5 Years in, and I Feel Ray Tracing Is Still a Letdown

With the promise of improving graphics fidelity, ray tracing was introduced back in 2018 as a pivotal feature for gamers. While that part does remain true, the technology hasn’t progressed to the extent that one would have liked. Well, before I begin criticizing the state of ray tracing in 2024, I do want to point out that we talk about the most impressive implementations of ray tracing in modern games as well.

To fully ascertain whether or not ray tracing is worth it in 2024, I went ahead and selected some of the best PC games out there with high graphics fidelity. These include Cyberpunk 2077, Hogwarts Legacy, Alan Wake 2, The Finals, and Avatars: Frontiers of Pandora, to name a few. So, let’s dive in and understand how far ray tracing come in the last half-decade.

Games of Today Look Amazing; Even Without Ray Tracing

Starting with Avatar (review), Ubisoft’s new entry expanded the universe of James Cameron. I went to one of my outposts situated at a higher ground, which also had interesting foliage and a waterfall. Then, I looked for a sunkissed spot to, well, take some comparison screenshots. The graphics were completely maxed out in addition to ray tracing.

I looked at the reflections in the water, and parts of the game world were in fact shown in the reflection. But after turning ray tracing down to the minimum setting, the same reflections didn’t have as much of a difference as I expected. Keep in mind that ray tracing (RT) doesn’t just work for reflections. The advantages of RT can also be seen in lighting and shadows.

On the left, we have ray tracing turned down to the lowest setting, but with Ultra graphics settings. On the right, ray tracing is completely turned up along with other graphics settings. You can see the difference in the screenshots below.

Clearly, the reflection is less noisy with ray tracing settings turned up. But there’s no DLSS 3.5 to make the reflections look any better than this. Notice that the bow also looks more detailed with RT turned up, which is another graphical advantage of enabling ray tracing apart from reflections.

Next up, we have Hogwarts Legacy, another PC game with impressive visuals. I found a town with a view of Hogwarts in the distance. In the below screenshots (apologies for the different weather), you can see that reflections are acceptable with ray tracing disabled on the left, with the wooden structure and tower being faintly reflected in the water.

With ray tracing turned up, things get quite demanding but the result is definitely impressive. The blue sky, the tower within Hogwarts, and other parts of the game world are reflected beautifully in this example. The implementation of RT is delightful to see in Hogwarts Legacy, but I would say the game looks equally awesome at Ultra graphics with RT disabled.

Plus, things get quite demanding in this game with ray tracing enabled. On an RTX 4060 laptop that I reviewed recently, the game wouldn’t run above 30 FPS with ray tracing enabled. This is one of the cases where the game looks upgraded with RT, but it’s simply too heavy to run on many GPUs.

Next up, we have Alan Wake 2. This didn’t run well on PC at launch, but the game itself is fantastic as you’ll discover in our linked review. With any kind of ray tracing setting enabled, the RTX 3070 Ti, the game does not do well hitting lower than 10FPS with an extremely high render latency.

Still, I captured the above screenshots to illustrate the differences in RT performance in Alan Wake 2. DLSS 3.5 was also turned up, and I will explain later why DLSS 3.5 is a huge deal for ray tracing. Here, the game also had to be set to Medium-High settings to get a somewhat playable experience. And yes, again there is a small difference with RT enabled.

On the top left side, light hits the greenery more nicely and the puddle in the middle shows more reflections with RT enabled. Alan Wake 2 is a cinematic game to play, and there are places where ray tracing enhances the graphics fidelity. But again, this wasn’t playable on a $600 graphics card (RTX 3070 Ti), and I think many would argue the game looks good without RT as well. Now, let’s discuss the ray tracing situation for console gamers.

Performance vs Fidelity Modes on Latest Gaming Consoles

The latest generation consoles (Microsoft Xbox Series X and Sony PlayStation 5) both feature specifications capable of running games with ray tracing. One example where ray tracing is the default option and you can’t turn it off is The Finals, where the game runs at ~60FPS. But this is quite a competitive game, so the performance often drops on consoles when a ton of destruction happens around the player. When I play the game on my PS5, this is honestly quite annoying.

With this in mind, a 120FPS mode would be more than ideal. Many console games, such as Call of Duty Warzone, Modern Warfare 3, and more, offer exactly that.

Apart from that, story-focused experiences offer two modes – Fidelity and Performance – to console gamers. Games on consoles look slightly less sharp with Performance mode, but with no ray tracing (or a lower setting at least) they run much better at 60 FPS instead. At Beebom, many have a PS5 and it turns out some prefer better graphics with fidelity mode, while others prefer performance mode.

I prefer the better 60 FPS experience on my PS5 when available, and I think many will agree that Performance ends up being a better pick for lots of games. While Fidelity mode typically includes ray tracing, I have felt the FPS drop below 30 in many circumstances on a PS5 when using the higher graphics settings. One balanced implementation that I’ve seen in some games like GTA 5 allows for ray tracing and 60FPS at the same time (Performance RT mode), which is nice to see.

Overall, while ray tracing gives enhanced graphics on game consoles, the gaming experience is typically worse with sluggish performance at times. With this, no ray tracing (Performance mode) ends up being the pick for many console gamers today.

Ray Tracing Still Excites Me, but I Expect More After 5 Years

Ray tracing is a major innovation after all. Personally speaking, I haven’t felt impressed enough with the RT implementations so far in today’s games. Mid-range graphics cards struggle with ray-tracing in some demanding AAA titles. Moreover, graphics have evolved quite a lot and today’s games look awesome even without RT, as discussed before.

One exciting development in ray tracing was the introduction of DLSS 3.5 (Ray Reconstruction) by Nvidia. In supported games, enabling DLSS 3.5 replaces the traditional denoisers with new AI-accelerated denoisers that improve RT quality heavily.

Cyberpunk 2077 has the best implementation of ray tracing according to me, being playable even on an RTX 4060 laptop with ray tracing enabled.

The game introduced Ray Tracing Overdrive, and as you can see in the above screenshot, with this feature enabled, the reflections are extremely clear and elegant. Having experienced the game with these settings I can tell you that it feels super immersive to play!

Sadly, DLSS 3.5 was recently launched only on one another title (Alan Wake 2), which didn’t run well on PC at launch anyway. I feel that if DLSS 3.5 reached more titles, the state of ray tracing in modern times would be more impressive. Thankfully, the situation is improving with Nvidia announcing new games with DLSS 3.5 support.

I hope to see ray tracing adoption becoming better in the future but also in a way that more budget-centric GPUs can use ray tracing technology in new games. That may be too much to ask, especially given that games are becoming increasingly demanding. Another five years down the line, gamers could typically be using more powerful GPUs which facilitate the new ray tracing innovations.

At present, ray tracing has been here for 5 years, yet it’s not as impressive as I assumed it would be after such a prolonged time. With that said, what are your thoughts on ray tracing? Do you enable it during your gaming experiences? Let us know in the comments below.

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