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What Is Ray Tracing? Everything You Need To Know

Taking a more in-depth look at the technology that is driving new levels of realism in lighting, reflections, and shadows

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Ray tracing technology has been growing within the video game industry since its introduction at Gamescom back in 2018. However, thanks to the additional demand this taxing feature puts on your PC’s graphical performance, it’s only just becoming more frequently utilized by game developers. 

Nvidia was the first to announce the arrival of RTX (real-time ray tracing) capable GPUs with the arrival of their hugely impressive (yet now completely irrelevant) 20-series Turing cards.

With this, a new era of graphical performance had begun. The 20-series cards were the most powerful we had ever seen, finally allowing for the real-time rendering of frames that utilize ray tracing effects. However, whilst this was great news for visual realism, the lack of game support meant that users wouldn’t be able to enjoy these advanced lighting features for some time to come.

Fast forward to the modern-day and RTX is being used more frequently in the industry’s leading AAA titles. New GPUs have now arrived that has the performance to not only render ray tracing effects in real time, but at a high standard too – albeit with a large impact on gaming performance. And whilst a bunch of games now make use of RTX features, one of the big questions we still get asked around here is; what is ray tracing? 

For that reason, in the following article, we’ll be taking a more in-depth look at the lighting feature that has revolutionized graphical realism – explaining everything you need to know about real-time ray tracing. 

What Is Ray Tracing?

So, what exactly is Ray Tracing? Well, in computer graphics, Ray Tracing is a rendering technique that is used to create a more realistic depiction of lighting and shadows. It focuses on the ways in which light (and shading) interacts with physical objects – creating a greater depth of realism in both video games and film. Ultimately, ray tracing uses an algorithm that traces the path of light (as pixels) and simulates the effects of that light when it eventually encounters a virtual object. 

Now, unlike scanline rendering methods, ray tracing is capable of producing higher levels of visual realism. It allows light to interact with objects and bounce around in a way that is both natural and lifelike. Ray tracing is also capable of producing a whole host of other optical effects, including reflection, scattering, dispersion, and refraction. Furthermore, it can also be used to trace sound waves in a similar fashion – allowing game developers to create a more immersive audible experience via reverberation and echoes. 

Whilst this all sounds great for gamers, remember, real-time ray tracing comes at a massive cost – a performance cost that is. Despite ray tracing being used in cinematic production for some time, we’re only just seeing its true arrival in modern titles now – mainly thanks to the huge performance demand it puts on the graphical processing power of your PC. If you’re a frequent watcher of our YouTube benchmarking channel, you’ll already be aware of the dramatic knock-on effect that ray tracing has on frame rate output. We’ve tested a number of different games to see how ray tracing impacts performance and the results are fairly eye-opening. On average, gamers will be looking at around a 30% drop in frame rate output when using one of the latest 30-series or 6000 series GPUs. That’s an extremely large drop in FPS for what is essentially better lighting. 

That being said, ray tracing is still only at the start of its life when regarding video games. The technology behind ray tracing (and the hardware that drives it) will almost certainly become more advanced as time goes by.

Does AMD support Ray Tracing?

When RTX first hit the video game scene, Nvidia made a big fuss around how their proprietary cards were the only choice for individuals wanting to enjoy ray tracing content. However, since then, AMD has released its hugely impressive lineup of 6000 series GPUs – bringing high-end performance and ray tracing support to team red consumers. 

That being said, there are a number of different factors to consider when choosing a GPU for ray tracing performance. Below are some of the most important:

  • Nvidia’s RT Cores – Nvidia were a little head of the curve when it came to tailoring its GPU lineup for RTX – equipping the 20-series (and above) cards with RT cores. These cores are custom-designed to help accelerate the rendering of ray tracing graphics. Unfortunately, AMD doesn’t have any alternative hardware implementation that helps the processing of ray tracing content – effectively making them worse for RTX gaming.
  • AMD’s Drop In Performance – As we said earlier in the article, enabling RTX on a game can have dramatic effects on the amount of FPS your GPU provides. With Nvidia GPUs, the drop can be around 20% on average (depending on what game and graphics settings you’re using). That said, AMD’s performance drop is an additional 10-20% more than Nvidia – mainly for the reasons said in the above consideration. 
  • Older Generation GPUs – Ray tracing has only been supported since 2018 (by Nvidia anyway), making older generational cards useless when it comes to RTX based content. For AMD, you can only experience ray tracing with a 5000/6000 series GPU (including VEGA 56/64). Nvidia cards released after the 20-series range with RTX in their name will also support ray tracing content. Be aware though, performance does vary dramatically from generation to generation.

