Hitman 3’s PC ray tracing upgrade looks gorgeous – but comes at a steep cost

Hitman 3's PC ray tracing upgrade looks gorgeous - but comes at a steep cost
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Hitman 3’s ray tracing update is out, with the brilliant Io Interactive upgrading its hit title with ray-traced highlights and shadows, plus Nvidia DLSS AI upscaling – but alas not the FSR 2.0 freshly created by AMD. Intel XeSS support is planned later, but for now it’s all about RT upgrades, their surprisingly large impact on performance, and how much DLSS can mitigate that cost.

To cut to the chase, you are presented with two ray tracing options: ray traced highlights and sun ray traced shadows. These are binary selections – on/off – but the ray-traced reflections are actually tied to the standard reflections quality setting, where low to high settings control the RT quality. First, the resolution of the reflections: going from high to medium and then to low gradually reduces the amount of emitted rays used to calculate the reflection. Lower quality softens them and introduces a touch of jitter to motion, though it must be said that medium generally feels a lot like high in this regard at native resolution output.

Then there is the roughness cutoff – the extent to which RT is calculated based on the roughness of the surface. The rougher a surface, the less impact an RT reflection will have, so introducing this cutoff is a good way to recover some performance. The effect is subtle in Hitman 3, but the low setting causes rougher surfaces to not get RT reflections, scaling as you go up to medium and high.

A deep video dive into the world of assassination – or more accurately, it’s the PC ray-tracing upgrade.

However, the biggest difference between the settings is in the amount of tracked objects and the complexity of those objects. At the top, every person and object in the scene is in the RT reflections, while the middle makes smart choices by reducing the number and density of objects, producing a very similar overall effect. Meanwhile, as you’d expect, low settings see many objects removed from reflections, while reflected characters are of reduced fidelity.

For RT shadows, the impact is much more limited and it is indeed a direct binary on/off choice. Toggling the effect to changes the Sun Shadows closest to the player to enhanced and ray traced equivalents. However, not all light sources receive RT shadows – in fact, all artificial light shadows are achieved via standard shadow maps, just like normal gameplay.

What all of this means is that the screen space reflections and fallback cube maps used in the vanilla game are upgraded with more realistic ray tracing alternatives – albeit the actual in-game mirrors are still delivered by rendering to texture on flat surfaces, effectively processing the scene twice – an effect that is probably even more expensive than RT. The reason for this is to maintain the established art style and because these plane reflections can indeed be of higher quality in some respects.

Even if you had graphics hardware well ahead of today’s technology, you might still run into CPU limits. Here’s how the Core i9 10900K handles RT reflections with an RTX 3090 render at 720p. The limit here depends entirely on the CPU.

In general, I’d say RT reflections make the presentation a lot easier in Hitman 3, adding a lot to many views in the game, especially indoors where they’re mostly visible. They aren’t perfect though: they have their own imperfections in terms of stability, and RT reflections themselves aggressively use screen space information when they can, which usually works great, but can sometimes lead to discontinuities. Despite smaller issues like this, RT Reflections are still an upgrade over previous Reflections systems in areas where they replace them.

However, RT shadows have less of an impact on game visuals. They contribute to the quality of sun shadows in the usual way, adding penumbra to achieve good softening, even when applying to vegetation that doesn’t is not necessarily given because it is expensive and complex in itself. They also introduce ultra-tight contact shadows to emphasize detail, which is nice. However, RT shadows also have a limited range: after a certain distance, RT shadows blend in and you instead see shadow maps in their place and unfortunately these shadow maps are completely unfiltered and look rather gross in comparison.

This is a baffling decision as normal ranged shadow maps without RT are filtered out – so there is a weird scenario where those shadows look better with RT disabled. At least the cost of using RT shadows is fairly limited compared to reflection – on an RTX 3080 at 1440p, the gaming benchmark suggests a performance hit of around 34%, rising to 41% on an equivalent RX 6800 XT from AMD. However, CPU performance is also affected by 30% and, as you will find, RT usually has a huge impact on frame rate, even on the most powerful kit.

RT reflections are beautiful, but the performance cost is hefty to say the least. Here’s how the quality improvements from no RT, to low, medium, and high.

RT Reflections are relatively very heavy on the GPU, to the point that an RTX 3090 running the low setting at 4K sees 60% less performance on low, 67% at worst on medium with a remarkable 72% achieved on high . Going from near 4K at 120fps to under 60fps all the time is a tall order and as you’ll see in the video on this page, poorer performing cards at lower resolutions still have a mountain to climb to achieve decent performance, while the gap between AMD and Nvidia hardware varies with RT load.

Ultimately, for AMD RDNA 2 GPUs, I would really only recommend the low reflection setting for GPUs of RX 6800 XT and above… but even then, this decision is questionable as the impact on the performance is still severe, while FSR 1.0 does it doesn’t do a good enough job of scaling to compensate and there’s no FSR 2.0 option, at least for now. Really, I imagine most Radeon users will just opt ​​for the RT shadows which are much more cost effective on these GPUs. For Nvidia users, I recommend that only RTX 3080-level GPUs consider using RT reflections set to medium, while RTX 3070-level GPUs go for low reflections. Anything below this performance class isn’t really in races, and I’d suggest just using the RT shadows option. Oh, and by the way, per Io Interactive’s spec recommendations, I’d only suggest reflections used in concert with DLSS – yes, the hit is really that high.

Even considering these sobering recommendations, it’s worth pointing out that the RT implementation in Hitman 3 is not only heavy on the GPU, it also has an extraordinary impact on CPU performance, varying from one scene to another. Indeed, the more complex the scene, the higher the CPU hit. If there are a lot of NPCs or objects on the screen, the CPU cost skyrockets. In a scene full of objects and characters, many CPUs won’t be able to handle the required processing without dropped frames, even if the GPU with DLSS, for example, had enough juice to perform the graphics calculations. Again, I found that AMD GPU users did worse here, with even higher CPU usage, odd as that sounds. Due to very high CPU requirements in general, it’s hard to say how many people will realistically want to enable RT reflections because even if your GPU has the power, maybe your CPU won’t.

Another issue is that the DLSS implementation in Hitman 3 can be quite problematic. A static view starts to show smearing over time – something I’ve seen in Dying Light 2 pre-release code (it was fixed at launch) and in Deathloop. On top of that, it seems that many medium to long distance characters cause smearing issues: almost as if the characters stop generating motion vectors at some point. In my opinion, this generally hurts DLSS picture quality even though other aspects of DLSS picture quality are fine.

DLSS performance mode also has serious noise issues in ray-traced reflections – in addition to other stability issues I’ve never seen in other DLSS implementations. The Balanced and Quality modes are good, but there are definitely issues with the Performance mode. All told, these issues limit the effectiveness of DLSS – and I hope this will all be addressed comprehensively.

In summary, I have mixed reactions to Hitman’s ray tracing upgrade. I think the reflections are generally very high quality and I think it’s commendable that Io has added different levels of quality to at least mitigate some of the extreme performance cost. However, even with these levels of quality, they are still expensive, posing serious challenges to even the most powerful CPUs and GPUs. RT shadows are less impressive and less transformative, but at least they have more reasonable CPU and GPU performance costs. I imagine most people will choose to use them instead and see the reflection option as something best left for future PC hardware.

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