Nvidia Ray Tracing: All you need to know about ray tracing

Got a brand-new Nvidia RTX graphics card for Christmas? Lucky you. However, if you simply plug the graphics card into your motherboard and start playing through your Steam library you’ll almost certainly be wasting the huge ray tracing potential the card has to offer.

Whether you’re unsure about what ray tracing is, or if you just need help getting it up and running, we have all the answers below.

Related: Best graphics cards

What is ray tracing?

Ray tracing is a rendering technique that creates more realistic light effects. By using ray tracing tech to simulate the physical behaviour of light, you’ll see it bounce off objects in the virtual world just as it would in reality.

While ray tracing has been around for some time in the film and TV production worlds, Nvidia’s RTX graphics cards are the first means through which ray tracing can be rendered in real-time, making it possible to incorporate the technology in video games.

Nvidia Ray Tracing Shadow of the Tomb Raider

Nvidia’s screenshot of Shadow of the Tomb Raider demonstrating ray tracing

It isn’t only light that benefits from ray tracing; this more realistic behaviour of light also creates more authentic reflections and shadows. Look down at a puddle, and ray tracing should allow you to see your character’s face staring right back at you.

Shadows, meanwhile, should look more dynamic. Think of a rising sun over a forest. With ray tracing, shadows are directly affected by the light source and will move accordingly with the sun’s position in the sky. The Shadow of the Tomb Raider tech demo also depicted how flickering firecrackers and candles will create more realistic and atmospheric lighting in dark environments.

How good is the ray tracing performance? 

Nvidia’s ray tracing tech demos may look impressive, but how good is the technology in action? We tested real-time ray tracing for ourselves with Battlefield V – the very first game to actively support the technology.

In the snow-blanketed landscapes of Battlefield V’s single player experience Nordlys, ray tracing truly excelled. Mountain ranges could be seen in the reflection of a frozen lake, while flames glinted off the metallic surface of machine guns, even as snow thundered down.

Ray tracing

DXR turned off – Battlefield V frozen lake

ray tracing

DXR turned on – Battlefield V frozen lake

Explore one of the many deserted homes in Battlefield V, and the ray tracing improvements are even more noticeable. Glass cabinets show a clear reflection of the entire room, as well as your own character. If a sneaky solider were to sneak up behind you while you ogled the cabinet, you’d be able to spot them immediately. Turn off DirectX Raytracing (DXR) and the glass cabinet will still show a reflection, but a very blurred and murky one that has been pre-designed and can’t be affected by its surroundings, no matter how hard you attempt to intercept the light.

Even the glass-fronted picture frames hanging up on the walls benefit significantly from ray tracing. Once activated, you’re able to see the sunlight glistening on the surface, giving it a glossy appearance rather than the dull image you’d usually find.

DXR turned off – Battlefield V cabinet

Ray tracing

DXR turned on – Battlefield V cabinet

But while this level of detail is incredibly impressive, it’s so subtle that you probably wouldn’t notice it unless you went looking for it, especially in fast-paced bombastic ventures such as Battlefield V where you’re too busy gunning down Nazis to bother gazing at a reflection in a cabinet.

When you factor in how much of a performance drain that ray tracing is on the GPU, you have to ask yourself whether that subtle improvement is worth it. Playing through the Nordlys level on Battlefield V in Full HD with DXR turned off, the game held an approximate frame rate average of 130fps. After activating DXR, though, that frame rate average dropped to 80fps. That’s a whopping 50fps difference.

Since we were using the Alienware Aurora gaming desktop with a Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti and Intel Core i9 9900K configuration, Battlefield V still ran smoothly despite the 50fps hit. If you’re using a less modest graphics card though, (such as the RTX 2070 or GTX 2080,) or you fancy playing in 4K rather than Full HD, then frame rates might drop to such a degree that you may decide to sacrifice DXR altogether.

Related: Battlefield V Review

What do I need for ray tracing?

You’ll need a Nvidia RTX graphics card in order to run real-time ray tracing. The consumer cards currently in this lineup are the RTX 2080 Ti, RTX 2080 and 2070 GPUs.

These graphics cards boast new hardware called Tensor Cores and RT Cores, which are required to make real-time ray tracing possible. Nvidia also invented the term ‘Giga Rays’, as a measurement of performance for ray tracing.

Nvidia says that 5 Giga Rays per second is the minimum amount of virtual light required to fully illuminate a typical room in a video game environment.

The RTX 2070 offers the standard 5 Giga Rays/sec, while the 2080 offers 8 Giga Rays/sec and the 2080 Ti a whopping 10 Giga Rays/sec.

In other words, lighting effects on games played on a system with a 2080 Ti running will look the most impressive, realistic and immersive. 

Rumours suggest that Nvidia might release laptop-compatible RTX graphics cards during CES 2019, but even if such rumours are true, there’s no guarantee they’ll be capable of ray tracing to the same standard of desktop GPUs. 

Related: Nvidia RTX 2080 Ti Review

Which games will support ray tracing?

The full list of games confirmed to support ray tracing is as follows:

However, most of these games are still awaiting software patches before they can feature ray tracing. So far, Battlefield V is the only video game that has the technology activated. 

Even more games are expected to confirm support for ray tracing throughout 2019, but it may take a while for the required software updates to become available. We’ll revise this list as soon as more information becomes available.

Related: Best PC Games

Battlefield V: Minimum System Requirements for ray tracing

CPU: Intel Core i5 8400/AMD Ryzen 5 2600
GPU: Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070
OS: 64-bit Windows 10 (version 1809 or newer)

How to enable ray tracing for Battlefield V

1. Make sure you have the latest version of Windows 10 installed (version 1809 or higher). To download the update, go to Windows Settings > Update & Security > Windows Update > Check for updates.

2. Download the Battlefield V GeForce Game Ready driver, version 416.94 (or later) from GeForce Experience’s Drivers tab, or from GeForce.com.

3. Ensure that Battlefield V has been updated with the November 14th patch on Origin.

4. Load up Battlefield V and open the Graphics Setting menu. Enable DirectX 12 and then restart the game.

5. Once Battlefield V is loaded up again, open up the Advanced Settings, enable DXR and then scroll down and pick a detail level* for “DXR Reflections Quality”.

6. Select “Apply” and then start the game.

*Nvidia recommends that you pick the “Low” setting, as there are known issues with the higher settings. Nvidia also recommends turning off “Chromatic Aberration”, “Film Grain” “Vignette” and “Lens Distortion” for the best experience.