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. 

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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 rendering features possible with the tech. The effects in this demo include:

  • Textured area lights
  • Ray-traced area light shadows
  • Ray-traced reflections
  • 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.  

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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. 

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. 

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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 it. 

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. As it's a fairly new technology this also means that the list of games which support ray tracing is short but growing. 

Many of these games are triple-A titles that have also appeared on console, but at the moment ray tracing is exclusive to PC as consoles don't have the necessary hardware to support the extra processing power required.  

Battlefield V

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. 

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 afterwards. Improved shadows, diffused lighting and more added extra depth to an already beautiful game. 

Quake II

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. 

Quake II RTX is a free download to give you a taster of the ray tracing goodness and baddy blasting fun. 

Metro Exodus

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. 

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:

Cyberpunk 2077

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. 

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

Infinity Ward is busy working away on a reboot of the Modern Warfare series of Call of Duty. This outing promises "an epic reimagining of the iconic Modern Warfare series from the ground up" - that includes ray tracing goodness as standard. We're fairly sure this is going to be an awesome FPS outing.  

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. 

Atomic Heart

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 customisable weapons certainly make this one appear intriguing if nothing else. The lighting enhancements being shown off in this one are truly stunning as well. 

Control

Control is another strong favourite of ours in terms of upcoming games to get excited about. It's being lovingly crafted by the same studio behind Max Payne, Alan Wake and Quantum Break. That team has been regularly showing off how its been implementing Nvidia's ray tracing tech in the new game with various awesome looking trailers highlight the stunning results. 

Enlisted

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

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 ambience to dark alleyways and environments stuffed full of vampires. We can't wait to sink our teeth into this one!

Wolfenstein: Youngblood

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. 

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. 

Other upcoming games with ray tracing support include:

  • JX3
  • Mechwarrior V: Mercenaries
  • Project DH