Nvidia began the week with a bang, announcing their all-new GeForce RTX GPUs, namely the RTX 2070, 2080, and the 2080 Ti, based on the groundbreaking Turing architecture. Apart from the CUDA cores and the new GDDR6 memory, what’s really impressive about these new graphics cards is the fact that they bring real-time ray tracing to games, by doing the heavy lifting for developers in dynamic lighting and shadow effects.
But is it really that big a deal for gamers right now? From what we saw the Gamescom 2018, it isn’t. Or rather it won’t be for some time.
Post the Nvidia event, we played some of the titles making use of this technology. We played Metro Exodus, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and Battlefield V, and truth be told, while there is potential, the gaming experience in itself left a lot to be desired.
Let’s talk about positives first. Ray tracing essentially affects the overall lighting in every frame of the games, and it clearly shows. The overall lighting of each environment is based on authentic light reflection and interaction with objects in the scene. But, the question is, does ray tracing make that much of a difference at the moment? Well, at its current point, it faces a lot of issues. Let’s dig into them:
Long Development Process
When we spoke to the Metro Exodus team at Gamescom 2018, we got the impression that yes, ray tracing has its advantages. Like we said it does all the heavy lifting for devs: instead of assigning light properties for each visual element along with a separate shadow, all developers now need to do is simply design the elements and add specific characteristics about the opacity, reflection, and that’s pretty much it. Ray tracing should take care of the rest. This should allow them to focus on other important parts of the game, while ray tracing helps make visuals more life-like. While it sounds easy, we were told, it’s not that simple.
One major issue is that RTX is still pretty new. Like literally new. While the games showcased at Gamescom had early access to it, there is no way that they would have mastered it in such short time. Adapting to the new technology is time-consuming as devs have to get familiar with the framework, the new APIs, the new engines, and what not. In fact, in conversation, Metro Exodus devs told us it would take more than a year for most developers to understand RTX and implement it to its full potential.
To bring ray tracing to their games developer teams would have to put in twice the amount of work – you still have to ensure compatibility with older GPUs, and ensure the game is up to scratch for RTX tech.
Nvidia showed a demo which highlighted the 6x better ray-tracing performance in the new Turing GPUs as compared to the older Pascal GPUs. That’s a massive bump for sure, but last-gen cards and older GPUs are still quite powerful.
There are still gamers rocking DDR3 RAM along with a Nvidia GTX 780 Ti and are gaming at 144Hz with no problems. A lot of people are using the 9xx and the 10xx series GPUs, without issues. These are pretty capable systems and can practically handle a lot of load, except ray tracing, obviously.
Performance Takes A Hit
And let’s face it, how many people are actually going to be buying the new RTX GPUs right now? The main advantages that the RTX GPUs bring are tied to developers actually adopting the technology, and they’d only do that once RTX becomes a mainstream thing. Unfortunately, that is still at least a year away.
The 6X performance is only on ray tracing metrics, and not the overall performance. As for everything else, the updates are incremental, so with RTX off, you are likely to see an improvement of just around 8-10 FPS.
Ray Tracing vs Gameplay
So I did just claim that if you don’t want ray tracing right now, the current-gen GTX GPUs should hold up pretty well, but you might wonder why one wouldn’t want to live on the bleeding edge of technology with the RTX GPUs. Well, this brings me to my favorite part of this discussion, which is the actual gameplay.
Let’s start with Metro Exodus. The Metro series has been a benchmark game in terms of visuals and authentic setting, and Exodus is no different.
I could easily see that while the game definitely looks better with RTX toggled on. Ray tracing makes the game look stunning, as you can see in the video above, which highlights portions of the game that ray tracing has added its magic to. But on the other hand the the performance suffers and you could see some frame drops. The developers admitted that this is simply because RTX is still a new technology, and they still have to devote a lot of more time to actually make the game stable.
