The Witcher 3’s next-gen upgrade is beautiful on PC – but the performance isn’t good enough

The Witcher 3 is over seven years old now – and we were surprised and delighted to see CD Projekt RED return to the game, modernizing it with a number of visual upgrades. Our take on the console versions is coming soon, but we’ll start with a look at the PC build, which offers the widest range of improvements compared to the original release. The ray tracing improvements are brilliant and absolutely transformative – but there are clear performance issues that need to be addressed.

Most of our performance testing was done with the day one release code, but we delayed the content until we retested with the hotfix update – and we’re sorry to say that whatever improvements CDPR has made don’t address any of our major criticisms.

Focusing on the positives first, the developer’s support for ray tracing features is very impressive. There is the inclusion of RTXGI, which is a probe-based RT global illumination solution. On top of that, there’s RT ambient occlusion, better grounding objects in the environment. Finally, RT reflections and shadows are also added to the mix, providing an extensive range of visual upgrades.

The Digital Foundry video breakdown of the new Witcher 3 running on PC.

There are also a number of non-RT based improvements. Screen space reflections for bodies of water are added if you’re not using the RT reflections, plus there’s a bunch of “ultra plus” quality options too. Of these, two really stand out: blade density and spacing dramatically increase distant detail, to the point where the existing ultra setting looks almost funny by comparison. Likewise, the density of the various leaf tufts has increased as well, so these elements extend further and become denser as they do so. Another improvement is the NPC density at ultra plus settings, especially evident in large scale cities like Novigrad.

Beyond the ultra plus settings, there are further upgrades baked into the new update. I can’t speak for all cutscenes, but I liked seeing that the low-quality video from the game’s intro has been replaced and seems to be running in real time now – so much better looking for it. Beyond the niceties, the next-gen upgrade features a number of new assets and higher-resolution textures, while elements that were previously textures – such as the cobblestones of Novigrad – are now full 3D geometry. NPCs are also more detailed, while hero characters like Geralt get detailed shadows from them outside of the cutscenes. In addition, all torches in the game world now also cast shadows.

The final universal upgrade is that the mesh LOD setting – which cannot be adjusted in-game – is much higher in the new release. This is not down to ultra plus settings as it is actually baked into all presets. Generally speaking, the increase in level of detail is one of the most easily visible upgrades to the game outside of the RT improvements.

As for why ray tracing is so transformative in The Witcher 3, it’s worth explaining how the 2015 version works. In the original game, almost all bounce lighting for reflective and matte surfaces is handled by cube maps placed around the world by artists very sparingly, resulting in a flat, bluish monotonous look to lighting. RTXIGI and RTAO increase the realism dramatically, and as you will see in the video and screenshots on this page, there is a night and day enhancement, which adds a lot of light bounce and color, and increases the realism tremendously.

Other extra RT effects are great, but more situational. Ray-traced reflections, for example, greatly aid the rendering of water surfaces, again delivering a massive improvement over the non-RT solution. Water surfaces now look much better whether they are bays by the sea, small puddles on the ground or even the small fountains found all over the world. I have only found one exception to this, and that is the streams in Skellige’s heartland, where the RT reflections are slightly broken and look static on moving water. RT reflections also apply to all surfaces that are smooth and reflective enough, such as tiled floors, armor and weapons.

Ray-traced shadows do their usual job of adding distance and varying degrees of sharpness based on their distance from the shadow-casting source, while also adding screen shadows to tufts of grass, giving them an otherwise shadowy and shadowy appearance. completely missing from the original game. I think this is a very significant difference as I always found grass in the old game to look oddly unshaded and two-dimensional as a result. There are some bugs though – I noticed RT shadows appearing and disappearing at times for reasons I can’t explain, so I hope to see this fixed. RT shaders also seem to have interactivity issues with Nvidia Hairworks, which I would also like to see addressed.

With the new lighting and improved drawing distances, The Witcher 3 looks like a much improved game visually. It easily draws you back into the environments and you can find yourself wandering around the game world enjoying the look and feel of it all. It really is a treat to go back into the game world and relive it in a new light, literally. However, the extent to which you will enjoy it depends on your hardware. This is a hugely challenging game to run, especially with RT enabled – and even without it, it’s clear that the DirectX 12 version has troubling performance limitations.

To put this into perspective, The Witcher 3 launched as a DX11 title. The next-gen upgrade comes with both DX11 and DX12 modes, the latter of which is required to use RT features, DLSS and FSR2. Although CDPR seems to claim otherwise, the DX11 version looks identical to the DX12 version without RT enabled, so I think it’s fine to compare the two at equivalent settings. In a busy Novigrad scene, DX11 offers a 45 percent performance improvement compared to DX12 – and remember, that’s without RT enabled. In turn, DX12 without RT enabled has a performance advantage of 54 percent compared to DX12 with RT on. These performance differences are all down to the CPU, it should be emphasized, where we noted major underutilization of the GPU.

The stark reality is that the frame rates we see here suggest that at maximum settings the game is heavier than Microsoft Flight Simulator or Spider-Man Remastered, two of the most CPU-heavy titles of recent times. Yes, the CPU load is significantly reduced outside of built-up areas in the countryside, but the bottom line is that poor performance with a 12900K paired with ultra-fast 6400MHz DDR5 means unacceptably low output on a mainstream processor like a Ryzen 5 3600. There are a number of reasons why the performance can be problematic, but the main one is DX12 and a confusing underutilization of the processor, where one or two threads seem to be more fully occupied, while others are not affected by anything to the same degree.

There are major performance issues with the game – and it’s all about the DX12 rendering path. Even when rendering a scene identical to the DX11 version, the performance is much lower. The frame rate numbers here are all from CPU-limited scenarios on a Core i9 12900K matched with 6400MT/s DDR5.

The only way to stream past the CPU limitation is via Nvidia DLSS 3 frame generation. As strange as it sounds, the CPU performance limitation is almost entirely thanks to frame generation, making it a killer feature in The Witcher 3, provided you have a decent CPU at the core of your system to begin with. DLSS 3 keeps frame rates high with frame times less erratic on average – and there’s hardly any lag penalty.

There are other issues with the game that I should highlight as well. Shader collection stuttering is present in the game, which I found very disappointing, while I also saw a camera stutter effect on pan movements. In summary, there are many, many technical issues that CD Projekt RED needs to address with the PC version of The Witcher 3’s next-gen upgrade.

Ultimately, I’m conflicted about this new release. I love the upgrades, but there are a lot of disappointments. The game has great visuals and the world looks incredible now, but the performance penalties for using the new features are huge. The CPU hit when accessing the DX12 lane is unacceptable and desperately needs addressing. And to reiterate, the issues are still there with the recent hotfix update, suggesting that a more fundamental approach is required to get the game in shape.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *