I was worried.
After months of excitement about The Witcher 3, it seemed like it was falling apart in the run-up to launch. All of the reviews that went up last week were conducted on debug PS4 consoles. PC codes, meanwhile, were pushed back time and time again until finally I was told we’d receive code on launch day, probably. And all this from a PC-friendly developer like CD Projekt.
When a game’s coming in that hot on PC, we’re right to be worried. Mortal Kombat X, Assassin’s Creed Unity—these are just two recent examples where the PC version came at the last minute and featured huge problems not caught on consoles.
So yeah, I was worried about The Witcher 3. For no reason, it turns out.
NOTE: All tests in this article were conducted with Nvidia’s latest Witcher 3 game-ready driver installed, which was provided to us prior to release.
To be fair, I’m only ten-or-so hours in at the time of writing, which is why you’re getting impressions today instead of a full review. And I plan to experience all The Witcher 3 has to offer, so who even knows when a review will hit?
But from that ten hours, The Witcher 3 seems to be an amazing accomplishment. Much of what I’ve played so far I already covered in my preview of the first four hours—You’ll start in the small town of White Orchard for a massive, three-hour long “tutorial” area and then head to Vizima to meet with His Imperial Excellency Emhyr var Emreis. If you’ve never played a Witcher game you might feel a bit lost, but your companion Vesemir will help you through the worst of it with some subtle flavor text.
Yada yada yada. This is all fodder for a real review. Let’s talk about how it runs. That’s the big concern here, what with people dissecting old E3 demos on YouTube to see whether the game’s graphics have been “downgraded.”
Downgraded or not, the graphics in The Witcher 3 are gorgeous. However, I would say The Witcher 3 certainly isn’t the graphics card-punishing beast that Witcher 2 was. Running at 1080p I was able to max out most of the (extremely granular) settings except Nvidia HairWorks and maintain a steady 60 frames per second…on a single GeForce GTX 970. The only things I dipped were grass density and crowd size, and I left those on High.
I was surprised, actually. At launch, The Witcher 2 seemed essentially designed to set contemporary graphics cards on fire, and here I was maxing out 95 percent of The Witcher 3’s options on a single card. And not even a top-of-the-line card at that!
To be honest, I don’t know what to make of it. Are The Witcher 3’s graphics less future-proof than The Witcher 2? Better optimized? Or is it a testament to how far ahead of its time The Witcher 2 was?
Probably a bit of each, if I had to guess. Regardless, the graphics are still amazing. And there are a lot of graphics.
Really, that’s the biggest difference that can’t be conveyed through screenshots. The Witcher 3 is massive. It is larger than Watch_Dogs. It is larger than Assassin’s Creed Unity. It is larger than Grand Theft Auto V. The only games that come close in my mind are Skyrim and Dragon Age: Inquisition, although Dragon Age’s subsections are smaller than The Witcher 3’s areas.
This is a game of a scope The Witcher 2 never even attempted, with an overwhelmingly huge world and seamless interiors to boot. So yeah, maybe the graphics in The Witcher 3 don’t push the envelope as hard as The Witcher 2 did, but the difference is there’s about 100 times more of it, with few loading screens to mar the presentation.
And besides size, there are two areas in which The Witcher 3 takes some huge steps forward from its predecessor: lighting and faces.
Take a look back at The Witcher 2’s lighting and it’s…not great. During the day it’s sort of flat, broken only by the occasional god ray. At night it has this weird HDR-glow, bloom-overload thing going on.
The Witcher 3 is breathtaking, especially at sunset. Look at these:
It’s beautiful, and yet it’s only half the story. Screenshots can’t capture the way the trees and grass sway in the wind, breaking up the light dynamically so the scene is always shifting in subtle ways. It can’t capture the way the sun ends up behind a tree as you’re galloping toward town, throwing the road into darkness. Grand Theft Auto V is the only game that’s ever done sunsets as well as The Witcher 3.
And fire, too, gets a huge upgrade. That’s important, considering how many candles, torches, burning huts, et cetera light Temeria:
Then there are faces. Both The Witcher and The Witcher 2 had problems with same-y NPCs. Walking through the city, it was only a matter of seconds before you’d see twins. Anybody that wasn’t a core story character was drawn from an extremely small pool of NPC designs.
The Witcher 3 rectifies this. I’ve noticed a few similar NPCs so far in my ten hours—particularly a propensity for an atrocious bowl haircut you’ll see early on in the game that’ll make you want to punch guys in the face—but overall it appears the inhabitants of Temeria have broadened the gene pool this time around. Towns feel like actual towns, rather than weird pockets of clones.
Check out these totally-not-super-important characters, for instance:
That’s quite a broad spectrum.
Last but not least, Nvidia’s HairWorks. This is apparently the “pushing-technology-forward” setting in The Witcher 3 the way ubersampling was in The Witcher 2. What I mean is “HairWorks wants to melt my graphics card.”
Not really, but it does put quite a dent in my framerate. I’d heard rumors about that prior to release, and can now confirm: It definitely doesn’t seem like as lightweight an implementation as AMD’s TressFX is currently. With HairWorks off I was getting between 50-60 frames per second on Ultra/High on a 970. Turn on HairWorks for Geralt Only and I dropped to 40-45 frames per second. Turn HairWorks all the way on? Some battles dipped into the thirties.
“Oh boo-hoo, the thirties,” I cry. Considering the console versions struggled to even hit 30 frames per second at 1080p (reviews reported sub-30 frames per second during chaotic scenes) I’m feeling pretty great about The Witcher 3 on PC.
Oh, and Geralt’s beard grows, which is the coolest totally-inessential feature I’ve seen in a game in a long time.
If you’re running an Nvidia card, I don’t think you have anything to worry about with The Witcher 3. Have I encountered some bugs? Sure. I’ve had one crash-to-desktop. One time I couldn’t get Geralt to stop jumping. As soon as he landed on the ground he’d jump again, like a baby bird trying to fly. The solution was to mash the jump button until it finally registered.
And I also think the PC controls are not great, to say the least. After playing the tutorial I abandoned the keyboard for a gamepad—clearly the input device the game was designed around. The keyboard controls are unnecessarily convoluted, with “Dodge” for instance requiring you to press Alt and W/A/S/D at the same time. Considering how much you’re dodging, it’s a huge pain.
As for AMD users—well, here it gets murky. I unfortunately haven’t gotten around to testing The Witcher 3 on an AMD rig yet, though my colleague Brad Chacos is working on it. Thus, I can’t say whether your Witcher 3 experience is going to be as smooth at launch as an Nvidia user's. Fingers crossed.
Nevertheless, what I’ve played has been fantastic, both from a tech standpoint and a story standpoint—the latter being something I haven’t covered much in this impressions piece, but which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s played a Witcher game before.
And I’m cutting this article off right now so I can go play more. Enjoy Temeria.