When And Where To Call “Downgrade” On New Games


I’ve been wanting to talk about The Witcher 3’s downgrade controversy for a while now, but since reviews are coming around and the retail game is in the hands of at least some people, I think we can make better analyses. Most importantly though, I just want to explain why I think most downgrade controversies we’ve had over the last few years have been a load of crap.

I think I remember people complaining about release versions of games not meeting the standards of E3 debut videos since Far Cry 3, but the first major example was probably Watch_Dogs, then Dark Souls II. I think the accusations on those two are more valid than what we’re seeing with Witcher 3, but to explain why first let me go over what was probably the most undeserving game in this trend — Infamous: Second Son.

Some people posted a bunch of comparison shots between how the game looked at E3 2013 and shots released in 2014 I believe, showing different lighting effects in identical scenes. Pretty much all of these could be pinned on the shots being taken at different times of day in-game. People who make some of these comparisons don’t seem to understand that when a game has a day-to-night system, from one moment to the next the sun will be at a different point in the sky, casting shadows in different places in what otherwise looks like the same scene. People eventually realized this about Infamous. The majority of the comparison shots I see presented as evidence of a Witcher 3 downgrade suffer the same problem… and more.

A lot of comparison shots between mid-2014 and this past month or so look pretty much exactly the same except taken at different times of day in-game. I even see many shots comparing completely different places in the game that only look vaguely similar. Then you’ve got the comparisons from heavily compressed YouTube videos. I’ve seen very few shots making exact like-for-like comparisons between different builds of Witcher 3. I don’t really have the bandwidth to post every comparison shot on this blog so I’ll just link the most important ones here. They’re from a Polish site that compared the E3 2014 gameplay demonstration (on PC) with the same locations in the retail PS4 game at a slightly different time of day. Go to Gamersyde if you want the least compressed versions of all the trailers.

That said, I do not doubt that Witcher 3 today looks very different than it did in the E3 2013 gameplay debut trailer, the VGX 2013 trailer, and the E3 2014 “Sword of Destiny” trailer. What I am going to argue against however, is the idea that CDProjekt RED downgraded the lighting purely out of some technological constraints.

Basically, I think almost the entire difference we see between 2013 Witcher 3 and final Witcher 3 comes down to art direction and subjective preference.

The biggest difference is undoubtedly that sometime in 2014 CDPR removed the sharpening filter that gave the early trailers a hard, crisp look. Ironically this sharpening was an unpopular feature of The Witcher 2, and I imagine that’s why CDPR eventually removed it from Witcher 3. Recent screen shots of Witcher 3’s final graphics options screen and ini files reveal a sharpening setting that as far as I know I’ve never seen turned on since last year. The same goes for its ambient occlusion setting. The other big difference is the more recent videos and screenshots have a different color saturation. Some of the ares in the 2013 videos look very brown and green, and some of those same scenes in newer videos show off more colors, beginning with the Sword of Destiny trailer (which still looks really sharpened). The overall result is a softer look for the game, and I think CDPR deliberately made this change because the studio thinks it’s a better look. I think it makes Witcher 3 look almost like a painting.

A lot of people have mistaken this change for a removal of certain lighting effects, or worse atmosphere. When I see screenshots with words like “no atmosphere” printed on them, I just ask “how do you quantify atmosphere as better or worse?” I think the people complaining about this simply preferred the more crisp, sharpened look, but saw it as objectively better tech. This is the same position CDPR’s managing director took in a January interview with gamepressure.com. “The quality of the lightning in the trailer remains a matter of taste. We’ve made a mistake choosing to render some shots in dark and greyish colors.”

The other big difference we see is in the grass and other foliage, and this is where I might argue CDPR somewhat downgraded Witcher 3. Again, it’s undeniable the 2013 game and today’s game have different assets for the grass. The 2013 grass is generally browner with more variable height in its blades. The new grass looks much greener and more uniform. Some say the old build had 3D grass whereas the new one just has flat grass assets, but I think they were always flat. It can be argued however that the grass in the current build features less ambient occlusion (shadows between individual blades) and is in general at a lower resolution. We’ll see when people start turning the AO setting back up. Still, at this point we’re down to talking about grass. I’m not going to waste my time worrying about grass.

From what I can tell, pretty much every other asset of Witcher 3 from the character models to the environments and textures has looked pretty much the same from 2013 to launch. CDPR just made some artistic tweaks to the image quality and had to do something to the grass for some reason.

To put this in perspective, in Watch_Dogs from what I remember, Ubisoft either toned down or removed entire lighting effects that modders later found in the game’s code and restored. From Software revealed Dark Souls II using a build that featured an entire dynamic lighting system and even significant environmental detail that was completely absent from the final game. Nothing anywhere close to that degree has happened to Witcher 3.

Another thing I wanna talk about his how much consoles came into play regarding CDPR’s adjustments. It’s easy to blame underpowered consoles when a final game doesn’t look exactly like an early PC demo. In that same gamepressure interview CDPR does confirm the PC and console versions of Witcher 3 have the same quality of assets and even the same draw distance, basically chalking it up to the company’s pipeline. We tend to forget CDPR isn’t EA or Ubisoft. It probably doesn’t have the manpower to devote an entire separate team to each version of the game the way EA would for Battlefield. The locked draw distance is a byproduct of the Umbra 3 middlware CDPR chose for Witcher 3.

CDPR probably should have been more transparent about what it did to Witcher 3’s graphics, whether it was for technical or artistic reasons. If it did indeed remove sharpening because it thought the game looked better without it, the studio should probably have told fans straight-up instead of making people dig the quote out of a little-known interview.

That said, I still think people are too quick to jump on all these games when they start to look different during development. That’s why developers put “WORK IN PROGRESS” in big letters across early demos. Games as far back as the N64 looked drastically different between unveiling and release. I get it though, people are jaded because publishers pull stunts with DLC and microtransactions. Some trust has definitely been lost here. Aliens: Colonial Marines in particular was a huge bait-and-switch, but this ain’t Aliens: Colonial Marines. I’m not saying CDPR is beyond all criticism either. In January I did a whole post putting all the high regard for the company into perspective. I’m just saying we shouldn’t lump everybody together into the same faceless corporation that wants to swindle us out of our money.


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