NVIDIA RTX In 2020 – STILL Not Worth It?
In August 2018, when the RTX 2000 series launched, we were promised that a large library of games would support ray tracing and a more realistic lighting environment that just works. But the general consensus right now is that RTX On equals FPS Off, as evidenced by the fact that in Quake 2 RTX – a remastered version of the 1997 classic where everything is ray-traced – we still we cannot hit 60 FPS even with the fastest graphics card on the market. However, it’s 2020 now and I want to explore the current state of RTX in games and whether or not it is as groundbreaking as we were led to believe in terms of the whole visual experience, but also what it has done to performance. I already did a detailed analysis of Metro Exodus and Battlefield V when they were launched, and I will be revisiting them in this article to give us a another look at their improvements, plus many other games that support ray tracing. So in this article we will do a visual analysis of all current ray-traced games on the market, do some performance testing, and see what experience this very expensive technology delivers.
The first thing I need to clarify with RTX are the two forms of implementation. The first being games that have some form of ray tracing, whether it be ray-traced shadows, global illumination, or reflections. All of which aim to provide the most realistic lighting environment, because game designers don’t have to fake lighting inside a room. For example, if you have ray-traced lighting, the game rendering engine does the whole job for the developer. The second thing with RTX is Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS), which aims to improve performance by up sampling lower resolution to your native resolution. The downside here is training the algorithm and seeing what needs to be sharpened in a particular game, and this takes time as you will see later in the article.
I really want to start with the fun stuff first, so let’s explore my favorite RTX titles, Metro Exodus and Control. Starting off with Control, let’s see what they have done right. First of all, game context and level design must compliment ray-traced reflections. In Control we have large open areas with glass walls and all types of appropriately glossy surfaces like wood paneling, floor tiles, and lots of marble, all of which work beautifully to create the realistic reflections that you will notice throughout the game. Not only are you visible from these glass reflections, but whatever is behind you as well. And I find this example with RTX On just beautiful, as the fire extinguisher, the top light strip, and the doorframe are all ray-traced very well. However, it’s not perfect, as all glass surfaces act almost like transparent mirrors and lose that hazy texture. To be honest, that’s my only complaint with this game.
Other examples of ray-traced reflections include Battlefield V, which you will notice in really shiny and polished cars on the streets and in puddles. These elements in my experience are unnecessary even for single-player because of how fast the game play is. However, you can see fire, smoke, and ricochets all properly reflecting from this puddle, while the RTX Off reflections are pixelated and overall less realistic. I really think pacing is important for ray tracing to matter.
I’ve been exploring another game called Deliver Us The Moon in which reflections are ray-traced, and we can see our character reflected in pretty much all the gloss surfaces. This is great because not having anything reflecting looks kind of weird, but it’s kind of the same transparent mirror effect as we saw in Control, where glass loses texture and also just looks off. For example, imagine having the glass texture of the left image with the reflections of the right, I think that would be the most realistic scenario.
Now here’s a weird example where some objects are not rendered in the reflections, like the monitor should be visible with RTX On, but in fact the RTX Off looks more realistic because of that particular element. And one more example of where you can see the character reflecting off the glass surface in front of us, but the space suit behind the glass isn’t rendered properly in the reflection of that blue tile.
I’ve also seen this in the game called Bright Memory, there’s this massive puddle outside the elevator, but only the light shape is properly rendered while the rest of the scene inside the puddle actually looks better with RTX Off. This game is still in early access, so I won’t bother with it too much, but this is the opening level and having these things not working as they should is worrying.
So those are the four games that currently support ray trace reflections as far as I know. It’s not a large sample size and only Control has them figured out properly, since I feel like RTX fits the game context and level design. While RTX does give you better reflections – like seeing your character in Deliver Us The Moon – some things are not working properly and it throws the whole thing off.
Now let’s take a look at Metro Exodus where global illumination is ray-traced. This is another title that I think benefits greatly from ray tracing. Here is a scene illuminated by a single exterior light source – the sun – thus making all shadowy areas properly dark, unlike that flat look with RTX Off. Now global illumination with this game means a more realistic environment that compliments the whole apocalyptic level design. This means all the light sources have a more realistic roll off. This scene in the train for example is lit up by a single lamp to my right, giving us a very dark but properly rendered train car. With RTX Off it’s still moody and dark, but it lacks the natural contrast the lamp should create. Going outdoors I found this example really interesting, as the snow with RTX On just gets much brighter thanks to the bright sky box. It also gives us more detail in the helmet of the soldier, and better contrast in areas that aren’t receiving as much light. If you have the means to play Metro with ray tracing enabled I highly recommend it, especially the end levels are beautifully done in terms of light, contrast, shadows, and dark areas. The ray tracing really brings it all together to create a beautiful atmosphere.
