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The Witcher 3 next-gen patch 4.01: one step forward, one step back

RT modes perform better on consoles, performance mode is slower.

The Witcher 3 Complete Edition was broadly a success when it landed on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and S late last year. The ray-traced ambient occlusion and RT global illumination were both excellent, while the 60fps performance option was another breakthrough, especially for PlayStation users, who'd yet to experience that feature. However, frame-rate and stability were contentious and crashes were possible, while the PC version had its own range of issues.

Coming to the rescue is patch 4.01: an update that promises specific visual and performance tweaks. Based on patch notes, it boils down to optimisations to the RTGI and improved screen-space reflections on consoles, while the PC version included a new performance option for the GPU-heavy RTGI. That's the promise then, but what has CD Projekt RED actually delivered? Well, perhaps the most crucial aspect of the patch is that the various crashes we experienced with launch code are now gone, indicating a welcome improvement that should hopefully improve the gameplay experience across the board.

Screen-space reflections - only accessible in the RT modes on the consoles, confusingly enough - are also improved. Side-by-side with the launch code, you're looking at much higher resolution reflections. They're more accurate, sharper and cleaner. The visual make-up is otherwise unchanged from the launch build. In terms of native resolutions, PS5 and Series X continue to target 1440p in the ray tracing mode - and target 4K in their performance modes, though this SSR technique isn't active there. Shadow quality, textures, and draw distance settings are the exact same on patch 4.01, on both PS5 and Series X. So ultimately the SSR upgrade is the most substantial update. However, because the upgrade is only for RT mode, that means that Xbox Series S does not benefit, as it has no RT mode.

A full breakdown of The Witcher 3 Complete Edition's latest 4.01 patch update.Watch on YouTube

General performance in the ray tracing mode is improved, but before we move onto specifics, it's worth noting how the developer has achieved this. It seems to be via a similar approach as the PC game's RTGI performance mode. To claw back performance, both consoles appear to have slightly less accurate coverage for GI: more light leakage, less shading, less accuracy, less range. Ultimately, the lion's share of the effect is still there though, it's still clearly the more visually superior option, but it's not quite as precise as once it was - but performance is better than it was.

On PS5 and Series X the issue on the launch build was a struggling 30fps reading in the RT mode, especially for Sony's console which often held in the mid-20s. It was actually quite hard to recommend on PS5 at launch and rarely hit 30fps in Novigrad, or busy outdoor segments. Patch 4.01 goes some way to fix that and I'm genuinely impressed by the uptick in performance here. It's not perfect and there are still dips just under when the Red Engine is taxed in our Novigrad stress tests but regardless, there is a 3-4fps gain in most areas. It's not perfect - as the video above demonstrates - but it's a welcome improvement. Xbox Series X was closer to the 30fps target at launch in its RT mode, and now the performance level is even more consistent, meaning that if RT at 30fps is your thing, Series X offers a smoother ride.

That should be the end of the story but it's not because bafflingly, the 60fps performance mode is now noticeably slower on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X - and it's not clear why this is happening as visuals look the same. Starting off with Series X as an example, our Novigrad test run shows a drop by as much as eight or nine frames per second on the new patch. For the entire route, by foot or horseback, the drop-off is impossible to ignore now. Frustratingly, in many areas where 60fps was possible at launch on Series X, it's now closer to the 50fps line.

A flashback to our launch review of the next-gen upgrades to The Witcher 3 on consoles.Watch on YouTube

likewise, battles outdoors are now missing that tight 60fps lock on Series X too. All of which means that if you're struggling to use the 30fps ray tracing mode for any reason - the performance mode is becoming a less appealing backup option as of the new patch, Certainly 50-60fps is viable, especially on a VRR display. And I will say most areas outdoors - beyond Novigrad - still run at 60fps on Series X. But there's a sense we've lost a chunk of performance here, in a crucial segment of the world, without any benefit.

Next along is the PS5 on its 60fps performance mode. Interestingly, most of the Novigrad route is actually identical between the launch build and patch 4.01. Especially once we hit the Heirarch Square stress point, the performance level is squeezed to a matching 53fps. So, at a bare minimum, it's unchanged on PS5. The problem remains areas outside the city: where our representative battle with the bandits now runs at a significantly lower frame-rate - by as much as 10fps. Even simple horseback routes in the countryside take a hit to the mid-50s, where before PS5 was a locked 60fps. Patch 4.01 genuinely downgrades the frame-rate, and we lose ground - even in cutscenes. So yes, if you've noticed your frame-rate dropping since the patch, you're not mistaken.

PC also gets its own 4.01 update and while there are some improvements, the fundamental issues with the port are yet to be addressed. Yes, a new performance mode has been added for RTGI, addressing a basic flaw with the launch code - with only a simple on/off toggle, the GI effect was way too heavy for mid-range graphics hardware. There's more good news too in that while nowhere near fully addressed, the PC version's heavy CPU requirement has also lessened - even with RT disabled. A CPU-limited scenario with the Ryzen 5 3600 is now 10 per cent faster, in our tests - though the added CPU burden of RT brings performance down into the 30s. A Core i9 12900K running the game fully maxed with RT enabled does fare better - but only by around seven percent. It's disappointing to see that virtually none of our other issues from launch have been addressed.

An added RTGI performance mode and some CPU performance upgrades are welcome, but most of our issues with The Witcher 3's PC upgrade covered in this video are yet to be addressed.Watch on YouTube

As far as the consoles are concerned - PS5 and Series X - there's a sense we've taken one step forward and one step back, then. Patch 4.01 boosts the frame-rate in the ray tracing modes, but lowers it in the performance modes. And, comparing both together on this latest patch, the summary is this for 60fps play: PS5 runs better around Novigrad, while outdoors areas, battling, and cutscenes run better on Series X. Hopefully CDPR has a way to restore it to the performance level at launch - or better, preferably -, because for PS5 at least it was much easier to recommend.

Overall, the turnout for both PC and console shows a mixture of fortunes on patch 4.01. It's nearing two months dsince The Witcher 3's revamped Complete Edition came out and while ray tracing performance is improved now thanks to the new global illumination mode - on PC and console - other issues remain. The PC version's shader compilation issue continues, for example.

On the console side, RT is more performant at a tighter 30fps - but in the process, somehow the 60fps mode is downgraded with a lower frame-rate. It's hard to step away from this new update fully satisfied. The improved SSR is a nice touch, and stability issues appear to be addressed now. Beyond that, on all systems, there's still some way to go before The Witcher 3 Complete Edition lives up to its moniker.

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