CD Projekt RED's The Witcher 3 has recently received yet another upgrade, with patch 1.61 bringing high dynamic range support to PlayStation 4 and PS4 Pro - a welcome bonus for a game swiftly approaching its third anniversary. With the release of the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X enhancements, this vintage 2015 title has never looked better on consoles. This HDR upgrade for PlayStation 4 users should have been the icing on the cake, but something's not quite right here - and it looks like the PS4 version needs one more patch before it's everything as it should be.
Let's kick off with the positives. The high dynamic range support is a real positive for PlayStation 4 consoles, and combines beautifully with the 4K checkerboarding on PS4 Pro. It gives it parity with Xbox One X in display support, and there's no question the new Toussaint area from the Blood and Wine expansion shines in particular. But the price to pay on PS4 Pro for this upgrade is significant: curiously, draw distances for foliage and shadows are visibly dialed back on 1.61 - notably on the console's 4K output mode. This leads to more pop-in of grass - almost as if it's sprouting from the ground a few metres ahead, while more shadows visibly fade in ahead of Geralt during traversal.
In the video embedded on this page, you'll see that we grabbed some fresh Witcher 3 capture from patch 1.61, and stacked it up against our library 1.50 captures - the degraded LODs are fairly easy to pick up on, and it's certainly been noticed by the game's dedicated community. And there's more - shadow draw distance in 4K mode has also been cut back compared to the original 1.50 patch the debuted Pro support.
Travelling the world, it's fortunate that most other settings stay in place. Even walking through Novigrad, objects and NPCs draw in at the same range. The 'downgrade' isn't a universal drop in settings then - it's just the trees and plants (and the shadows attached to them) that reveal a problem. With all of this in mind, the move to the new patch is a double-edged sword: you get an excellent HDR implementation, but world detail isn't quite the same.
It's all very strange given that the PS4 patch notes list HDR support, performance optimisations, and indeed, minor visual improvements in the developer's bullet-points. But as we've sometimes seen in the past with The Witcher 3, it's a case of one step forwards, one step back with this title. Sadly, there's no 60fps mode to match Xbox One X here on PS4 Pro, and likewise, Xbox One consoles aren't affected by this issue from what we've tested so far.
So why is this happening? There's little to suggest that the HDR support itself has an impact on performance, and supposing there is a small percentage variance with HDR enabled, it's uncertain how altering shadow and foliage LODs would be directly linked. For the sake of optimising around HDR support, it's overkill for a game that generally ran well at 30fps on patch 1.50, excluding the notorious Crookback Bog area. Worse still, these stripped-back draw distances affect PS4 Pro running even in SDR anyway - as good a proof as any that it's perhaps not intended.
But what of the developer's claims of improved performance? Well, this does actually check out, even showing up in our Crookback Bog stress test. 4K frame-rates in 1.61 are at least marginally improved over 1.50 when the game can't meet its target 30fps, and this is likely a result of those shadow and LOD changes. Also curious is that CD Projekt RED has integrated an adaptive v-sync now, compared to the full v-sync seen in the Pro patch's debut.
The effects of adaptive sync manifest as a tear at the very top of the screen when the engine is under load - this allows the game to lower latency by presenting a new frame if its rendering time is just a little over budget, rather than waiting up to 16ms for a new display refresh. Whether it's down to the adaptive sync or the shadow and LOD changes, performance with this new patch improves by a margin of 2-3fps overall. Even so, there are still prominent drops to the mid-20s as enemies burst from the marshes with 4K gameplay.
There's another wrinkle to this story. Let's suppose you've already updated to 1.61, but want to reinstate those level of detail settings - there is actually an option to do so on PS4 Pro. Selecting the 1080p mode at the system level - with no super-sampling checked - gives you those draw distances back, and in all senses it's a visual match with version 1.50, though the enhanced ambient occlusion found in the 4K mode is now absent.
The big advantage of this 1080p support comes in the form of rock-solid performance - even Crookback Bog now renders at an even 30fps, while Pro users who'd prefer super-sampling from 4K instead can now access that via the system-level option. This new 1080p support does address a problem we had with the initial Pro patch though, specifically that performance wasn't as good as the game running under Boost Mode. Now, it's better.
All told, there are plus and minus points to this new Witcher 3 patch for PlayStation users. HDR is a nice upgrade, the mild frame-rate boost is welcome and while the 1080p support may not match the target 60fps mode found in the Xbox One X mode, it's a good option to have if you've previously played in Boost Mode and prefer stable performance - though we would have preferred an in-game toggle here. However, the cutbacks in 4K mode are an issue and don't flatter an ultra HD presentation. Let's keep our fingers crossed that we'll see one more patch to resolve the outstanding issues.