Around this time four years ago The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings impressed critics with its opulent and demanding PC graphics, rich environments and storytelling, along with innovative combat mechanics. Selling nearly two million copies in its first year, the game was a great success for CD Projekt Red so it came as no surprise when a follow-up was announced.
After much anticipation and a few delays, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt launched this week to a similar degree of critical acclaim, with praises in the order of "one of the best role-playing games ever crafted" (GameSpot), "a game that often feels like a stunningly confident, competent shot across the bow of the open world genre" (Polygon), and "The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is shaping up to be one of the best RPGs of the year" (PCMag).
Less than a week in however there's some controversy in the PC world involving the game's reveal versus launch graphics. In 2013, CD Projekt Red (CDPR) teased a world that was bound to bring PC gaming graphics to a new level. That changed with the arrival of the Xbox One and Playstation 4. To optimise Wild Hunt for consoles, it CDPR slightly downgraded some of the visuals that were previously expected to be in the PC build. Quick to react, CDPR has already released a new patch in hopes of addressing some of these, improving graphics and graphical settings in the PC.
Adding to the squabble, The Witcher 3 includes Nvidia's HairWorks technology, which is essentially NVIDIA's version of TressFX. But unlike the latter, NVIDIA won't share its HairWorks code, so AMD can't optimise its drivers for the technology.
With the NVIDIA-influenced Radeon performance issues in Project CARS, it seems the gaming community has had enough and it's not just AMD users crying out over NVIDIA's underhanded tactics. Those using Kepler-based GeForce 700 series GPUs and older have started to notice poor performance in new GameWorks titles.
Project CARS was a perfect example as the $US200 Maxwell-based GTX 960 was found to be uncharacteristically fast, matching the two-year-old, $US1000 GTX Titan. It will be interesting to see how Kepler-based GPUs compare to Maxwell parts in The Witcher 3.
"Many of you have asked us if AMD Radeon GPUs would be able to run NVIDIA's HairWorks technology -- the answer is yes! However, unsatisfactory performance may be experienced as the code of this feature cannot be optimised for AMD products. Radeon users are encouraged to disable NVIDIA HairWorks if the performance is below expectations." -- CD Projekt Red spokesperson Marcin Momot
We've been preparing this article for days and just as we were ready to go live, CD Projekt Red released a new patch that optimises and improves graphics settings in the PC platform. We'll elaborate on those later.
We are expecting stunning visuals as CDPR recommends an Intel Core i7 and Radeon R9 290. Using the latest AMD and NVIDIA drivers, we tested nineteen DirectX 11 graphics cards covering most price ranges. Our test rig was outfitted with an Intel Core i7-5960X to remove CPU bottlenecks that could influence high-end GPU scores.
Using FRAPS we recorded 120 seconds of gameplay starting from the first time Geralt mounts Roach (his trusty steed) and rides toward a Griffin attacking a villager. The test ends when the Griffin flies away with the villager's horse.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was tested at three resolutions: 1920x1080, 2560x1440 and 3840x2160 using medium, high and ultra quality presets. The medium setting disables NVIDIA's HairWorks, high only applies it to Geralt and ultra uses HairWorks on everything with hair. The post-processing effects were left on high for all three quality tests.
Test System Specs
- Intel Core i7-5960X (3.00GHz)
- x4 4GB Kingston Predator DDR4-2400 (CAS 12-13-13-24)
- Asrock X99 Extreme6 (Intel X99)
- Silverstone Strider Series (700w)
- Crucial MX200 1TB (SATA 6Gb/s)
- Gigabyte Radeon R9 290X (4096MB)
- Gigabyte Radeon R9 290 (4096MB)
- Gigabyte Radeon R9 285 (2048MB)
- Gigabyte Radeon R9 280X (3072MB)
- HIS Radeon R9 270X (2048MB)
- HIS Radeon R9 270 (2048MB)
- HIS Radeon R7 265 (2048MB)
- HIS Radeon HD 7970 GHz (3072MB)
- HIS Radeon HD 7970 (3072MB)
- HIS Radeon HD 7950 (3072MB)
- HIS Radeon HD 7850 (2048MB)
- Gigabyte GeForce GTX 980 (4096MB)
- Gigabyte GeForce GTX 970 (3584+512MB)
- Gigabyte GeForce GTX 960 (2048MB)
- Nvidia GeForce GTX Titan (6144MB)
- Gigabyte GeForce GTX 780 Ti (3072MB)
- Gigabyte GeForce GTX 780 (3072MB)
- Gigabyte GeForce GTX 770 (2048MB)
- Palit GeForce GTX 760 (2048MB)
- Gainward GeForce GTX 680 (2048MB)
- Gainward GeForce GTX 660 Ti (2048MB)
- Gainward GeForce GTX 660 (2048MB)
- Microsoft Windows 8.1 Pro 64-bit
- Nvidia GeForce 352.86 WHQL
- AMD Catalyst 15.4 Beta
Benchmarks: Medium Quality
At 1080p using the medium quality settings we already get a sense for just how demanding The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt really is. The performance above isn't that much faster than what we saw when benchmarking GTA V using the maximum quality settings with normal textures.
That said, for a minimum of 30fps gamers need only a Radeon HD 7850 or GeForce GTX 660 Ti. Those shooting for a minimum of 60fps are going to need some serious firepower -- think GTX Titan or R9 290.
Now at 1440p we find that not even the GTX 980 can deliver a minimum of 60fps, though it did provide an average of 62fps. The R9 290X was the next fastest GPU, though it averaged only 53fps -- slightly faster than the GTX 970.
For a minimum of 30fps, the HD 7950 Boost or ideally the R9 285 will be required, while NVIDIA users will get away with the GTX 960 or GTX 780.
4K gamers won't find The Witcher 3 particularly playable on anything less than a GTX 980 when using just the medium quality settings. The GTX 980 averaged just 30fps with a minimum of 26fps.
Benchmarks: High Quality
Enabling the high quality graphics preset had a huge impact on frame rates, dropping the GTX 980 from 88/98fps to just 30/65fps. What is most noticeable here is the huge reduction in minimum frame rates, which in the case of the GTX 980 is 3x less than the average frame rate. This means at 1080p using the high quality visuals the GTX 980 was the only GPU able to deliver a minimum of 30fps.
When looking at averages, gamers will require either the GTX 680, GTX 760 or R9 285 for 30fps+.
The 1440p high quality performance is rough, requiring a GTX Titan or R9 290 just to average 30fps.
Multi-GPU technology is a must for gaming at 4K resolutions in The Witcher 3. Here we see a single GTX 980 is good for just 24fps on average with a minimum of 12fps.
Benchmarks: Ultra Quality
Ultra quality graphics reduce the GTX 980 to just 56fps at 1080p, down from 65fps when using the high-quality settings. For an average of 30fps at 1080p gamers will require a GTX 770, GTX 960 of R9 280X.
Playing at 1440p dropped the GTX 980 to just 40ps with a minimum of 20fps, while the R9 290X was good for just 28fps with a minimum of 12fps.
Things looked bleak during the last round of punishment for our GPUs. Playing on ultra at 4K, the GTX 980 averaged just 22fps, so even with two cards in SLI the best gamers can hope for is a little over 40fps with a minimum of around 20fps.
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Steven Walton is a writer at TechSpot. TechSpot is a computer technology publication serving PC enthusiasts, gamers and IT pros since 1998.