Despite suffering from occasional sub-30 frames per second stuttering on consoles, the PC version of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt earned our stamp of approval for its gorgeous visuals, graphics settings galore, and far-superior-to-console frame rates. But even though the game ran at a fairly consistent 60fps at 1080p with mostly maxed-out settings on our reviewer's GeForce GTX 970, we didn't want to settle the issue there.
Why? Because The Witcher 3 features Nvidia's proprietary GameWorks middleware technology-most notably HairWorks, which enables incredibly realistic hair. Social media has been full of widespread fears that HairWorks would hinder performance on AMD cards. With the PhysX-enabled Project CARS (which is not a GameWorks title) still running like crap on AMD hardware, some gamers are understandably skittish.
So I decided to test the performance of comparable AMD and Nvidia graphics cards.
To do so, I slapped both a reference AMD Radeon R9 290X (ugh, I know, that cooler) and a reference Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 into PCWorld's graphics card testing rig, and played a bit of The Witcher 3 with each, at 2560x1600 resolution with all graphics options turned to "high" settings presets. I used SSAO rather than Nvidia's HBAO+ for the ambient occlusion setting. Frame rates could vary quite a bit depending on what you're doing, according to FRAPS, and it's hard to create replicable situations in Witcher 3's dynamic, open world-action scenes especially.
I settled on capturing one minute's worth of frame rates using FRAPS in the above settlement in the opening tutorial area, loaded from a save. People, foliage, and the occasional animal abound, though I reloaded and started fresh on the rare occasion that wolves wandered in and riled up the populace.
Let's start with the good news first: The Radeon R9 290X handles Witcher 3 like a champ.
With HairWorks off, the AMD card hit frame rates hovering between 47 and 49fps in the scene above. Naturally, frame rates dipped a bit lower during action scenes, but never below the mid- to high-thirties at their worst. That's comparable to the GTX 980, which hit 48 to 51fps in the above situation. That performance variance between the two graphics cards is in line with what we've seen in most other games, as well. And AMD hasn't even released Witcher 3-optimized drivers yet, unlike Nvidia, which had Game Ready drivers available on launch day.
Now for the bad news. Enabling Nvidia HairWorks technology (set to "All" rather than "Geralt only") absolutely tanks the frame rate on the Radeon R9 290X. In the scene above, frame rates instantly dropped to 29 to 30fps-an absolutely massive difference. Scenes with multiple wolves borderline devolved into slideshows.
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