The Witcher 3 Head 2 Head
Well we are at one of the biggest releases of the year and a highly anticipated head 2 head of cd project red's latest and final entry into the Geralt trilogy.This is not only the first time that the studio have been thrust into the AAA stadium from an early VGX trailer and then an E3 first onstage with Microsoft last year showing of the then debut glimpse of the game running on consoles.
Roll on nearly a year later and we have it finally in our hands and ready to get lost in the huge open world they have a created, the first time for the game and the team and it must be said a superb job that they have achieved at their first attempt.
But this is not the only new challenge for the team, along with the huge effort that would be needed for this they have also now released across 3 formats at once helped in part by some 3rd party middleware solutions that create such a dense world from the trees and foliage (this allows the software to randomise the allocation, physics and interaction dynamically within the software rather than an artist hand placing each bushel or shrub) along with this the same umbra culling engine used in another vast draw distance game AC unity is also used that handles the removal (culling) of geometry when no longer within the players view, in fact this was a talk that the team gave a while back going into detail on how this helps with performance. Some may not like how aggressive it can be at times within the frustum as nearby trees disappear inches from the player but in combat this is a help, something that can be random at times and not across all objects as interior battles can still get obscured by foreground objects not culled in time. But overall the solutions work well and integrates into cd project red's own engine pretty seamlessly. Being an engine that has been updated over the teams last witcher 2 release but maybe not as far as the early demo had shown but more on that later.
What was a DX9 render has now been added to with a host of DX11 extras that help push the game into such a visually splendid affair. Lighting is improved with an implementation of a physically based shader that allows materials to interact with light more accurately than before, ground is tessellated to allow a more dense and organic look to ruts, ridges and rocks. This tessellation is also carried over to the impressive water in the game but the consoles seem to have a mixed version going on that I will detail later. But on ultra or high then it reacts to you, objects to it and ripples, distorts and moves based on storms or other forces of nature. It helps immerse you more in the world with another area of this vivid land no mans or not Geralt can still go above or below. When under water a light screen distortion is used along with again on high at least a screen space reflection of the player that also appears on consoles.
On drier plains the world seems to stretch as far as the eye can see, with pop in and LOD being of particular praise when the foliage range is high enough (this being high which both consoles run the foliage at) allowing you to ride or run with no jarring draw in as you do so. Ultra setting here on PC needs a good machine but pushes this even further along while adding more into the far distance which although only minor is welcome and sums up the benfits to the top end PC version well. The team is first and foremost a PC developer (with this being the first launch on a Sony machine, witcher 2 had a bespoke X360 release that was commendable) and this rightly shows with a good selection of options in the menu along with simple ini changes allowed within the games root folders to tweak further still. And in here I am sure the team have played with a GPU analyser to best set the defaults for the presets and on consoles but before we edge into performance across machines we need to look at where each machine lies.
First up the lighting and post processing effects are all equal on both consoles to the highest on PC. This includes strong bloom effects from sun or light as it bounces of objects like the bark of a tree, shafts of light emit through tree lines and are broken by any manor of occluders. This is enhanced by long shadows from all objects creating some of the stunning looks in the game as the winds billows through trees, long shadows can be seen dancing on the ground and through long grass, it all combines at times to create some stunning shots and vistas. And this would not be complete without one of the most impressive and natural weather systems I have seen in a game.
As has become the norm, wetter is better in visuals but CDP have refrained from simply having an on-off weather system, instead following something similar to hideo kojima's Fox Engine where the sky dynamically changes as the weather draws in.
The sky will slowly darken, spots of rain will be seen. The wind will pick up and clouds cover the sun before a downpour or lighter shower ensue. This along with the linear lighting system work flow allowed by its High dynamic range means that saturation levels of light and colour can be used to enhance this more along with emulating GI within the engine, enabling the image to be contrasted more accurately. The game uses image based lighting which are sensor probes dotted around the world that effectively take a cubemap snapshot allowing more dynamic and accurate light effects within play.
