time ray-tracing enabled! I’ve embedded a video above of the Steam Deck doing exactly that with Doom Eternal, where it still runs at a surprisingly stable range of 30-40 FPS with ray tracing enabled. On a handheld. That’s pretty insane, to be honest.
Unfortunately, it’s also probably about the limit of what you can expect from ray-tracing on Steam Deck. A game that’s fully built on ray-tracing like Metro Exodus: Enhanced Edition, for example, can only run at about 16 FPS on Steam Deck. And a title that takes it even farther and uses full Path Tracing like Portal With RTX…isn’t even going to run above 5 FPS on Steam Deck. There are some hard limits to what the Steam Deck can do, it turns out, and games built for ray-tracing rather than having ray-tracing features are most likely going to fall into that category.
And that’s it, at least for now!
I hope this article helped establish some clearer expectations as to what kind of gaming experiences you can expect on Steam Deck in 2023 and onward. While this generation of consoles is liable to push Steam Deck to its limits, a pretty generous number of AAA and AA games being made for these consoles should still run quite well on the handheld, as long as you are willing to optimize your Deck games.
If you liked the article, feel free to share it with one of the social media buttons above. You can also try pinging us @GamersDirector on Twitter with any feedback or additional questions you might have about gaming on Deck! Until then or until next time, I wish you happy gaming.