If you’re a gamer, then the chances are you’ve heard of ray tracing, but you might not know exactly what it means or why it’s a big deal. We’re here to help you find out.
Nvidia has been pushing ray tracing since it first announced its RTX 20-series graphics cards in 2018, but ray tracing is much more than just a marketing ploy to help sell graphics cards for high-end gaming PCs and hardware.
It’s a developing technology for enhancing the visuals of games that results in a much more immersive, eye-catching, and visually pleasing gaming experience.
What is ray tracing?
Ray tracing is actually nothing new. It’s been around for years now, but it’s only recently that PC hardware and technology has got to a point where ray tracing can be implemented in a way where it can make a real difference to your games. In real-time.
In its simplest form, ray tracing is a system that’s used to enhance the lighting in games. This is done in a variety of different ways. It’s used in everything from reflections to shadows both in the gaming environment and on items within it. This includes things like atmospheric effects, reflections on surfaces (water, metal, glass), and even diffused lighting.
Diffused lighting is especially interesting as that includes light bouncing off of surfaces and reflecting onto others. This, in effect, is an indirect lighting source which then helps create a more realistic experience. Imagine how sunlight falls into a room, then bounces off walls and floors and naturally makes the entire room brighter. That’s one part of how ray tracing works.
When ray tracing is fully implemented, you often won’t even notice what’s happening unless you’re paying really close attention as it’s part of the whole picture of a graphically stunning environment. It’s only when you see a side-by-side comparison of the games with ray tracing on and off that you’ll see what a difference it can make.
With the latest and greatest Nvidia graphics processors, all this happens in real-time. This helps generate “high-resolution, real-time reflections that reflect details in front of, behind, above and below the player or camera; details the player couldn’t see with previous techniques.”
As well as reflecting light, shadows and environmental highlights, the ray tracing system can also add impressive visual effects to characters within the game and even the items they’re carrying.
Think about the reflections of a sword’s blade or player’s metal armour showing the surrounding world with a mirror-like effect, but realistically reflected and in real-time – changing as the character moves and passes through the game world.
Reflections, shadow lighting, and immersive visuals
This demo created in the Unreal engine shows many of the next-generation renderings feature possible with the tech. The effects in this demo include:
Textured area lights
Ray-traced area light shadows
Ray-traced ambient occlusion
Cinematic depth of field (DOF)
Nvidia GameWorks ray tracing denoising
Using this new technology in rendering lighting and creating visuals, developers are able to create uber-realistic gaming experiences.
It will certainly be interesting to see how this tech progresses in the near future. We’ve already had a taste of what the future of gaming might look like and ray tracing is yet another stepping stone in the right direction.
What hardware do you need?
When ray tracing was first announced it was only open to gamers with the latest Nvidia graphics cards in their gaming machines. Only the RTX 20-series cards were capable of supporting ray tracing and DLSS. Although that list included the Nvidia Geforce RTX 2060/2070/2080 and 2080Ti, it was hardly an extensive one.
These graphics cards are also expensive and put ray tracing out of range of most gamers unless they were willing to splash out for cutting edge tech.
This all changed in April 2019 when the company announced that older GPUs would support ray tracing with the latest game-ready drivers. And so the current list of ray tracing capable graphics cards includes:
GeForce GTX 1660 Ti
GeForce GTX 1660
Nvidia Titan XP (2017)
Nvidia Titan X (2016)
GeForce GTX 1080 Ti
GeForce GTX 1080
GeForce GTX 1070 Ti
GeForce GTX 1070
GeForce GTX 1060 6GB
It’s not just gaming desktops that support ray tracing either, laptops with equivalent Pascal and Turing-architecture GPUs are also included in the list. There’s also quite a list of gaming laptops with RTX GPUs included as a specification option. That list is constantly growing too.
Ray tracing isn’t limited to PC either. The Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 are said to support Ray Tracing.
All that said, it’s worth noting that if you want the best experiences with ray tracing, then you’ll need the best hardware. Although older graphics cards now support ray tracing, they will struggle with performance. Old GTX GPUs can only offer basic ray tracing effects with a low ray count. While RTX graphics processors can manage much more complex effects with multiple effects being presented with a higher ray count.
Ray tracing is also a graphically intensive process. With it turned on and settings maxed out, even the highest-specced gaming PCs can see a dip in performance in terms of frames per second displayed on the screen.
You’ll get a visually stunning gaming experience, but it won’t necessarily be an uber-smooth one. Nvidia even shows the impact maximum settings can have on average FPS at various resolutions and even at 1920 x 1080 these figures are around 30FPS on older GTX GPUs. So it’s worth splashing out for RTX graphics cards if you can afford them.
The newer RTX 3000 series graphics cards will see notable improvements in performance even with ray tracing turned on.
Current games that support ray tracing
Support for ray tracing depends greatly on developers implementing the effects and visual enhancements as they’re crafting their games.
Many of the main rays traced games are triple-A titles that have also appeared on console but without the same visuals. The original list of games that supported ray tracing was fairly short, but it’s constantly being added to.
It helps that Nvidia and Intel have been working to standardize the Vulkan API in order to make it easier for game developers to add ray tracing support to their games in the future. This will also mean that ray traced games should more easily make their way to the new consoles with the same support in the future.