These are bolstered by camp fires and the like being shadow emitting sources that even in daylight allow dual shadows for characters nearby, this is present across all versions with PC needing at least high shadows for this to work. As the sky's become dark the locals even fire up torches to see, these again reflect off of scenery, Gerald's armour. The game uses a good amount of dynamic point lights in addition to the sun or moon.
The rain effects also include characters becoming wet and enhancing reflectance which carries over into the real-time cutscenes. These are dotted with some of the bigger moments in the game using pre-rendered (but in-engine) sequences that can be delivered a little jarringly on all formats but the consoles seem to be worse.
While we mentions shadows as you may have seen from my 1st contact of the XboxOne version patch 1.01 (which both console versions are installed with for this analysis) altered both AF and AO in the game, but this only affected cutscenes with both consoles running the PC SSAO option with Nvidia based HBAO+ being an option to add a further improvement to this effect but outside of Nvidia cards I would advise leaving it off as the benefit is incredibly minor and can be not worth the performance hit on certain cards. Except here where it adds much more shadow depth to foliage which is very nice and is the only time I have seen its use make a visible difference in play, in cutscenes it still remains a hard to spot addition for the cost.
But this start also highlights some of the odd issues on console, here you can see that both ps4 and X1 have lower shadow quality and AO than even the lowest PC setting which, as in earlier scenes and later tested ones, this is not the case with consoles looking to be equal to medium shadows and SSAO. And the game has other signs of maybe just a little more time was needed before launch. Texture loading can be much slower at points on both consoles as here, with even my A10 APU PC complete with R7 on chip GPU not effected by this even at ultra textures which use less than 2gb of VRAM at any point. And loading needs a special mention as when you die on PC this can take around 5-15 seconds max that I have tested, with both consoles regularly falling into around 5 times longer, yes some loading times can take over a minute and this includes on my PS4 which I am able to swap to a hybrid drive still not improved by this. Now these are minor and do not effect the game or enjoyment any (unless of course you are crap and die a lot) but these areas and some others later give me the feeling that the consoles versions are just alittle behind the development cycle than the PC version, just as we saw with Dying Light.
This is not a dig at all but more an acknowledgment of such an epic scaled task the team had taken on and predominately they have delivered a superb job across all platforms. But I expect later patches to come that will tweak and improve some areas of the game along with performance improvements (as we have already seen on PC with a hair works patch) as I they work through the changes these consoles have along with development environment. Some thing the team have acknowledged themselves with them stating a game made not across platform and fixed to one or other would enable greater fidelity, as obviously a cross platform engine has to make comprises for all not unsurprisingly as I have said many times before, and this has been a PC developed game ported to consoles.
This brings me to another oddity with texture work again on consoles being a mix of high and medium which is odd as I say due to the amount of ram being used and available, but the game does edge out of its allotment as you play with VRAM never exceeding 1.8gb of use in my tests but system ram can fill into the 6gb + Mark, note not all of this will be game usage mind on longer plays so may explain some of this with the central pool of ram on consoles may be with the engine issues a conservative choice was made here. High textures are the same as ultra it is just that ultra is loaded most of the time to reduce streaming. And this is my thought that it is a loading issue, as sometimes the console textures are the same as the best on PC (cutscenes are always identical for example) and others the mip map seems to fail on load so you are left with medium mainly on ground areas the inconsistency of this leads me to believe it is more of an API related issue that may get patched later.(see below)
Elsewhere we see that grass density is equal to medium on consoles with high and ultra being close, you have to look to see this as here demonstrates. Terrain seems to match around high with detail level being really one I struggled to find any change within but in terms of AF the PS4 seems to run 8x with the XboxOne varying at times between 4 and 8 dependent on the scene in play.