“FPS has never been our main focus with Metro; it’s more about the graphics quality. However, stability is a concern, and that is something we definitely need to work a lot on right now, especially with RTX here,” said one Metro Exodus developer we met here.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Metro Exodus isn’t due out till at least 6 months, so the devs still have time to iron out the issues. That’s not the case with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, which is due for release in September. With RTX on, the game performs really bad, and it almost feels like you’re playing an alpha build of the game, which really shouldn’t be the case so close to the release.
Again, the visuals are simply stunning, which you can see in the clip above – we love the shadows and light play in the ambient lighting of this scene.
That being said, the performance drops weren’t as bad as Metro Exodus, and certainly, not as bad as Battlefield V.
Okay, so DICE and EA have had their fair share of bad and buggy launches, and it seems like Battlefield V is headed in the same direction. I was trying out their new City map in the multiplayer mode, and it’s a hot mess. The Battlefield V systems had GeForce Experience, so I had access to the FPS meter as well, which made things worse.
For a game called Battlefield, you are bound to have standard explosions and smoke elements in the game. The game averages at 88 FPS for most scenes, which is pretty good. However, the moment there is an explosion in the game, the count drops massively, to a low of 33 FPS, which is just disappointing. Frame drops at explosions is to expected, but with RTX, the system is processing a lot of data in real-time, and it just really hampers the performance. This will of course be fine-tuned as developers get more familiar with this technology.
Ray Tracing in eSports and Multiplayer
So being the critic I am, I spent the first 5-7 minutes of Battlefield V, inspecting the impact of RTX on each and every element in the game, and honestly, it all looked pretty and gorgeous. But here’s the thing. Once I actually played the game, I hardly noticed these visual improvements, except for when the frames dropped.
Games such as Battlefield, Call of Duty, Counter-Strike, and other eSports titles are usually quite fast-paced. Players may care about visual fidelity here, but you’d hardly find them pushing things to the max. In fact, most eSports players actually tune down the settings to get better FPS. With RTX On, you get those awesome visuals, but the performance could take a major hit.
Be it Battlefield 3, Battlefield 4, Battlefield 1, or the upcoming Battlefield V, (yes, that’s the order the games have been released in), the multiplayer segment has pretty much looked the same. This is most apparent when you look at the gameplay videos, or better yet, play the mode. Gamers of these titles demand better mechanics, better weapons, better movements, more physics. Enhanced visuals is probably low on their list of demands, but ray tracing delivers that; now it’s up to the developers to optimize it so that performance is not impacted.
The Console Dilemma
Yes, single player games would definitely benefit from RTX, provided that they’re able to overcome the hassles we’ve already gone over. But, single player games also face another issue, which many of you might have missed spotting.
For titles that are first developed for consoles and then ported to PC, which let’s face it is most titles, GeForce RTX is another development track. Both the Xbox and PS4 use AMD GPUs, which currently do not support ray tracing like Nvidia’s RTX tech. As such, porting a console game to PC and adding RTX to introduces a lot of development complexity. As such, the overall library of games that will have support for Nvidia’s RTX is already looking quite small.
And that’s not about to change any time soon. We don’t know when the next generation of PlayStation and Xbox would be released, but it has already been confirmed that they would both use AMD GPUs again. And while the newer AMD Chipsets would feature ray tracing enhancements themselves, it is, once again, more than a year away, and comes with its own development challenges.
Should You Buy GeForce RTX Now?
There’s little doubt that ray tracing as done by the Nvidia RTX is a staggering piece of technology which takes game visuals to the next level. But it must be noted that Nvidia has only just introduced the technology. Its real benefit would only be seen when developers actually make use of it, which seems at least about 12-18 months away. The new RTX GPUs bring something groundbreaking to the table, but it’s gonna be a while till developers perfect its implementation.
So as a gamer looking to build a halfway powerful gaming PC, should you be considering the new RTX GPUs right now? It’s a dilemma for sure, but one made easy by the fact that if you were looking to get a GTX 1080 right now, it might be better to wait till the RTX 2070 is out, given that the RTX card is likely to be on par in terms of performance on most metrics. Given that the GTX 1080 and the RTX 2070 are roughly around the same price, you might want to wait for the latter to get those sweet visuals.