Rrrrright. It’s 12:30pm, and I’ve just spent about 90 minutes in the company of the PC version of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Not long enough to offer any sort of actual review (despite the Steam user reviews breathlessly calling it the best game ever after a full 20 minutes play) but enough to write out a few words on how the PC version holds up on my machine, and what sort of scalability it offers.
For the record, then, my machine is as follows: i7-3820, 16GB RAM, 2GB GeForce GTX 670. Not top of the line by any means, but enough to comfortably handle most modern games as long as I don’t go mental on the “ultra” side of the graphic settings.
So, how is it? I’m torn, actually. From what I’ve played, The Witcher 3 is in a playable and polished state (better than a lot of games at launch, in fact) although it does have a fair few niggling little issues that I suspect will be fixed and updated over the coming weeks, and I question whether or not the PC version was the big focus.
First things first: it installs out to around 25GB, which is surprisingly svelte for a game of this size and scope. When games like Titanfall and Wolfenstein: The New Order managed to balloon out to over 40GB, you’d be forgiven for expecting The Witcher 3 to require an entire terabyte hard drive to itself. Applause for CD Projekt RED there, I think.
It unlocks. I click Play in GOG Galaxy. It begins.
It runs really, staggeringly slowly on the menus and cutscenes, and I have no bloody idea why. According to FRAPS, menus and cutscenes are both rocking on at a relatively glacial 19FPS. At first, I assumed this meant I was doomed, and that the entire game was going to run like this… and then I noticed that changing the graphic options made absolutely no difference to the menus, and that the game itself ran considerably quicker.
We’ll get to that. First, though, let’s look at those lovely PC options.
In the video options are four separate tabs: HUD Configuration, Rescale HUD, Postprocessing, and Graphics. HUD Configuration is all of the lovely little in-game notifications you may or may not want, like having the minimap rotate, or showing enemy health bars, or whatever. I’m assuming this isn’t PC specific, but I suspect a few people will be breathing a sigh of relief at the fact that they can make it as immersive as they like! Or, alternately, crowd the HUD with more pop-ups than can reliably fit on a screen.
Rescale HUD is rather more uninteresting, simply letting you check that the game’s window matches your screen’s borders. Again, I’m happy to see it, but it’s not what we’re here for.
Once we hit Postprocessing, things get a lot more interesting. Here are the Postprocessing options in full:
And finally, Graphics, which offers a lot of delicious tweakables:
(No, I have no idea why Gamma suddenly appeared in the options to the left halfway through.)
Initially, at least, I didn’t change much. I fiddled around a little to see if it’d change the menu framerate, and when it didn’t, I went right back to Medium. I unlocked the framerate, pondered the options for a bit, and then started up the game.
The first segment is ostensibly a flashback to Ciri’s training at the Witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen, which is a nice way of simultaneously teaching the basics of play, and establishing the characters. There’s Geralt (naked), and Yennefer (naked), and Ciri (clothed because she’s about 10), and Vesemir (clothed because he’s about 100). There’s some running, jumping, climbing, and a little bit of fighting to finish things off. Lovely.
Once the flashback/dream sequence ended and the game got properly underway, I decided it was time to actually keep an eye on the framerate proper. For the most part, with pretty much everything set to Medium, the game hovered somewhere between 40 and 45 FPS. Not quite the 60 I’d like to see, but perfectly playable, and still a cut above the game’s recommendation of a hard-locked 30.
This seemed an appropriate time to mess about with the settings a bit, and see what sort of performance gains (and losses) could be eked out. So, picking a relatively calm scene in the village nearest the start – but with a few wandering civvies and a reasonable view – I dicked about.
Postprocessing doesn’t honestly seem to change much, maybe netting me about 5FPS total with everything turned as low as it can go. The graphic options, conversely, do have a large impact – but not necessarily as large as you might think.
With everything on the “low” presets, the game was averaging around 50FPS, occasionally managing a bit higher. On medium, as mentioned above, we were talking about 40-45. High drops things to 20-25. Ultra placed me at about 15-20, which was eerily close to how the main menu runs.
The surprises are both that Ultra runs that well, and Low runs that badly. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t consider 15-20FPS to really be “playable” (particularly because it would almost certainly drop further in more intensive scenes), nor do I consider 50-55FPS to be bad. But I am surprised that I couldn’t get a constant 60FPS.
I should add that this is what I’d call casual usage, insofar as I hadn’t done a clean reboot and shut down absolutely everything to make it go as fast as I could. Skype, notorious resource hog Firefox, Steam, and a few other programs were running in the background – so yeah, rather than showing the best that my system can possibly do, this is more of an indication as to how it’d run if I suddenly fancied playing The Witcher 3 and fired it up at random.
