Sunday, June 16, 2024

Why I refuse to buy The Callisto Protocol on PC, even with an RTX 4090


The Callisto Protocol was one of my most anticipated games of the year, so you can imagine how disappointing it was to learn that the PC port runs terribly. I’ve been down this road before with the best graphics card money can buy, and I refuse to go down it again.

Although it’s true that next-gen consoles are starting to show their age, they hold a benefit over PCs that’s been exaggerated over the past year: precompiled shaders. The Callisto Protocol is the latest egregious example, so I’m saving my pennies on the PC port for the time being.

What’s the problem with The Callisto Protocol on PC?

It’s easy to see The Callisto Protocol has issues on PC. The game carries a Mostly Negative review on Steam right now, despite Digital Trends Gaming Editor Giovanni Colantonio giving the game three-and-a-half out of five stars in our review. He reviewed the game on an Xbox Series X and noted performance issues, but not enough to justify a mostly negative score.

That’s because The Callisto Protocol, despite being demanding, isn’t pushing hardware to its absolute limit. The RTX 4090 is well above what the developer recommends for max settings on PC. The problem is stuttering, which is what led PC Gamer to call the release “a stuttering nightmare” on PC.

Although stuttering can come from myriad sources, The Callisto Protocol isn’t unique. It uses Unreal Engine, which has become notorious in the PC space for the past several years due to shader compilation stuttering. Below, you can see how bad the situation is with testing performed by CapFrameX with an RTX 4090 and a Core i9-13900K.

What a great game but from a technical perspective it's a disaster.#CallistoProtocol

— CapFrameX (@CapFrameX) December 2, 2022

For some concrete reference, here’s what IGN producer Mark Medina saw while playing the game with an RTX 4090:

My PC Specs:

Intel i9-12900K (12th Gen)64GB RamRTX 4090

Callisto Protocol:

— Mark Medina (@Mark_Medina) December 2, 2022

We have several other major releases that saw similar stuttering problems this year. Gotham Knights is the most recent example, as it exhibited such severe stuttering that I wasn’t able to make it through more than a few hours of the game. Elden Ring also shipped with stuttering issues on PC, as did the sci-fi cat adventure Stray. The connective tissue? Unreal Engine.

It doesn’t matter how much PC horsepower you throw at the problem with these stutters. Shader compilation stuttering is related to your CPU becoming a brief, highly severe bottleneck to your GPU. Games like Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves precompile shaders (programs that your GPU needs to execute) before you start the game, avoiding most stutters. Unreal Engine, and some custom engines like the one seen in Elden Ring, compile them at runtime. If you have a lot of complex shaders, your CPU needs to pause and find the instructions to send to your GPU before you can proceed, which causes a stutter.

Shader compilation is definitely a problem, but it’s likely not the only issue facing The Callisto Protocol on PC. Unreal Engine also shows asset streaming stutters where the game will briefly hang while new assets are brought into the world. Given the highly detailed environments of The Callisto Protocol, I’d imagine asset streaming is playing some role as well.

Regardless of the root causes, it’s clear The Callisto Protocol is a mess on PC, joining the ranks of the infamous Battlefield 2042 as a AAA release with a Mostly Negative reception on Steam on release day. I’m still genuinely excited to play The Callisto Protocol, and I’ll make it through the game eventually. It’s just a shame that the game runs smoother on a $500 console than it ever could on a $1,600 graphics card.

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