Fortnite now has ray tracing support along with DLSS to help with performance improvements. This means Fortnite players can now enjoy ray-traced reflections, shadows, global illumination, and ambient occlusion too.
The latest Battlefield game was the first to launch with ray tracing support – offering improved visuals and enhanced reflections on a number of surfaces to make the game far more immersive for PC players.
That’s right, even Minecraft is making the most of enhanced lighting thanks to Nvidia’s RTX technology. It’s surprising what the updates have done to the game too.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Although it didn’t launch with ray tracing support, Shadow of the Tomb Raider was updated with enhanced visuals shortly afterward. Improved shadows, diffused lighting, and more added extra depth to an already beautiful game.
To show off the incredible powers of ray tracing tech, Nvidia’s Lightspeed Studios set out to re-engineer gaming classic Quake II. Now rejuvenated with all the stunning visual effects and dynamic lighting ray tracing can offer, Quake II is a joy to behold. Especially for gamers old enough to remember playing it the first time around.
Battlefield V might have been the first game to support ray tracing, but Metro Exodus was the first game to integrate real-time ray-traced global illumination technology. This meant the game could use more-realistic indirectly diffused lighting as well as adjusting in real-time as the world environment changed and day turns to night.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
The latest outing of the Call of Duty series includes “an epic reimagining of the iconic Modern Warfare series from the ground up” with ray tracing goodness as standard.
Control is another strong favourite of ours. It’s also one of the best examples of Nvidia’s ray tracing tech in any new game with plenty of stunning visual highlights thanks to ray tracing support.
More brilliance from the Wolfenstein franchise is coming in the form of Wolfenstein: Youngblood. It might be set in the 1980s, but this game will feature some futuristic graphics with ray tracing enhancements. Slaying Nazis will never have looked so stunning.
Future games with ray tracing support
If you’re contemplating whether ray tracing is for you and whether you should splash out on a new graphics card or gaming machine, then there’s good news as the list of upcoming PC games that will support ray tracing is pretty awesome.
That list includes the following:
Ghostrunner promises fast-paced, violent single-player combat with a science fiction vibe that’s nicely enhanced with ray tracing goodness.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
Alongside the ray tracing tech being used in the next outing of Black Ops is the use of DLSS to provide enhanced frame rates and smoother gameplay too.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War will also feature Nvidia Ansel allowing players to take awesome high-resolution screenshots too.
This “Spooky Scary 3D platformer” is set to be enhanced with ray tracing and DLSS, adding to the vibe and the Halloween goodness.
Cyberpunk 2077 might have got the most attention at E3 2019 because of the appearance of Keanu Reeves, but one thing that didn’t get enough attention was the fact this game is coming with ray tracing support too.
Stay in the Light
It seems fitting that one of the upcoming games on our list is all about staying in the light. This is an indie horror game that supports real-time ray tracing throughout randomly generated dungeons. Ray-traced lighting and shadow effects are bound to make this one eerie and horribly atmospheric.
Watch Dogs: Legion
The latest outing of Watch Dogs is set to include real-time ray tracing which should certainly make London look that little bit more magnificent. Just be sure to take it all in as you dash about the streets trying to save the capital and recruiting your army of hackers and resistance fighters.
Ready or Not
Kick in the door, throw a flashbang, and appreciate the ray-traced lighting as it explodes blinding the bad guys. Looks like a lot of fun. Ready or Not promises an authentic experience that’s bound to be enhanced by the visual tech here.
Assetto Corsa Competizione
Although already available to purchase Assetto Corsa Competizione doesn’t yet support ray tracing but will do in the near future. This is a realistic racing game that’s set to deliver stunning visuals and an incredible gaming experience for fans of high-octane thrills.
At first glance, it’s hard not to mistake Atomic Heart for another Metro game, especially with the ray-tracing support the game is set to come with. That’s also partly because it’s set in an alternative universe in the heart of the Soviet Union. But this should be a brilliant game in its own right. Weird creatures, robots, and a multitude of customizable weapons certainly make this one appear intriguing if nothing else. The lighting enhancements being shown off in this one are truly stunning as well.
Enlisted is a WWII-themed, MMO, squad-based FPS being developed by the same team behind Cuisine Royale. This new shooter promised ray tracing support and some fairly awesome visuals which should add a brilliant atmosphere to the WWII era.
Justice is a new game hailing from Chinese shores. This game is set to feature some nifty ray-traced reflections, shadows, and Nvidia DLSS technology too.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2
The long-awaited follow up to 2004’s awesome Vampire: The Masquerade – The Bloodlines is coming in 2020. It’s also arriving with ray tracing support which should really help add some ambiance to dark alleyways and environments stuffed full of vampires. We can’t wait to sink our teeth into this one!
Sword and Fairy 7
Sword and Fairy 7 is the latest in the series of Chinese RPGs – a series that originally started life back in the 1990s but is now getting some seriously pleasing visual updates with ray tracing support. This is also one of the coolest video samples of ray tracing in action as it shows off reflections on various surfaces including shiny rock faces, puddles, and the character’s sword too.
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands
The next chapter of the World of Warcraft saga is getting the ray-traced overhaul too. Meaning not only a pleasing launch for World of Warcraft fans but a beautiful one too.
Other upcoming games with ray tracing support include:
Mechwarrior V: Mercenaries