Also, the game is beautiful. Even on medium settings it looks really, really nice. I’m sure there are those out there running it on ultra who’ll be very disappointed with how it looks, and I can certainly spot a few rough edges in the medium-detail screenshots I took, but the general effect is really quite remarkable. I’m looking forward to having a more in-depth play around with the settings and seeing just how nice I can make it look without tanking my framerate.
Next port of call was Windows Task Manager, to see how the CPU Usage and Physical Memory Usage were impacted by The Witcher 3. On medium settings the CPU usage went up to about 30%, and Physical Memory usage was at around 40%. Doesn’t mean much to me, I’m afraid, but I suspect this means that the biggest bottleneck is my graphics card. It might also imply that The Witcher 3 is only using one CPU core, but I really don’t know enough about this architecture or coding for it to make any sort of educated guess.
So let’s move away from the performance and onto something I can more safely discuss: the controls.
This is a bit more of a “hmm” area. I’m not sure I can fault CD Projekt RED for this too much, because combat requires quite a few buttons and there are only so many that make immediate sense on mouse and keyboard, but… hmm.
As an example, let’s say you’re in a fight. Other than drawing your sword (the number 1) you’ve got sheathing your sword (C), fast attack (left mouse button), heavy attack (Shift and left mouse button), parry (right mouse button), throwing a bomb (middle mouse button), lock target (Z), dodge (Alt), roll (Space), selecting a sign (number keys, or a selection wheel), casting a Sign (Q), quick-using an item… etc. And then you get out of combat and several of those keys change, and you’ve got a few more to remember.
I mean, that’s a lot of buttons. I get it. Attacks and dodges and Signs and items and selections and so on. But… it still feels a bit messy on keyboard, and I can’t help but feel it’s been designed around a gamepad first and foremost. Previous Witcher games never had perfect mouse and keyboard controls either, but for whatever reason, this feels considerably clunkier than before.
This sense was heightened when I plugged in a gamepad and played it, and suddenly everything felt natural and comfortable. I mean, I got my arse kicked in the very first fight I tried because I had no idea what the controls were, but having my attacks bound to X and Y rather than modified by the shift key made a lot more sense for something I’m doing regularly.
Fortunately, my mouse has a lot more buttons than three, so I suspect I can improve matters greatly by spending a little time playing with the keybindings. Most buttons can indeed be changed within the options (although a few, like the map hotkey being M, are locked) so I can set the thumb button on my mouse to parry, if I really want to. And I probably do. Or maybe I should swap parry to Shift, and strong attack to the right mouse button? Or maybe that should be the default, rather than having a modifier? Again: hmm. Then again, The Witcher 2‘s controls felt incredibly awkward for the first few hours, so maybe I just need a bit of time to get used to it.
I should probably also note that the menu interface is also a bit… interesting. The inventory seems fine, in the few chances I’ve had to experience it, but there are a few niggles with the rest of it – the tabs at the top are fairly useless for cycling through the menus quickly on mouse and keyboard, and the map doesn’t properly detect you releasing your mouse cursor if you’re outside the actual bounds of the map. Like, say, if you’re dragging across it a fair distance, and your cursor leaves the map, and you let go… welp, the game thinks you still have the button held down when you next move the cursor onto the map. Irritating.
Inconclusive results then, I’m afraid. Mouse and keyboard controls are okay-ish, but right now, the game still feels at its best with a gamepad; this may, however, change as I get used to the keyboard. The graphics can be tweaked an awful lot, but this won’t necessarily result in the performance gain you’d expect. The main menu and cutscenes run at a bizarrely low framerate.
Initial impressions are that this is a perfectly fair port (or version, perhaps), and I’ve probably been spoiled a bit by the likes of Ground Zeroes and Grand Theft Auto 5, so maybe I’m being a bit too mean. Or maybe I should be frowning at the menu framerate and the fact that the scalability doesn’t impact the framerate nearly as much as I’d expect. But then, CD Projekt RED have a really good history of patching these things up and making everything right. So… look, I don’t know.
I suppose the takeaway is this: while it’s not perfect, it looks nice, it runs fast enough to be comfortable, and the controls are entirely workable even if you don’t have a gamepad. Nonetheless, if your rig is less powerful than mine, you might want to beware: The Witcher 3 appears to be an incredibly taxing game that won’t necessarily give you the best framerates even if you turn everything off, and I can’t exactly guarantee a playable framerate on hardware older than mine.