Hands on with The Witcher 3: is this Switch’s most ambitious port yet?

Hands on with The Witcher 3: is this Switch’s most ambitious port yet?

First impressions of the game running in mobile mode.

Nintendo Switch continues to delight and surprise with the quality of its current generation console ports – but the arrival of a conversion of The Witcher 3 is something else. Developed by Saber Interactive in association with CD Projekt Red, the ambition here is to deliver the entire Witcher 3 experience, complete with all DLC.

Compromises are inevitable, of course, but what sets this game apart is just how taxing it is on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, while the PC version challenges CPU, GPU and even memory bandwidth. As we’ve discovered in the past with our own tests, getting this game running well on mobile-level power is a daunting proposition – but having gone hands on with the Switch game, the end results are undeniably impressive.

A couple of weeks ago, press were invited to Nintendo’s UK headquarters to sample the game running exclusively in handheld mode, and to talk with The Witcher 3 senior producer Piotr Chrzanowski about the process of bringing the game to Nintendo’s console hybrid. What we didn’t get to experience was the game running in docked mode – though we were supplied with seven to eight minutes of direct feed capture after the fact.

Comparing PS4 with the docked Switch – as we’ve done in a zoomer gallery on this page – shows the stark challenges the developers faced in downsizing the game, but it’s the portable experience that sets this conversion apart. CDPR were eager to show us as much of the game as possible – to the point where the preview code we sampled even included save points that took us directly to some of the stress points we’ve used to assess the PS4 and Xbox One versions in the past, including Novigrad and the infamous Crookback bog. It’s almost as if they knew we were coming! So, just how well is the Switch version shaping up?

First things first – let’s consider the basic limitations Saber and CDPR had to work with. A PS4 Slim typically uses about 80 watts of power in delivering challenging games like The Witcher 3. Meanwhile, the new Switch processor (likely based on the same 16nmFF production process as the Slim) tops out at around eight watts in docked mode. In short, that’s one tenth of the power – but it’s fair to say you’re not getting one tenth of the experience. Yes, resolution is the primary compromise. PS4’s 1080p output becomes a dynamic 540p-720p in docked mode, and lower still in handheld play.

In common with Switch’s other celebrated current-gen ports, the end result is a lot blurrier – and ‘jaggier’ on edges as The Witcher 3 doesn’t seem to use the extreme temporal anti-aliasing techniques we’ve seen in Panic Button’s id Tech 6 Switch conversions. The other primary limiting factor the developers had to work around is the Switch’s reduction in available memory. The five gigs of available RAM on PlayStation 4 becomes an even more restrictive 3.5GB on Switch – a target that the original game was never designed to work with. The inevitable result here is that texture quality is significantly pared back – not so much of an issue when playing portably thanks to the diminutive display, but likely to be noticeable when docked to a living room screen. The situation here isn’t helped by what looks like trilinear texture filtering, giving a soupy look to art viewed at an oblique angle.

And yet, when playing the game in handheld form at least, everything gels – this is The Witcher 3 on Switch and by and large, it works. Performance in handheld mode seems to sit in the 20-30fps range, depending on the complexity of the content. Interestingly, CDPR’s supplied dock mode capture is mostly locked at 30fps – so perhaps the extra GPU clocks make a real difference there, or else the short clips chosen are curated to show the game running at its best. Beyond the obvious changes, the other nips and tucks – specifically on draw distance – are intelligently handled. There are some nice surprises too: NPC count in Novigrad is unchanged from PlayStation 4, but draw-in thresholds are reduced, while half-rate animations are used further back into the distance.

Geometry also looks unchanged for the most part, with CDPR telling us that the only real differences you’re likely to note here are the full-fat LOD zero models used in cutscenes: it’s not so much processing power that is the issue here, but rather the memory limitations on Switch. Post-processing also looks very decent. Light shafts are in, while both screen and character-based motion blur makes the grade. We noted that ambient occlusion was missing in the E3 trailer, but CDPR assures us that this is implemented and is present in the final version of the game.

And as a final note, The Witcher 3 is known on consoles for its extended loading times. The Switch typically has slower transfer rates than PS4 and Xbox One, but in the case of The Witcher 3, the compressed assets and lower grade textures help to balance out the waiting times while loading. Jumping into a save game from the title screen to the Novigrad marketplace takes 75 seconds on PlayStation 4, rising to 84 seconds on Switch.

First impressions of The Witcher 3 are promising and the scale of the ambition here is remarkable. With the id Tech 6 ports, Panic Button had the ‘luxury’ of halving the target frame-rate from 60fps to 30fps, helping immensely with the CPU side of the porting equation. This simply isn’t an option for Saber on The Witcher 3 – six available threads on PS4 and Xbox One translates to just three on Switch, with the ARM A57s running at just 1.02GHz. Meanwhile, the game is content complete. The open world seems to be unchanged, the flow of the game is the same – and even with the limitations imposed by a 32GB cartridge, both the Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine expansions are included too.

Our first taste of the The Witcher 3 has left us hungry for more – what we can say for sure is that an iconic showcase for the current-gen consoles is now fully playable and highly enjoyable as a handheld experience on Switch, and we can’t wait to take a closer look at exactly how this was achieved, and how the experience stacks up in both mobile and docked configurations.

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