It’s been a momentous week for Nvidia. Monday kicked off with the reveal of its next-generation GeForce RTX 20 Series graphics cards. A generational leap with the usual bump in performance was just half the story though, and it was the support ray-traced lighting that garnered the most headlines.
Real-time ray-traced lighting has been the goal of graphics card manufacturers and visual artists for decades. It has always been tantalisingly out of reach. Nvidia was also keen to make the technology appear less achievable than it was, claiming its Star Wars RTX demo in January was running on four Quadro RTX GPUs. Seven months later we’re told it was all a ruse. The demo was running on a single Quadro RTX graphics card. Real-time ray tracing was happening, and it was happening now.
But, and there’s always a but, then the initial impressions began to creep. The universal opinion from everyone who’s seen it in action is that ray-traced lighting looks fantastic. It’s arguably the single biggest leap in visual quality we’ve seen in years. The immense calculations required to physically trace light beams reflecting and refracting across complex landscapes comes at an immense cost to performance though. Reports and footage of Shadow of the Tomb Raider at Gamescom 2018 confirmed that the mighty GeForce RTX 2080 Ti was struggling, hitting between 30-50 frames per second at 1080p resolution. That’s a hell of a hit for a GPU that can probably hit a locked 60fps at 4K in the same game with ray tracing turned off.
Fortunately, there is plenty of time until Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s ray tracing patch arrives. There’s optimisation work still be done, both from Nvidia and Eidos Montreal. The picture could shift between now and a few months time. Eidos Montreal cannot work miracles though, and there’s no conceivable way that 4K AAA gaming with ray-tracing is going to be possible right now. For gamers forking out $1199 for a graphics card, this could come as a disappointment. RTX 2080 Ti owners are going to be faced with a choice - play at 4K with high frame rates or drop all the way down to 1080p with variable frame rates and ray-tracing enabled. A drop to a quarter of the resolution is a savage hit to take though, particularly for the enthusiast gamers the RTX 2080 Ti is already targeting. Most early adopters likely have 4K monitors already, but they’re going to be forced to let that monstrous pixel count go to waste for the wonders of ray-tracing.
Ultimately though, when considering these new RTX 20 series graphics cards, and those Tomb Raider benchmarks, in particular, it can be all too easy to get hung up on ray-traced performance. These graphics cards will offer a significant performance boost over the previous gen, improved even further with DLSS. Six weeks ago we could only dream of real-time ray-tracing being consumer friendly. Now we’re complaining it’s not good enough. I think we do have to have to reset our expectations a bit and remember these RTX GPUs are damned fast but they will struggle the demands of ray-tracing. It’s embryonic tech that will be refined and improved upon, becoming more affordable and less resource intensive in the process.
With all this in mind though, do you think that enabling ray-tracing is going to be worth the performance hit? Are you going to be happy dropping down to 1080p, or would you prefer to disable ray-tracing and enjoy liquid-smooth 4K gaming? Get voting and let us know why below!