Will RTX come to consoles?

Despite real-time ray tracing only being around for a few years now, both Sony and Microsoft promised ray tracing support for their latest consoles (PlayStation 5/ XBOX Series X). Furthermore, in a Wired interview, Cerny specifically said that there will be “ray tracing acceleration in the GPU hardware” in their latest console.

AMD, who will be manufacturing the parts for both XBOX Series X and PS5, will likely utilize some form of ray tracing accelerator cores – similar to RT and Tensor cores of Nvidia’s RTX GPUs. That should see superb ray tracing performance for both consoles, respectively.


Games That Support Ray Tracing

Historically, ray tracing has been used within the cinematic industry for some time now, with Monsters University (2013) being the first animated film to make use of ray tracing for all lighting and shading. That said, we’ve had to wait a little longer for video game support. 

Upon the arrival of RTX support, there were only a few games that actually supported ray tracing – of which only a few were classed as AAA. 

  • Battlefield V
  • Metro Exodus
  • Shadow Of The Tomb Raider
  • Stay In The Light
  • Quake II RTX

Not really a great deal for gamers to get their teeth into at the time. Fast forward to Gamescom 2019 and a tonne of different titles were unveiled with ray tracing support – many of which were considered some of the biggest titles of that particular year. Nvidia also made it very clear during its keynote speech that they as a company was not holding game developers back in any way, allowing them to fully incorporate this technology in the latest titles. 

Below is an up to date list of all the games that currently offer ray tracing support – in one way or another. Remember, not every game on this list will be supported by AMD’s graphics cards:

  • Amid Evil
  • Battlefield V
  • Bright Memory: Infinite
  • Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare
  • Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  • Control
  • Cyberpunk 2077
  • Deliver Us The Moon
  • Dirt 5
  • Doom Eternal
  • Fortnite
  • Ghostrunner
  • Godfall
  • Justice Online
  • JX Online
  • MechWarriror 5: Mercenaries
  • Metro Exodus
  • Minecraft
  • Moonlight Blade
  • Observer System Redux
  • Pumpkin Jack
  • Quake II RTX
  • The Riffbreaker
  • Right of Elysium
  • Shadow Of The Tomb Raider
  • Stay in the Light
  • Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2
  • Watch Dogs: Legion
  • The Witcher 3
  • Wolfenstein
  • World Of Warcraft
  • Xuan-Yuan Sword VII

Graphics Cards That Support Ray Tracing

As we just said, not every GPU supports ray tracing. The first of their kind were released in 2018 and not that many have come to fruition since. 

That said, there are now GPUs from both AMD and Nvidia that handle ray tracing to a half-decent standard. 

NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080

Below are what Nvidia currently offer:

  • Nvidia GeForce RTX 3090
  • Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080
  • Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070
  • Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 Ti
  • Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060
  • Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 Super
  • Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070
  • Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 Super
  • Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080
  • Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Super
  • Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti
  • Nvidia Titan RTX

For many, the arrival of the RTX 30-series GPU lineup was a real kick in the teeth. Not only were they more reasonably priced than the 20-series alternative, but they offered almost double the power in some scenarios. Nowadays, purchasing a GPU is, well, easier said than done – with most of the 20-series lineup ceasing to be produced anymore. 

AMD Lisa Su Radeon 7

Below are what AMD has to offer:

  • RX 6900XT
  • RX 6800XT
  • RX 6800

Whilst there is a case for older generations of AMD GPUs to be put in this list, the reality of using ray tracing with those cards is a visual slideshow that I wouldn’t recommend to my worst enemy. They’re almost unplayable, even in the best-case scenarios. 

That being said, the latest offerings do manage to push good frame rates when playing RTX titles – fair play to AMD for catching up.

Final Thoughts

So, there you have it, everything you need to know about ray tracing in 2021. Game developers are now producing games with ray tracing support at an exponential rate. RTX technology really is the next step in gaming realism, providing more immersion and a better visual experience than ever before. And, with the ever-evolving technology that supports ray tracing, gaming with this highly impressive feature is only going to get better.

Product Benchmarker and Writer AT WEPC

Sebastian Kozlowski

After taking apart and tinkering with the home PC and other electronics, Seb went to study Mechanical Engineering at the University of Manchester to try and explore everything in parts. After he graduated he realised how different the adult world was and decided to pursue work in the tech industry after spending too much time playing games (mostly CS:GO), keeping up with everything tech, and being everyone's go-to for PCs.