Water is another mixture with consoles running the effects from high like interaction and tessellated movement but lose shown additional shader work on surface that even the lowest setting on PC has, they also lose the interaction with spells like the force blast that ripples when PC is set to at least high with no effect on consoles, this may come in a further patch. The XboxOne seems to have a slightly better version of water than ps4 being closer to the PC but still not quite a fixed set. Playing with the ini settings more may explain this further that I will cover in an eventual catch up final verdict video on the game as I foresee some performance patches incoming as the game still feels like it has come in a little warm in places.
But these minor areas are exactly that with the bulk of the games delivery and visual punch delivered on console. And with all the settings taken care of we can move into the more important performance side. The unlocked frame rate on XBOxOne (the PS4 is capped at 30) is another sign of quick wins for launch. This will allow the X1 slightly more headroom when a drop happens and with the engine supporting both deferred and forward + rendering it seems to favour deferred here, and with the limited buffer space on X1 a frame drop or 2 could lower the Fps more so than when at 30+ which it spends most of its time achieving, but capping this means the drops would all be from 30. The PS4 has this cap and predominately is the smoother presentation for it, with game play being more consistent on the Sony platform, something I know many will struggle to get. But as I went through in my game patch video and as seen heavily in Bloodborne a constant even delivery of frames is preferred over a see-saw delivery, this reaches a plateau around the 40's as an average, if this happens then unlocked is better (although again subjective some may still prefer a cap at 30 even here) but the X1 never gets this average, mostly around the mid 35 but it stays above 30 most of the time and is better at achieving this than the PS4 due ,in part, to its unlocked rate.
This is not to say the PS4 struggles in play, as it stays at the 30 target most of the time, but while riding through fields it can drop a frame here and there from streaming which is more of an engine issue as this effects all platforms equally but the PS4 is the only one capped without choice at 30 so is easier to spot. The only other area is the cut scenes which are very varied even on my GTX970/i5 rig, whip on hair works and this can bring frame rates tumbling into the 20's but it is great that the team are pushing visual tricks like this if you have the machine, I feel that hair works is in a very unrefined state at present with as was seen with AMD version Tressfx it will be improved and used to better effect with less performance zapping use whilst optimising it to achieve very similar visuals results. Right now the use of it is a subjective one, I personally prefer the look of Gerald's hair without but his beard does look better, but in game play the ability to notice either is very rare but the performance impact is not so discreet as demonstrated here with the griffin battle, in near as damn it conditions it can have up to 20fps difference in like for like examples, best kept for Sli Titan rigs or further optimised versions in my opinion. Particle effects now all look equal on console and PC best with both density and lifetime being equal allowing you to ramp up the spells with some nice pyrotechnics that also include light source as they do.
With hairworks off and all settings to ultra aside shadows which never seems to change to any notable degree from medium to ultra, but can affect the fps by a few frames, if you want the speed leave these at medium or high (as I have done on the GTXwith all my other machines aside the entry level A10 being low on everything and all post effects off with a 1360x768 sweet spot of resolution set) as you will struggle to see any major difference. But at ultra everywhere else and hair works off my 970 is the best way to experience the game with a near 60 in play aside certain areas like the swamp lands or cut scenes that can bring it down to the low 40's and high 30's but predominantly it performs well.
All other machines vary and aside my 8350/7870 machine all really need a cap to 30. The AMD machine can hover around the 40's in play and feels good enough to leave unlocked with all settings here on high and SSAO it Performs well, turning hair works needs you to tweak the tessellation setting to 8x or override in the driver panel and it can still run it but as seen on the GTX machine it will eat performance and ask for seconds, best left to beefier rigs and when AMD can look at the code from the Nvidia black box solution as the game does have this use of physics x in the game which I believe handles the console versions also so. All this will run on the GPU or on AMD machines passed to the CPU most likely, and the game is not a CPU killer like it is for the GPU. All machines run the card at near 100% command buffer use most of the time but CPU even on my A10 APU is left with room to spare, 1 core is only tapped on occasion even with my 750ti card in use no core is ever maxed out which shows how hard the game pushes GPU. With a dual core being enough for this game and a quad core or more not entirely needed or even excessively used over 4 cores.
