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

The Witcher 3 is now over seven years old – and we were surprised and delighted to see CD Projekt RED return to the game and modernize it with a number of visual upgrades. Our take on the console versions is coming shortly, but we’ll start with a look at the PC version, which offers the widest range of improvements compared to the original version. In a nutshell, the ray tracing improvements are brilliant and utterly 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 deferred the content until we tested again with the hotfix update – and we’re sorry to say that all of the improvements CDPR made , do not address any of our main criticisms .

Focusing on the positives first, the developer’s support for ray tracing capabilities is very impressive. There’s the inclusion of RTXGI, a probe-based global RT lighting solution. In addition, there is ambient RT occlusion, which makes objects better grounded in the environment. Finally, RT reflections and shadows are also added to the mix, providing a full range of visual upgrades.

Digital Foundry’s video of the new Witcher 3 running on PC.

There are also a number of non-RT based improvements. Onscreen reflections for water are added if you don’t use the RT reflections, and there are a number of “Ultra Plus” quality options. Of these, two really stand out: Foliage density and spacing drastically increase distant detail, to the point where the existing Ultra setting looks almost comical in comparison. Likewise, the density of the various clumps of leaves has increased, causing these elements to stretch farther into the distance while being more dense. Another improvement is the NPC density on Ultra Plus settings, which is especially noticeable in big cities like Novigrad.

Beyond the Ultra Plus settings, other upgrades are built into the new update. I can’t speak for all of the cutscenes, but I really enjoyed seeing that the low quality video from the game’s intro has been replaced and appears to be running in real time now – it looks so much better. Additionally, the next-gen upgrade features a number of new elements and higher-resolution textures, while elements that were previously textures – like Novigrad’s cobblestones – are now full 3D geometry. NPCs are also more detailed, while hero characters like Geralt cast detailed shadows of them outside of cutscenes. In addition, all torches in the game world now cast shadows.

The last universal upgrade is that the mesh LOD setting – which cannot be adjusted in-game – is much higher in the new version. This is not due to the Ultra Plus settings as it is actually baked into all setting presets. In general, the increase in the level of detail is one of the most visible improvements to the game outside of the RT improvements.

To explain 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 cubemaps, which are very sparsely placed by artists around the world, resulting in a flat, bluish, monotonous look to the lighting. RTXIGI and RTAO increase realism dramatically and as you will see in the video and screenshots on this page it is an improvement day and night as they add a lot of light reflection and color and increase realism tremendously.

Other added RT effects are great but more situational. Ray-traced reflections, for example, greatly aid in water surface rendering, and again deliver a massive improvement over the non-RT solution. Water surfaces now look a lot better, whether they’re sea bays, tiny puddles on the ground, or even the little fountains found all over the world. I’ve only found one exception to this and that’s the creeks in the Skellige heartland where the RT reflections are a bit broken and look static on flowing water. RT reflections also apply to any surface that is smooth and reflective enough, such as tiled floors, armor, and weapons.

Ray-traced shadows do their usual job, adding distance and varying degrees of sharpness depending on their distance from the shadow-casting source, while also adding shadows in the screen area for tufts of grass, giving them a shaded and shaded look that’s otherwise completely absent from the original game. I think that’s a very significant difference as I always thought that’s why grass in the old game looked weird with no shading and two-dimensional. There are some bugs though – I’ve noticed that RT shadows sometimes appear and disappear for reasons I can’t explain, so I’m hoping this gets fixed. RT shadows also seem to have interactivity issues with Nvidia Hairworks, which I’d like to see addressed as well.

With new lighting and improved draw distances, The Witcher 3 looks visually like a vastly improved game. It easily pulls you back into its surroundings and you can find yourself just wandering the game world and enjoying the look and feel of everything. It really is a pleasure to return to the game world and literally see it in a new light. However, how much fun you will have depends on your hardware. This is an immensely challenging game, especially with RT active – and even without it, it’s clear that the DirectX 12 version has troubling performance limitations.

To put this in perspective, The Witcher 3 was released as a DX11 title. The next-gen upgrade comes with both DX11 and DX12 modes, with the latter 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 okay to compare the two with equivalent settings. In a busy Novigrad scene, DX11 offers a 45 percent increase in performance compared to DX12 – and remember, that’s without RT enabled. Again, DX12 without RT enabled has a performance advantage of 54 percent over DX12 with RT enabled. These performance differences are all due to the CPU, it’s worth emphasizing where we saw major GPU underutilization.

The stark reality is that the frame rates we’re seeing here suggest the game is heavier on maximum settings than Microsoft Flight Simulator or Spider-Man Remastered, two of the most CPU-heavy titles in recent memory. Yes, CPU loading drops significantly outside of built-up areas in the countryside, but the point is that reduced performance at 12900K paired with ultra-fast 6400MHz DDR5 means unacceptably low performance on a mainstream processor like a Ryzen 5 3600. There are a number of reasons why performance can be problematic, but the most significant is DX12 and a puzzling processor underutilization where it seems like one or two threads are more fully occupied while all the others aren’t dealing with anything of the sort Touch come same degree.



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

The only way to overcome the CPU limitation is with Nvidia DLSS 3 frame generation. Strange as it may sound, the CPU performance cap is almost entirely bypassed 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 being less erratic on average – and there’s little latency penalty.

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

Ultimately I was conflicted about this new version. I love the upgrades but there are many disappointments. The game has great graphics and the world looks incredible now, but the performance hit for using the new features is immense. The CPU hit when accessing the DX12 path is unacceptable and needs to be addressed urgently. And to reiterate, the issues with the latest hotfix patch are still there, suggesting a more fundamental approach is needed to get the game in shape.

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Fry Electronics Team

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