Ray tracing isn't new technology, but the release of Nvidia's 2000-series RTX GPUs saw a massive resurgence in interest for it. Even so, it's taxing on even high-end gaming PCs and the best graphics cards, and game support remains limited, though that looks to be changing. You don't even need an RTX graphics card to jump in; Nvidia opened it up to Pascal and non-RTX Turing cards earlier this year, though you will notice significant performance hits.
Why ray tracing?
So what makes ray tracing so awesome? Well, it offers, among other things, more realistic lighting and reflections in games to boost that wholesome immersion. The commotion isn't really centered around the lighting itself — it's more about how that light interacts with the world.
Think of how light travels in real life. Ray tracing mimics that phenomenon using an algorithm to calculate how the light in-game would interact with the objects that you see on your screen. It gets complicated, and it requires a lot of hardware horsepower to use effectively. This is why we're just now starting to see games utilizing the technology, thanks to consumer-grade hardware that can handle the strain.
If you're still not quite sure what all of that means for video games, then here are three demos so that you can check it all out for yourself. And if you haven't pulled the trigger on an RTX card, then consider this.
Quake II RTX
First, and I'd say foremost, we have Quake II RTX, which came as a surprise earlier this year. Why take such an old, albeit good game to use for an extensive ray-tracing demo? In reality, it doesn't matter. The result is something beautiful.
The venerable first-person arena shooter now looks stunning, thanks to its accurate lighting and updated textures. Whether it's the sunlight streaming in through the windows or the reflections on the weapons themselves, Quake II RTX is a near-perfect demo to experience what ray tracing can do, even for a 22-year-old game.
Best of all, it's free on Steam if you'd like to check it out.
Star Wars: Reflections RTX
If you're a Star Wars fan, then this tech demo is for you. Nvidia, ILMxLAB, and Epic teamed up for this one to show off what ray tracing was capable of almost two years ago, but it required staggeringly expensive hardware. But with the launch of the RTX cards, the companies got back together to show off the tech demo using just a single 2080 Ti.
The result is an incredible display of what ray-traced reflections, shadows, and ambient occlusion can be on consumer-grade hardware. The demo, available to download, also features Nvidia's DLSS and DXR technologies to make things more efficient and smoother.
To try it out for yourself, here's the link (auto-download). Just extract the zip somewhere, go to the new folder, and launch the ElevatorDemo.exe file.
If you're looking for something a bit weirder, then be sure to check out the Atomic Heart demo. It sports several instances of Soviet-style technology and a substantial amount of oddity. It's definitely a unique experience and one that left me wanting more – suffice to say, I've added Atomic Heart to my watchlist for upcoming games.
Overall, I'd say that the ray tracing on display is quite excellent. The initial scene in the lab was incredible, and I enjoyed seeing how the light refracted both from and around the blob later on in the demo sequence. All in all, it's worth checking out if you want to see what ray tracing is capable of and also want something a little quirky.
Just hit up the download link here – be warned, it's a large file and takes a little while to install.
Current and upcoming games
If you already own them, you can try out ray tracing in Control, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Metro Exodus, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and Battlefield V, to name a few. As for upcoming games, I hear that, among several others, the much-anticipated Cyberpunk 2077, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2, and Doom Eternal will feature RT support. Minecraft should also see it added soon, as well. The Xbox Series X is also confirmed to have hardware-accelerated ray tracing as well.
What would you like to see?
All of that's well and good, and I'm glad to see ray tracing picking up steam in the video game industry. But what about you, what do you think of ray tracing now that you've tried out the demos? Let us know in the comments!
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Jordan is a long-time gamer and PC hardware enthusiast. From the mid-90s on, he has constantly tinkered with computers and played every game he could get his hands on. Coming from a varied background, he found his passion in writing about Android in 2016, which also launched his writing career not long after. Now, Jordan is an avid gamer who just loves sitting down with tea or a glass of cold water to play whatever game has his attention (or he's reviewing), and he's lucky enough to make a living out of doing so. You can find him on Twitter if you want to chat: @jccpalmer.