Hands-on with the Witcher 3 next-gen update: Ray-tracing and new features improve an already incredible game

The Witcher 3 next-gen update
(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

During my time with the Witcher 3 next gen update, I stand at the peak of a hill that lies just to the side of Kaer Trolde in Skellige. The water below shimmers and reflects the light of the sun, which beams down against a pink-hued sky. The vista before me looks glorious thanks to environmental improvements and the new Ray Tracing mode running on PS5, which prioritizes graphic fidelity with global illumination for more realistic lighting and higher quality reflections at 30 FPS (Performance mode allows 60FPS, more on that later). As I pan the camera around, I see snowy mountains frame the landscape behind Geralt and his trusty steed, Roach. And at this moment, I can't help but think this view is exactly what the newly introduced photo mode was made for. 

Without another thought, I click the left and right sticks on the DualSense controller to bring up the mode and begin to frame up a shot. With different filters and overlays, I relish the chance to move the camera at just the right angle and play around with the settings to capture this gorgeous panorama. A photo mode in the Witcher 3 is truly a match made in heaven, especially now that the graphics have been polished to make an already beautiful world all the more picturesque. 

The Witcher 3 has always looked incredible. The vanilla 2015 version of the game still holds up well to this day, but the next-gen update just helps it shine all the more. I got the chance to spend four hours in different parts of the adventure – switching between PS5 and Xbox Series X along the way – to check out the improvements and the optional new features. Stepping into the game with the update can best be described as returning to a place I know, only everything looks even better, and the experience of being there is just that more refined than I remember. At the close of my session, I came away with a renewed sense of excitement about the prospect of experiencing this fantastic RPG all over again on new-gen consoles.

Signs of something new  

The Witcher 3 next-gen update

(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

Not unlike photo mode – which is a natural fit in a world that begs to be admired – there are so many features added in the Witcher 3 next-gen update that just make sense. The new quick sign casting option, for example, allows you to use your signs without opening up the radial menu. Instead, you hold down the right trigger and then just press a certain button on the controller to cast a sign. My session begins in White Orchard where I get to try out this feature against a pack of wolves. It takes a moment for me to remember which sign is used with which input, but once I get the hang of it, I realize I'll never revert back to the old ways in combat. 

It sounds like such a simple feature, but it means that you're not breaking up the flow of battle by bringing up the wheel and changing up your signs as and when you need to. It feels far more kinetic and quick than it did before, with the haptic feedback of the PS5 controller adding to the immersion of every thud or clang of an enemy's hit. There are so many smaller features that just make everything that little bit better – using consumables, for example, is also far easier, since I can just select them from the radial menu instead of going into my inventory. 

After recently revisiting White Orchid in the vanilla version of the game on PS4, I notice how  much more refined and polished textures on character models and the environments are here, from the clouds in the sky to the glint of Geralt's armor and signature medallion. Returning to the game in this way is just a reminder of how impressive this world was to begin with, let alone with a glossy upgrade that fine tunes the experience. But there's also some features that shake up the game for console players and give it a fresher feel. One such feature I use in the area is the option to hide the mini map during exploration to make any discoveries in the world feel more organic. 

The Witcher 3 next-gen update

(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

As acting narrative director Philipp Weber tells me, this was a feature that modders had already done on PC, and the team were keen to officially add it in to give players on consoles the option, too. As someone who has only played on console, it certainly added a different feel to the experience, and tested my memory of the world at large. Whenever I find it tricky to find an objective, the option to turn it back on is always there for me, which again just makes it feel like these features are there if I want them – like I'm in charge of my adventure. 

After a stint in the opening of the adventure, I move on to even more picturesque climbs in the land of love and wine, no less. Yes, Toussaint is my next port of call, and holy hell does it look beautiful. The excellent Blood and Wine expansion really sings in Ray Tracing mode, and I just wanted to get lost in the lush environments all over again. Haptic feedback also enhanced the fight against the big clambering foe, Golyat. It's here that I play around with the new optional camera modes that have been added in the update. Alongside the default perspectives, you can now move the camera close during exploration, on horseback, and in combat. I found the closer camera better suited to combat than the other options, but just having the freedom to adjust it to my personal preference or change it up whenever I want is certainly a welcome addition. 

Fresh threads

The Witcher 3 next-gen update

(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

"When I put down my controller, I find myself wishing I could keep going. And that, I think, says it all."

Switching over to the Xbox Series X, I change things up by enabling the new Performance mode, which is better suited for those who are more concerned with frame rate. Running at 60FPS, the world still looks beautiful and runs smoothly as I relive the memorable Family Matters quest line in Velen. I have to say that both modes look and play great, so really whichever mode you choose is down to what matters more to you. 

I also used the Performance mode to experience a new quest that's been added to the next-gen update. With the introduction of armor that ties into the Netflix's Witcher series, it's exciting to experience something entirely new in an adventure I've come to know so well. Without wanting to spoil too much, it's quite an involved little quest that certainly had me quickly invested. And for fans of the TV series who are newcomers to the game, I can see this being a fun addition that will draw them in all the more. 

From the introduction of filters on the map that reduce the amount of icons you see, to quality of life improvements and smaller tweaks, my time with the update has just intensified my excitement to return to the world of The Witcher 3 on December 14. This is still very much the game I know and love, but lots of welcome features make it feel more streamlined, and visually it's even more beautiful than it was before. The four hours I have with the game absolutely fly by as I dip in and out of different quests, fight baddies, and revel once more in this world. Before I know it, I'm at the end of my session and realize I'm now more than ready to happily lose hours of my life messing around with the new photo mode, and relive the adventure all over again. When I put down my controller, I find myself wishing I could keep going. And that, I think, says it all. 

Excited for the future of the Witcher series? Be sure to check out our roundup of all of the the upcoming CD Projekt Red games

Heather Wald
Senior staff writer

I started out writing for the games section of a student-run website as an undergrad, and continued to write about games in my free time during retail and temp jobs for a number of years. Eventually, I earned an MA in magazine journalism at Cardiff University, and soon after got my first official role in the industry as a content editor for Stuff magazine. After writing about all things tech and games-related, I then did a brief stint as a freelancer before I landed my role as a staff writer here at GamesRadar+. Now I get to write features, previews, and reviews, and when I'm not doing that, you can usually find me lost in any one of the Dragon Age or Mass Effect games, tucking into another delightful indie, or drinking far too much tea for my own good.