The 750ti machine at the same settings as consoles puts in a close enough performance to be equal, helped by its unlocked rate it does dip more often under 30 than the Ps4 and due to its unlocked state performs slightly better than the XboxOne version as my frame graph shows the line spikes more up than down with the X1 being slighty more volatile here, something as I say I feel will be patched soon as they work on the game. But as the game and console already shows, here I have rendered a 30fps capped version for each odd frame showing at a solid 30 is possible even in the heavy Bog area so hopefully the team will get this cap and lock in soon which will help the only real weakness for the XboxOne version aside the resolution dip.
Which brings me to the AA used in the game, CDP have used a custom FXAA solution in the game that works well added to with a temporal pass for each frame, as it uses a standard deferred render using msaa is not an option with even a driver override failure. But it covers shimmer and sub pixel noise well with only occasional misses like on texture work as seen on the bridge here. The ps4 seems clearer that the PC version here, even with the additional blur post effect off and sharpening on distant objects can appear alittle softer. The XboxOne in comparison comes off slightly worse here due to its lower resolution buffer giving the solution slightly more work to do with less but only really effects in distant trees and thinner objects and mostly goes by unnoticed.
As you can see in my detailed analysis cutscenes are the biggest impact on performance and I would imagine the areas most ripe for performance increases throughout the engine with the Ps4 having the biggest stutters here which again point to its unique graphics API helped by its 30 cap. This means that it can have some prolonged dips where all other versions have an advantage of the unlocked framerate and direct X pipeline meaning that although it is a issue on all formats and hardware it effects the PC and XboxOne less so. But in the far more effected gameplay it balances out that the XboxOne can feel worse on occasions ,this is as much the dips as the camera movement and Animation blending through key frames again that effects all platforms just less so when you reach the 60 heights of my high end machine. Movement can feel more binary than analogue with Geralt moving from walk to run in a sudden leap, and the camera movement again suffers from this digital response that I am sure this being worked on. If this is resolved and a more linear path for this transition is used it will improve the perceived smoothness of the game throughout.
The A10/750Ti machine runs close to the ps4 with the swamp area showing the biggest dip being constantly under 30 on the Nvidia machine, but aside this in general play at the same settings it delivers a similar level of performance and fidelity and equals the Sony machine for 3rd place.
My AMD machine comes in a solid second and delivers at times a similar level to the gtx machines and is certainly more consistent than the other versions.
But no surprise and commendable to the team that it has allowed its game to push some minor but welcome benefits if you have the hardware and the i5 gtx machine comes top (as it should being a high end machine) in delivering the peak level of the witcher wild hunt. This is not to say any other version loses out drastically with the double frame rate being its single biggest advantage with the other small improvements being minor but very welcome.
But it would not be right unless I mentioned the original 2013 version and the changes from that version to now. It is clear that the game has undergone some changes, with the rendered looking to have been competent changed. The old engine used a far more dense lighting system incorporating Global Illumination with full bounce and diffuse calculations. Much richer particle system and far denser topology models, you can see the entire redesign of the armour. The group thought for this is "console" caused this which is to some extent true as the team have already stated the game as it stands would not exists without the console market.
But it is not the console that have caused this change as much as time, effort and budget. The engine itself was experimental and was running in a very high end machine (far more than my gtx or even more rigs) and would simply not run on 99% of machines in the public domain, it becomes a very bad business practise to make a game no one can run. But it is early in this generation and with CDP working on its next game cyberpunk 2077 expect far more improve to to the engine here and some of these missed features to make a more optimised appearance.
I will do a video that covers this in more detail shortly but rest assured that what we have here is a grand farewell to the Geralt story that delivers an incredibly rich and dense world that feels lived in and nearly as rugged as out anti-hero. And the experience is as epic, action packed and exciting no matter which platform you choice and hopefully I have explained all the pro's and cons of each so you can make you own informed decision.
I will have my review up soon and I would also like to thank Cd project Red for sending me a review copy this week which greatly helps me in my aim.