I recently bit the bullet and bought an Nvidia RTX 2070 Super. I’ve been a long-time AMD fan and have owned several GPUs from Team Red, including the R9 Fury, the RX 480, and RX 580. The recent arrival of AMD’s Navi cards–the RX 5700 and 5700 XT–offered a compelling reason to stick with them. The top-end 5700XT delivered performance that often rivaled the monstrous GTX 1080 Ti. However, this generation, Nvidia’s got something special up its sleeve: RTX ray-tracing.
While it’s not a true implementation of ray-tracing as we see in CGI films, RTX offers a significant boost to visual fidelity in games that support it. Titles like Metro Exodus are completely transformed with RTX effects turned on.
Is RTX just a big scam?
Initially, I was more than a little skeptical, considering Nvidia’s long and unsavory history of releasing hardware-locked “enhancements” that did little apart from sapping your performance (hello PhysX and Hairworks). However, a wide range of studios appears to be adopting RTX.
Many of the games I’m looking forward to playing–like Cyberpunk 2077 and Atomic Heart–feature it. Control, the latest RTX-enhanced AAA title, is set to release on August 27th, 2019. So, it makes sense to have a look at some of the other RTX-enabled games on the market. Let’s take a look.
Games That Support Ray Tracing
1. Metro Exodus
RTX has been (somewhat) justifiably criticized for being gimmicky. And, like I said, Nvidia does have a disreputable history of releasing performance-sapping, hardware-exclusive gimmicks. But RTX lighting in Metro Exodus is a real game-changer. It makes a strong case that hybrid ray-tracing might just be the future of visuals. Most RTX titles don’t make use of a fully ray-traced pipeline. This is because doing so would be too computationally expensive.
Ray-traced lighting completely changes how lighting looks in Metro Exodus
Instead, they use conventional rasterized rendering with ray-tracing implemented to handle specific visual features. In Metro Exodus’ case, RTX is used to replace the game’s global illumination lighting system. All external world lighting–lighting cast by the sun–makes use of RTX. This allows for some stunning and physically-accurate lighting effects, with light and shadow cast realistically on objects, characters, and the environment. Metro Exodus’ post-apocalyptic world has plenty of low-light areas. Traditional global illumination often rendered these areas unnaturally bright. With RTX enabled, though, low-light areas receive physically-accurate lighting.
Get out your lighters and flashlights: Dark areas get really dark with ray-tracing enabled
This has implications for gameplay. Artyom will have to use his flashlight much more often. This is because RTX makes some areas so dark that you literally can’t see without an external light source. Metro Exodus is a demanding game to start off with and RTX incurs a significant performance hit on top of that. However, DLSS upscaling offsets the performance impact somewhat. RTX 2070 Super can achieve a more or less stable lock on 60 FPS with RTX and DLSS turned on.
2. Quake II RTX
Remember how I said most RTX implementations don’t have a fully-raytraced pipeline? If you were wondering why, Quake II RTX offers ample explanation. Quake II is an FPS that launched way back in 1997. The 3dfx Voodoo 2, a top-of-the-line GPU from the era, had 8MB of VRAM and was clocked at 60 MHz.
A fully ray-traced rendering pipeline makes Quake II thousands of times harder to run
To put that into perspective, a budget mobile phone from 2010 like the ZTE Blade, has more graphics grunt. Paired with a Pentium II, the Voodoo 2 managed about 60 FPS on average at 800×600 with conventional, rasterized rendering. Today, the RTX 2070 Super, a card that is over 10,000 times faster (that wasn’t a typo), runs Quake II RTX at…well, roughly 60 FPS at 1080p.
Quake II’s the only fully-raytraced game available. But it’s a stunning vision of the future
Quake II RTX features a complete ray-tracing implementation. And while it looks stunning, this relic from 1997 actually runs slower than today’s most punishing AAA titles like AC: Odyssey. This is why developers have opted for hybrid solutions, as seen in Metro: Exodus. The alternative is just too taxing.
But let’s talk about Quake II RTX for a moment. It’s the only fully ray-traced game out right now. And it is, in a word, stunning. Ray-tracing simulates how light interacts in real life and the results in Quake II are photorealistic at times. Even with the blocky models and cramped environs, the lighting just looks real in a way that no other’s game so far has managed to replicate. It is truly something that you have to see for yourself.
3. Battlefield V
For a long time there, Metro Exodus and Battlefield V were your only go-to options for RTX in games. While Metro Exodus uses RTX to overhaul its global illumination system, Battlefield V uses it to radically enhance in-game reflections.
Screen-space reflections are limited to…well, screen-space
Conventionally, developers use what are called “screen space” reflections to deliver reasonably good looking–and performant–reflections in-game. But the problem is in the name itself. Screen-space reflections are only able to show reflections for what’s currently in the screen-space, i.e. what you can see at the moment.
This means that off-camera objects won’t receive reflections since they’re not in screen-space.
