Ray Tracing has been out for a while now and from its rather controversial beginnings, the relatively new graphics technology has evolved beyond just mega-detailed reflections. But the fact of the matter remains; it’s still an expensive technology to sustain for customers. That begs the question, is Ray Tracing worth it?
Three to four years ago, the answer would have been more negative; but some of the most recent games have introduced some developments in their Ray Tracing implementation.
If you value graphical fidelity and realism, then you’ll be pleased to know that Ray Tracing is just about the most accurate digital simulation of light.
To date, it’s the most accurate replication of light’s behavior and nuances in a digital space. That’s why CGI in films like Star Wars prefer to use Ray Tracing, and this tech has spilled over to video games.
So the short answer: if you value graphical realism, then sure, Ray Tracing is worth it. However, there are several big factors to consider regarding whether Ray Tracing is worth it for you instead of just being a luxury improvement for the immersion of the mass as a whole.
To find out if your particular use case and preference makes Ray Tracing worth it, then read on.
It’s Still an Expensive Tech
As we mentioned above, Ray Tracing is expensive to sustain. It’s about as expensive as it was several years ago when it was first introduced. Not much has changed in hardware efficiency when Ray Tracing is concerned.
You will still need RTX hardware from Nvidia because AMD Radeon’s Ray Tracing performance has yet to catch up. It’s no secret now that Nvidia’s RTX lineup is typically more expensive compared to its competition.
And you can forget about budget Ray Tracing (i.e. RTX 3050 or 3050 Ti). While Nvidia’s entry-level Ray Tracing GPUs are technically capable of Ray Tracing, these cards are already disappointing performance-wise that enabling Ray Tracing in a video game that has the tech will result in poor framerate. Speaking of which…
Money is not the only cost
Ray Tracing demands more than just money and a capable GPU, of course. It also requires a worrying amount of framerate or FPS (frames per second).
Enabling Ray Tracing– even in the lowest preset, will consume double-digit framerate numbers (usually around 20 FPS). So if your GPU is cruising at 60 FPS for a game, enabling Ray Tracing for that game will bring it down to 40 which is quite sluggish already. There are cases where Ray Tracing can even halve the framerate.
There are many factors that also affect this. Some Ray Tracing implementations are meager such as mere reflections (which is still taxing), while other Ray Tracing in other games include a revamp of the whole lighting system and shadows. More Ray Tracing features mean more framerate impact.
So if you choose the best Ray Tracing-capable hardware, you’ll need to increase your GPU budget to something that has plenty of performance overhead. Your mid-range GPU budget (such as an RTX 3060) could easily go up to high-end (RTX 3070 or above); otherwise, you might as well turn off Ray Tracing and opt for a cheaper AMD GPU instead.
Because sacrificing other aspects of image fidelity just to accommodate Ray Tracing will yield counterintuitive results if what you’re after is immersion or eye candy.
Games That Have Ray Tracing are Still Few
The good news for people who are still averse to Ray Tracing due to its performance impact is that not all games have Ray Tracing. In fact, you can still easily count the number of games that support Ray Tracing.
And among them, only a handful have some truly game-changing and immersive utilization of Ray Tracing compared to traditional light rasterization. These games have the most noticeable Ray Tracing:
- Cyberpunk 2077
- Metro Exodus: Enhanced Edition
- Doom Eternal
- Battlefield V
- Watch Dogs: Legion
- Dying Light 2
There are other titles, but the way they use Ray Tracing is a little too muted and unnoticeable if you’re playing fast and carefree anyway.
So purchasing an RTX GPU for the sole purpose of getting in on the trend of Ray Tracing doesn’t seem too economically sound if you’re measuring product worth via proportional gains.
Although, RTX GPUs do have other more impressive features, such as DLSS which we’d argue is more important than Ray Tracing since it’s a “free” performance boost.
Among those games, only Cyberpunk 2077 and Metro Exodus: Enhanced Edition look vastly different under Ray Tracing. You’re not missing much by disabling Ray Tracing in other games, other features such as reflections are subject to suspension of disbelief.
Light-bouncing and Shadows are Underrated Ray Tracing Features
Due to the snide reactions from the first demonstration of Ray Tracing back in Battlefield V, the tech has earned a somewhat unfair reputation for only providing mirror-like reflections while demanding 20 FPS or more.
In reality, games like Cyberpunk 2077 and Metro Exodus: Enhanced Edition have pushed Ray Tracing to heights that transcend it past a reflection renderer.
In Cyberpunk 2077, for example, Ray Tracing changes the atmosphere, especially in brightly-lit neon environments where all the clashing lights and color palettes bounce off shiny surfaces and illuminate the scene in ways that traditional rasterization just can’t.
Meanwhile, Metro Exodus’ dark areas with some small outside light sources behave more realistically, so the contrast between outdoor light and indoor darkness isn’t blinding. Because in reality, the light would spill through holes such as windows and illuminate the dark area in varying intensities. In normal rasterization, light doesn’t bounce this way and doesn’t mix well with dark areas.
If more games would utilize Ray Tracing like this instead of meager implementations such as reflections, then the technology just might reach its full potential.
But for now, in a time when most games simply don’t utilize Ray Tracing to its fullest, investing in Ray Tracing hardware is still not that appealing as a venture.
Enable Ray Tracing for Screenshots, Disable It for Gameplay
A good consensus among the gaming community is to enable Ray Tracing for screenshots and disable it for general gameplay. Because in most games, such as Control, for example, the action is too frantic and fast-paced that most players won’t notice if a reflection is out of place or un-immersive anyway.
There are plenty of excuses you can make for rasterization as to why that in-game puddle or car door isn’t reflective. Perhaps they were merely weathered or dirty. The mind can definitely adjust under such a small disconnect between realism and simulation.
The same can’t be said for Ray-traced shadows and lighting, but only a couple of games were able to implement that well.
For the majority of the users, a double-digit performance impact for an inconspicuous detail is not a good trade. That’s why many prefer to just disable Ray Tracing; after all, the most important aspect of a video game is still its gameplay and smoothness is still preferable over pretty but sluggish visuals.