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Flawed PC ports re-tested: The Callisto Protocol, Dead Space, Returnal and Forspoken

Only one game addresses all of our original critiques.

2022 and now 2023 have been rough years for AAA game release quality, with many games releasing in an unfinished, broken state - particularly on PC. We recently reported on big improvements to The Last of Us Part 1 on PC, so we decided to go back, revisiting four of the most contentious releases we've reviewed recently. How long does it take to fix a PC game? Do they actually get fixed at all? Of course, the truth is that the situation is different on a game by game basis. Some games have only had minor tweaks, and of the four we tested, only one has addressed the foundational problems we highlighted in our initial review.

The results of our investigation are found in the video embedded below, but Dead Space, Returnal and Forspoken came under the microscope - and I began by taking a look at The Callisto Protocol. This launched with astonishingly bad shader compilation stutter, which was quickly addressed.

However, other problems remain as they were. The options menu remains confusingly hyper-nested, with menus within menus and options that cannot be changed in real-time, meaning you need to restart the game to see the difference. This essentially makes settings optimisation impossible unless you have a photographic memory, or a capture card.

Four games re-tested - but only one does a good job of addressing key criticisms from our launch coverage.Watch on YouTube

Other issues remain untouched. There's still no DLSS or XeSS support - only FSR2 - which is unacceptable when the quality of the implementation isn't good enough and the underlying Unreal Engine 4 technology has full support for all of those upscalers. Major stuttering problems traversing between different areas also remains problematic, the effect amplified with ray tracing features active.

There have been improvements, however. CPU utilisation was abysmal at launch, with only the strongest processors able to run the game at maximum settings. This is somewhat improved now, with a 12 to 14 percent uplift in CPU performance on a mainstream Ryzen 5 3600, meaning that 60fps is now possible without RT active. This was definitely not possible at launch. However, the core problem of the game relying on single-thread power remains. Ultimately though, with severe reservations, The Callisto Protocol is now playable, at least.

Staying with sci-fi survival horror, the Dead Space remake has - unfortunately - scarcely been touched since launch, with only patch deployed on February 17th. This does resolve an issue that caused GPU VRAM memory to overflow with a tragic impact to in-game performance, but other than that, the basic problems with the PC version remain. The game still stutters incessantly when you traverse the game world, no matter how powerful your CPU. Less capable processors will be affected more significantly,, but it is still just as visible and distracting on high-end CPUs like the Core i9 12900K.

Our original PC tech review for the Dead Space remake - an exceptional game with a disappointing PC version.Watch on YouTube

The lack of any kind of improvement here, along with shader compilation stutter (despite pre-launch caching!) is unacceptable. Dead Space still feels jittery and unfinished and legitimate criticism on the game was completely ignored. PC users essentially have to wait until there are CPUs and memory sub-systems that are fast enough to make the gigantic frame-time spikes around 10 times smaller to make them unnoticeable at 60fps.

We're sticking with people in space suits for our third re-review: Returnal. This didn't have as many issues as The Callisto Protocol or Dead Space at launch, but there were problems. That started with no support for FSR2, despite supporting DLSS. Just like The Callisto Protocol, this is a UE4 game with plug-ins available for all upscalers - and the good news is that this has been addressed. XeSS, FSR2 and even DLSS 3 frame generation are all present now. However, the XeSS and FSR2 implementations are lacking, while DLSS quality is actually worse than launch.

In my initial review, I commented on how performance on mid-range PCs was not too great, with random stutters that could happen even as you enter combat, which definitely impacted gameplay. As of the latest patch this seems largely unchanged, even though patch notes specifically called out fixes to this issue. Running around the levels still induces frame-time spikes, just like launch - and just like PS5. This has a profound impact on the fluidity of the game.

At launch, Returnal was by some chalk better than the other games mentioned in this piece. However, it's disappointing that while improved in some areas, the core problems remain.Watch on YouTube

Similarly, patch notes on March 9th mention reduced stuttering with RT on and to be fair, this seems to be the case in general, but there are still some big frame-time spikes over 50ms... even on a Core i9 12900K. Traversal stutter also remains in play. DLSS 3 frame generation can help as if your monitor is limited to 120Hz, native frame-rate can drop to 60fps, but lowering the CPU load can reduce stutter. However, while this may be useful for a higher-end chip, mainstream processors don't benefit as much. I tested on a Ryzen 5 3600 with RTX 4070 and found that distracting stutter was still present. Overall, I'd say that Returnal has improved in some areas, but the core issues still remain and the regression in DLSS quality is a real downer.

Three games in and we've yet to see any kind of transformational improvement, but I'm happy to say that I've left the best until last. Forspoken still isn't exactly the best PC port we've ever seen, but the improvements are substantial to the point where I'm happy to recommend the game.

There were a number of issues at launch, but the biggest was the quality of textures at launch on 8GB GPUs. At the standard quality mode recommended for this class of GPU,, the textures would never load to a higher quality mip level. No matter how long you stood in an area, the textures would remain at the same ultra-low resolution. The good news is that the standard quality mode now looks so much better. You can even move up to high or ultra high if you want - though this does not improve actual quality any further. You'll need a GPU with more VRAM to actually get those high or ultra high quality assets. The setting isn't completely useless though: it does seem to improve texture loading speed.

Our original Forspoken review highlighted a range of problems - most impactful to users of less capable PCs, or those with 8GB GPUs. Practically every critique we raised has been addressed. Excellent!Watch on YouTube

CPU optimisations are also implemented. The original launch was very heavy on mainstream processors, and heavier still with ray tracing effects enabled. On the latest version of the game, RT CPU performance is significantly higher than RT off performance as recorded at launch. There's a circa 35 percentage point improvement here on a Ryzen 5 3600. Impressive. I'd still recommend disabling RT though if you're using a processor in this class when looking for a stable 60fps experience.

Beyond that, there are other things that have been improved. XeSS no longer has incessant flickering on its edges and in the depth of field effect, making it look a lot more usable than it was at launch. Similarly, both XeSS and DLSS have lessened sparkle that occurs on specular surfaces when motion blur is on. Lastly, the game has implemented a new screen-space ambient occlusion technique. At launch, the only option was an AMD FidelityFX option that did not look anything like real ambient shadow. The new 'standard' option appears to be one used in Final Fantasy 15 - and it looks a lot better. The old technique is still in the game, but I do not think there is a good reason to use it. There are no performance advantages with FidelityFX and the standard option is so much better.

Forspoken is the obvious highlight in what has otherwise been a sobering experience. Six months or so on from launch, the degree of improvement is variable. Dead Space is much the same and remains flawed. Returnal is better in some respects, worse in others and unchanged where it really counts. Meanwhile, The Callisto Protocol is better, but still exhibits profound problems owing to its flawed foundation. This diversity of results shows us that time does not heal all wounds, just a dedicated developer with the right priorities.

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