Hitman 3’s PC ray tracing upgrade is beautiful – but at a steep cost


Hitman 3's PC ray tracing upgrade is beautiful - but at a steep cost

Hitman 3’s ray-tracing update is here, with the brilliant Io Interactive beefing up its hit title with ray-traced reflections and shadows, along with Nvidia DLSS AI upscaling – but unfortunately not AMD’s freshly-minted FSR 2.0. Intel XeSS support is due later, but for now it’s all about the RT upgrades, their amazingly large performance hit, and the extent to which DLSS can mitigate that cost.

To get straight to the point, you are presented with two raytracing options: raytraced reflections and raytraced shadows from the sun. These are binary selections – on/off – but ray-traced reflections actually tie into the default Reflection Quality setting, where the low to high settings control the RT quality there. The first is the resolution of the reflections: going from high to medium and then to low gradually reduces the amount of radiated rays used to calculate the reflection. Lower quality makes them softer and introduces a touch of instability in motion, although it has to be said that medium usually looks very similar to high in this regard when output at native resolution.

Then there is the roughness limit – the extent to which RT is calculated according to the roughness of the surface. The rougher a surface, the less effective an RT reflection is, so introducing this cutoff is a good way to regain some performance. The effect is subtle in Hitman 3, but the low setting ensures rougher surfaces don’t get RT reflections and scale as you move to medium and high.

A video that dives deep into the world of assassination – or more specifically, the ray tracing upgrade on PC.

However, the biggest difference between the settings is the amount of tracked objects and the complexity of those objects. At High, every single person and object in the scene can be found in the RT reflections, while Medium makes wise decisions to reduce the number and density of objects, creating a very similar effect overall. Meanwhile, as you’d expect, low settings remove many objects from the reflections, while reflected characters are of lower fidelity.

With RT shadows the effect is far more limited and it is in fact a direct binary on/off choice. Activating the effect transforms the sun shadows closest to the player into updated ray-traced equivalents. However, not every light source gets RT shadows – in fact, all artificial light shadows are generated via standard shadow maps, just like the normal game.

It all means that the screen-space reflections and fallback cube maps used in the vanilla game are upgraded with more realistic ray-traced alternatives – although the actual mirrors in the game are still effectively render-to-textured planar surfaces will process the scene twice – an effect that is probably even more expensive than RT. The reason for this is to keep the established art style and because these plane reflections can actually be of higher quality in some aspects.

Even if you had graphics hardware way ahead of today’s technology, you could still run into CPU limitations. Here’s how the Core i9 handles 10900K RT reflections with an RTX 3090 rendering at 720p. The limit here lies entirely with the CPU.

In general, I would say that the RT reflections really help the presentation in Hitman 3 and greatly improve many in-game views, especially indoors where they are most visible. They’re not perfect though: they have their own imperfections in terms of stability, and the RT reflections themselves aggressively use screen area information when they can, which usually works very well but can sometimes introduce discontinuities. Despite such minor issues, the RT reflections are always an upgrade over previous reflection systems in the areas where they replace them.

However, RT shadows have less of an effect on the game’s graphics. They improve the quality of sun shadows in the usual way you would expect, adding penumbrae to give you a nice soft focus even when applied to vegetation, which isn’t necessarily a given as that in itself is expensive and complex . They also introduce razor-sharp contact shadows to bring out detail, which is nice though. However, the RT shadows are also of limited range: after a certain distance, the RT shadows disappear and you see shadow maps in their place, and unfortunately these shadow maps are completely unfiltered and look rather crude in comparison.

This is a confusing decision as the normal shadow maps are filtered at a distance with no RT – so there’s a weird scenario where these shadows actually look better with RT off. At the very 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 in the 34 percent range, rising to 41 percent on an equivalent AMD RX 6800 XT percent increases. However, there’s also a 30 per cent hit to CPU performance and as you’ll find, RT in general has a huge impact on the frame rate of even the most powerful kit.

RT reflections look nice, but the cost of performance is high, to say the least. Here you can see how the quality improves from no RT through low, medium and high.

RT reflections are comparatively very strong on the GPU, to the point where an RTX 3090 on the low setting at 4K sees 60 percent less performance on low, 67 percent worse on medium, and a remarkable 72 percent on high. Going from almost 4K at 120 fps to under 60 fps all the time is a big challenge, and as you’ll see in the video on this page, less capable cards with lower resolutions still have a mountain to climb to achieve decent performance achieve The gap between AMD and Nvidia hardware varies depending on the RT load.

In the end, for AMD RDNA 2 GPUs, I’d really only recommend the low reflection setting for RX 6800 XT and higher GPUs… but even then, that decision is questionable as the performance hits are still severe, while FSR 1.0 does the trick Upscaling doesn’t do a good job of compensating for this and there’s no FSR 2.0 option, at least for now. Really, I imagine most Radeon users will just go with RT shadows, which are a lot more affordable on these GPUs. For Nvidia users, I recommend using only RTX 3080 tier GPUs to set RT reflections to medium, while RTX 3070 tier GPUs opt for low reflections. Anything below that power bracket isn’t really at the races, and I’d suggest just using the RT shadow option. Oh, and by the way, according to Io Interactive’s spec recommendations, I’d only suggest reflections used in tandem with DLSS – yes, the hit really is that high.

Even considering these sobering recommendations, it must be emphasized that the RT implementation in Hitman 3 not only puts a heavy strain on the GPU, but also has a huge impact on CPU performance and varies from scene to scene. The more complex the scene, the higher the load on the CPU. If there are many NPCs or objects on the screen, CPU costs will skyrocket. In a scene full of objects and characters, many CPUs won’t be able to handle the required processing without frame drops, even if the GPU had enough juice with DLSS, for example, to handle the graphics calculations. Once again, I found that AMD GPU users fare worse here, with even higher CPU utilization, bizarre as that sounds. Due to the very high CPU requirements in general, it’s hard to say how many people will realistically want to turn on RT Reflections, because even if your GPU has the power, your CPU might not.

Another issue is that the DLSS implementation in Hitman 3 can be quite problematic. A static view starts to smear over time – something I’ve seen in Dying Light 2 pre-release code (it was fixed at launch) and in Deathloop. In addition, it seems that many characters at medium to long distances cause smearing problems: almost as if the characters eventually stop producing motion vectors. In my opinion, this generally harms the DLSS image quality, even if other aspects of the DLSS image quality are fine.

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

In summary, I have mixed reactions to Hitman’s ray tracing upgrade. I think the reflections are of really high quality in general, and I think it’s commendable that Io added different levels of quality to mitigate at least some of the extreme performance cost. But even at these quality levels, they remain expensive and pose serious challenges for even the most powerful CPUs and GPUs. RT Shadows are less impressive and not as transformative, but at least they have more reasonable CPU and GPU performance costs. I imagine most people will choose to use these instead, seeing the reflection option as something best left for future PC hardware.

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