Almost seven years later, The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt doesn’t just hold up: it’s still head-and-shoulders above most of the competition. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla might be bigger, and Horizon Forbidden West might be prettier, but practically no other game marries magic, monsters, and grim politics together into a meaty open-world adventure where every character and conflict is allowed to be the master of its own truth. A free new “next-gen” upgrade for PS5 and Xbox Series X/S doesn’t fundamentally change that calculus, but it does repackage it into something easier than ever to fall in love with.
The Witcher 3 is now almost as old as Halo 3 was when Halo 5 launched, and has become just as important a touchstone. An adaptation of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy series, the game is ostensibly about a mutant monster killer named Geralt hunting for his magical surrogate daughter named Ciri to try to save her from otherworldly specters called The Wild Hunt. It’s just as much a workplace dramedy about a middle-aged parent tying up loose ends and reconciling with past friends before retiring from the one thing they’re good at. Two massive expansions after the game’s launch doubled its size and delivered even bigger payoffs.
Save Data Transfers
I wasn’t able to use my old save data because a new cross-save feature isn’t live yet. Once it is on December 14, CD Projekt Red says players will be able to transfer files without a problem, including between the PS4 vanilla version and complete edition, which is currently not the case.
While the exploration and RPG tinkering are great, it’s the top-notch writing and performances that capture resigned dignity in the face of endless hardship that have led to widespread critical acclaim, tens of millions in sales, and creator CD Projekt Red coming to be thought of as a first-rate studio. “This land never flowed with milk and honey, and now it flows with blood,” says one throwaway character early on. It’s emblematic of a gear The Witcher 3 shifts down from.
So what of the upgrade out December 14? The first time I booted up the next-gen version of Destiny 2 on PS5 I was legitimately surprised. Bungie’s gorgeous alien sandbox, which I’d played hundreds of hours of over the course of multiple years, felt like a whole new game. That’s not at all the reaction I had when starting the PS5 version of The Witcher 3, a game I’ve also sunk a ton of time into on older hardware. It looks and flows better—the countryside is fuller, the puddles bigger, the frame rate smoother—but it feels much more like staring at a new paint job than driving around in a brand new car.
The most important part of the free upgrade is a new performance option mode. On Xbox Series X and PS5 (which I’m playing on) you can toggle between ray-tracing or 60fps. While ray-tracing is great for snapping pictures in the new photo mode, and does slightly but noticeably improve lighting contrast, reflections, and the overall sense of fullness and vibrancy in the scene, it’s also kind of busted. Having ray-tracing on leads to a decent amount of stuttering, frequent framerate dips, and an overall more jarring experience.
60fps, on the other hand, makes everything from combat to cutscenes look crisp without sacrificing too much graphical fidelity. Players on PC have lived this way for a while, but it remains the single biggest benefit to “next-gen” gaming so far, and the Witcher 3 console experience benefits immensely from it, especially when so much of the game’s charm and personality relies on a world that feels like it’s running uninterrupted even when you’re not around.
Next up is the addition of fan mod 4K textures and other additional visual details. Smoke rises from village chimneys in the distance. Foliage of all kinds is thicker, down to random roadside patches of grass. Cobblestone streets look a little grimier, while bodies of water appear to splash and flow a little more naturally. These are all minute differences. Some of them were apparent thanks to all of the time I spent with the original version of the game. Many were gleaned only from pouring over comparative screenshots.
However, they do produce a small but cumulative effect, and perhaps nowhere is it more pronounced than in Novigrad, a seaside fort city that’s home to some of the game’s most memorable characters and questlines. In the old version of The Witcher 3, the framerate can really start to dip as people and streets pop in and out of view. In the PS5 version that’s no longer a restriction. Geralt can sprint down back alleys without a hitch in performance mode, while wet cobblestones and extra NPCs make the commercial hub feel more bustling than ever.
Elsewhere inventory modifications and Sign magic shortcut buttons continue the long process of decluttering The Witcher 3’s once notoriously arcane RPG systems. There’s also a new armor quest line I haven’t gotten to, and some updated alternate looks for a few of the characters. Mostly I’m just enjoying tinkering with the UI display settings to keep the screen as minimalistic as possible while once again hunting for ghosts at dusk. The main map, once under siege by quest icons, now mercifully defaults to being mostly blank outside of key points of interest.
The Crows Perch in Velen, a notorious fast-travel pain point early in the game, still remains bewilderingly outside the Bloody Baron’s fort (Update: New Crows Perch fast travel point confirmed, I hadn’t unlocked it yet despite touring the fort). The third-person camera also remains finicky at times. And the new photo mode, while hard not to pull out every 10 feet while replaying one of my favorite games, is light on options for tinkering compared to those you’ll find in a Sony first-party game. Otherwise, there’s little room for improvement at this point.
I felt similarly when I last put the game down in 2019 during my second playthrough. And while I wouldn’t put it past CDPR to come up with a few more patches down the road, including to address things like some of the stuttering in the ray-trace mode, the diminishing returns make the new-gen upgrade feel like a deserved victory lap rather than something closer to a 2.0 refresh. I’ll take it. It’s free after all, and three hours testing out the update was all I needed to lose myself in 2015’s GOTY all over again.
Correction 12/14/22 11:11 a.m. ET: A new Crows Perch fast travel point was added after all.