The Witcher 3 next-gen upgrade review: The best way to play a true classic

It’s a marker of just how wildly successful The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has been that its next-gen update was anticipated with all the excitement of a new game.

That update finally dropped at the end of 2022, and we’ve sunk a few dozen hours into it on PlayStation 5 to see how it treats one of gaming’s great adventures, and to confirm that it’s the definitive way to play a modern classic.

A fresh coat of paint

This is a major update for a game that came out in 2015 – a jaw-dropping amount of time ago given how strongly we remember our first playthrough.

For console players, the big upshot comes in the form of new native versions for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S, at no extra cost if you already own the game.

Booting the new version up results in a night-and-day experience compared to the PS4 version running on backward compatibility. The headline-grabbers are two new graphics options, and there’s a clear winner.

Performance mode sees the game run in 60FPS (something that was possible on PS4 Pro, admittedly), with upscaling to 4K resolution, and it looks sumptuous, running smoothly and reliably.

The only times we noticed that framerate hitch was during autosaves in busy areas, but these were rare. For the most part, this mode is a serious upgrade in experience, with denser detail and 4K textures married to a super smooth presentation.

Quality mode is a more mixed bag, with the addition of stunning ray-traced lighting and shadows that make scenes and environments look rich and lush in a realistic way. If it could run smoothly at the targetted 30FPS it would be a serious contender, but sadly on PS5 it’s hugely choppy and unreliable at present, with a lot of screen tearing.

This means it doesn’t feel great to play, so we’d confidently recommend that all players stick to Performance mode until or unless CD Projekt Red makes some major tweaks to the Quality option.

Aside from that difference in framerate and lighting, though, there are a bunch more shared upgrades for Wild Hunt as a package, including far denser foliage around the whole world and improved draw distances (plus countless bug fixes).

This makes its huge open world even more amazing to move around in, and the sense of atmosphere summoned by areas like Velen’s marshes or the busy marketplaces of Novigrad City is just peerless.

There are times when the amount of detail or certain lighting conditions make it clear that this is a seriously upgraded PS4 game rather than a native new-gen title like Demon’s Souls or The Last of Us Part 1 but, for the most part, The Witcher 3’s superlative art design and visual flair makes it shine like new.

In media res

For those who haven’t been paying attention these last seven-odd years, The Witcher 3 picks up at a point fairly late in the story of Geralt the Witcher, well past the events being shown by Netflix’s show, for example.

Geralt has recovered his memory after The Witcher 2’s shenanigans (which are not at all required knowledge) and is on the trail of his adoptive daughter Ciri.

She possesses some truly wild powers and is handily also the heir to the huge Nilfgaardian empire, making her a major target, but it’s the spectral Wild Hunt that’s chasing her most assiduously.

The game picks up with Geralt and his mentor Vesemir chasing down an old flame, Yennefer, to see if she can help Geralt get to Ciri, and we take the reins to lead this chase in Geralt’s shoes.

The winding story is a massive one and takes dozens of hours to work through, but it’s also expertly told with a wide cast of interesting characters.

Figures like Dandelion the bard, Dijkstra the schemer, rival sorceress Triss Merigold and unknowable elven mage Avallac’h all bring their own motivations and tones to the table as you work for and against them at times.

The script is a banger, with entertaining dialogue to mull over left, right and centre, and it all builds towards a great concluding note. This is even further enhanced by the included DLC packs – Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine.

Both are excellent, but the latter provides one of the most satisfying and comforting final moments of any major gaming saga in memory.

Even then, the above skips over the countless side quests, optional activities and Witcher contracts that you can pick up, some of which offer the most interesting stories of all. These let you get to know random citizens in need, dastardly bandits and aloof aristocrats at their most vulnerable.

The next-gen upgrade adds a few short quests, the highlight being In the Eternal Fire’s Shadow, which ties into the world of Netflix’s Witcher show and earns you the chance to get Geralt’s TV armour. It’s a fun, grisly quest with an interesting boss fight at its conclusion.

In short, The Witcher 3 remains a masterpiece of gaming storytelling, offering up grand arcs alongside miniature dramas, with something to pique anyone’s interest.

Roaming around

So it looks great, and it tells a great story, but the newest update also means that The Witcher 3 is as nice to play as it’s ever been.

The gameplay tweaks it offers aren’t huge, but they’re nice refinements – in particular, making casting Witcher signs far quicker and more intuitive.

The Witcher 3 is divided between exploration, dialogue and combat, and all flow smoothly. You move around a huge open world, picking up quests and following them through by talking to people and finding out who or what you’ve got to fight, if anyone.

Almost every dialogue offers up a choice of tones to pick from, and optional branches for the curious, making for a sense of control.

You’ve got a horse (the famous Roach) to help you move around the world more quickly, and fast-travel points that you can discover for zipping between set locations – a few more have been added in the update, too, to make this less annoying in certain areas.

Once things move into combat, you get a fairly simple but satisfying hack-and-slash system with parries and dodges to master, all augmented by your use of a selection of signs. These can slow down your enemies, blast them with fire, or more, alongside offering defensive options.

It’s a fun fighting offering, and as you get more powerful and access better swords and armour (both of which can be crafted through a really extensive system of its own), you’ll find new approaches and feel more like the super-soldier Witchers are bred to be.

There are just so many systems at play in The Witcher 3 that you can fall into a rabbit hole trying to master any one at a time – that’s before we even mention Gwent. This simple but fun card game is introduced early on and is phenomenally addictive, with countless players to beat and cards to collect.

It’s so popular it got spin-off games of its own and stands as perhaps the greatest testament to the amount of attention to detail that went into Wild Hunt from the start.

Just like in the old days, you’ll still occasionally find that Roach is a pain to control if he gets stuck in a narrow space, and the camera can be a little janky during combat at times, but The Witcher 3 is still a joy to play, even on a mechanical level.

It also now offers up incredibly deep customisation options for your controls, how many hints you get, how much on-screen information appears and more, alongside a range of difficulty options ranging from the generous to the masochistic.

What’s the picture on Switch?

Before the next-gen upgrade dropped, the biggest news in the world of The Witcher 3 had been its unlikely port to the Nintendo Switch, which came out in 2019.

It ranks as one of the most impressive technical feats on the little hybrid console, bringing a huge and graphically intensive game to a portable in soaring fashion.

Thankfully, like all the other versions of the game, the Switch port has also been given the new content and gameplay tweaks from the new upgrade (minus a couple of camera options).

So, while you won’t get ray tracing or anything close to it, you’ll be playing the best version of the game for the hardware.

The Switch port looks blurry and feeble compared to a high-spec PC but, on its own terms, it’s superb, with pretty solid 30FPS performance that means you can truly enjoy this mammoth game on the go.

With cloud saves also available, you can actually hop between PC and Switch for hugely convenient portable play. It’s a real treat.

Original Article