Ray-traced reflections create unique gameplay possibilities
Battlefield V’s RTX implementation enables ray-traced reflections account for objects and effects out of screen-space. This can have a substantial impact on gameplay. For example. the reflective surface of your gun or scope will show objects that are currently behind you. In a multiplayer match, this would allow you to see someone trying to sneak up on you from behind.
This, of course, comes at a significant cost to performance. The key with RTX 2070 Super-class hardware is to enable DLSS upscaling. Battlefield V’s initial DLSS implementation was terrible. It actually looked worse than just reducing the resolution in-game. However, subsequent patches have improved image quality significantly. With DLSS enabled, you should able to have a decent 1440p/60 FPS experience with RTX enabled.
4. Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Ray-tracing doesn’t always have to entail a drastic change to a game’s visual makeup. A subtle, performance-friendly implementation can be just as good at times. This is what we get in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Lara Croft’s latest adventure features RTX-based shadows.
Ray-tracing here addresses a long-standing issue with game graphics: shadowmap quality. Shadows are computations expensive to render. The higher the shadow resolution (and the more accurate the shadow), the greater the performance hit. Lower resolution shadows suffer from noticeable pixelation. Ray-tracing solves these problems completely.
Ray-traced shadows are a physically-accurate step up from conventional shadowmapping
Ray-traced shadows have an effectively infinite resolution and capture details that conventional shadowmaps would leave out. Ray-traced shadows also accurately capture the varying softness and hardness of shadows, depending on the relative distances of light sources and shadow-casting objects. Another major aspect is how RTX handles point-lights. With conventional shadow rendering, common performance optimization is to disable shadows being cast from point-lights in the environment. If all lightsources cast shadows, areas with a lot of point-light sources–like indoor environments–would kill performance with conventional rendering.
While there is still a performance hit, the nature of ray-tracing allows Shadow of the Tomb Raider to deliver shadows for all point-light sources. This can have a pretty drastic impact on visuals, especially in night-time and indoor scenes where enabling RTX enables numerous far more light sources to cast shadows.
We saved the best (or at least the most important), for last. RTX in Minecraft has much more to it than just pretty lights and shadow. At Gamescom 2019, Microsoft and Nvidia announced a partnership to bring RTX ray-tracing to Minecraft. They also shared a trailer of what RTX effects looked like in-game.
RTX in Minecraft is all about the economics of ray-tracing
The Minecraft partnership is a huge deal and not just because RTX looks nice in Minecraft (which it does.) It goes back to the point we’d mentioned about Nvidia and gimmicky exclusive effects. I’ve run several generations of Nvidia cards in my system over the years too, apart from my AMD cards.
Nvidia has a bad habit of creating exclusive features like Hairworks and PhysX and using them to promote their cards. Few developers actually implement them and they’re quickly brushed under the rug in time for the next new thing (e.g. Turfworks when it debuted in Ghost Recon: Wildlands).
When RTX was introduced, it seemed to be little more than the same old gimmick. There’s a degree of economic sense in this. Developers don’t implement features that few users will use, unless they’re sponsored to do so. It just doesn’t make financial sense. Tie-ups with Nvidia inevitably result in gimmicky features being half-heartedly implemented in one or two titles and that’s about it.
What happens when you introduce an exclusive graphics mode to one of the world’s most popular games?
Minecraft is a completely different matter. It’s one of the world’s largest games, with a combined player base of over 90 million users. Minecraft players are dedicated and because of the game’s sandbox nature, it’s something players can come back to again and again.
Visuals have always been Minecraft’s weak point. The aesthetic is intentional, but there are honestly PS1 games that look better. Of course, there are texture mods and shader packs like SEUSS that can drastically enhance Minecraft’s visuals. But as community efforts, they’re not always consistent with the game’s overall aesthetic. An official RTX implementation would be huge. For many gamers, Minecraft is either their primary game or the only game they play on certain platforms.
The official Minecraft RTX implementation could drive RTX sales–and help bring ray-tracing to the mainstream
If an official RTX implementation is present, it’d be something that many users across platforms would potentially aspire to. We have no idea how many, but there are almost certainly going to be gamers who buy into the RTX series just for Minecraft. If this pushes RTX sales beyond their current low-volume levels, developers might start seeing ray-tracing as more than just a gimmick. At such an early stage in the tech’s life cycle, wider adoption is critical to its continued success.
I’m looking forward to testing out the RTX 2070 Super in a range of ray-tracing workloads as soon as the card arrives on my doorstep. While there aren’t too many RTX titles available to play right now, a promising number of big-name developers are bringing out RTX-enabled games in the months to come. Ray-tracing’s definitely still in its infancy. However, I’m starting to suspect that RTX might be just a bit more than the standard Nvidia-exclusive gimmick. Only time will tell. But the future of ray-tracing looks brighter (quite literally) than ever before.