And the last ray-traced implementation we are going to talk about our shadows. The latest Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is awesome. I finished the single-player campaign without realizing that I had RTX enabled and that’s because ray-traced shadows is probably the least exciting RTX technology in my opinion. The shadows are soft yet the lighting is very harsh, plus no shadow at all for the plant next to the seat, come on… Other scenes look more realistic with RTX Off because ray-traced shadows become just too soft and are difficult to notice, like with this corner and the yellow washing bucket. Plus after you are done playing the single-player campaign, who wants to go into the graphic settings and turn everything down in order to get the best possible FPS and less visual clutter to play in multiplayer mode.
And finally we have Shadow of the Tomb Raider. As the name suggests, this game does have ray-traced shadows, but the implementation is still disappointing. We waited for over a year after the game launched to finally have RTX support and it doesn’t even look that good. So many shadows in the environment gets so soft by the time they hit the surface that they lose all contextual meaning. While there’s very little visual difference between closer objects getting hit by my flashlight, regardless of whether RTX is enabled. Perhaps in this scene the shadows from the wall are properly cast, but RTX Off already looks very good. I think global illumination with shadows would be a much better visual sell, because even with properly rendered shadows, everything in this scene is so flat that I simply lose appreciation for proper ray-traced shadows.
Now let’s get back to a very special throwback: Quake 2 RTX. This is a very special example as everything in the game is ray-traced and that includes shadows, reflections, and global illumination. Obviously it looks better versus the pixel art of 1997, but look what it does to performance. This is a clear example why ray tracing is so difficult, because even with the best hardware and something as visually simple as Quake 2, it is difficult to have full ray tracing while maintaining good levels of performance.
This brings us to disappointing performance across the board. It really sucks to have some games like Metro Exodus and Deliver Us The Moon literally getting half the frame rates when RTX is enabled. There are less severe performance hits with COD, Battlefield V, Tomb Raider, and surprisingly Bright Memory too, and this is all with a RTX 2080 Ti. There is something that really needs to be called out here too, and that is how variable performance impacts are in these game. I can see Battlefield V, Metro Exodus, and Control needing tons of resources since they actually look pretty different with their features enabled, but COD: Modern warfare and Tomb Raider are just proof of terrible optimizations. One thing to note here are that all my ray-tracing settings were set to maximum so they are the worst case scenario. Also, in all of these games the level of ray tracing can be reduced to lower performance impact, but you also end up sacrificing the RTX features you paid extra. Now when we benchmark using the lower-tier RTX 2060, the performance hit is actually consistent to what we saw with the RTX 2080 Ti. The performance remains quite bad, especially in Control and Metro Exodus, but you could get away playing them with ray tracing enabled and some visual settings toned down, which I think is worth it.
This brings me to DLSS or Deep Learning Super sampling, and my opinion this feature’s performance and implementation has changed since it first launched, which is a good thing. In the beginning with Battlefield V and Metro Exodus it made everything too soft, we lost too much detail, but now it has greatly improved. On Battlefield V, the overall image is still sharp and only the smaller details like tree leaves and the fine textures on the soldier gets slightly smoother, but performance gains are so worth it. I tested this with the RTX 2060, and DLSS is how you are able to play Metro Exodus with the ultra ray tracing preset as we gain over 10 FPS, and I actually think it makes the image sharper with DLSS enabled. This was definitely not the case when it first launched. In Control the image to me looks identical, this is with the highest settings, but on the left I had the render resolution set to 1080P to give me a little bit extra playable frame rates, while DLSS delivers much better performance and still a very similar image. Unfortunately while in game you do lose a bit of detail in the distance, and textures are not loading until you get closer, which is just not very pretty.
As for Deliver Us The Moon, performance is greatly improved and image sharpening is present, with a tiny loss of sharper edges around text for example. However, at 1440P – which I tested all these games at – DLSS is a must for ray tracing, while still getting a nice performance boost as well. Overall, DLSS definitely has potential, but as with the ray tracing rollout, I feel like it’s going to be a waiting game and it’s going to be a long one. Both Battlefield V and Metro Exodus look much better now than they did a year ago when DLSS was first launched, and that whole year of training has definitely paid off. However, I feel like we are never going to get like the sharper/best DLSS possible at launch with certain games, and that’s kind of disappointing.
Something else I should mention is that ray tracing has been unlocked on GeForce GTX cards as well, but without dedicated Tensor cores it’s more of a tease as performance absolutely tanks. Therefore, I don’t recommended it even with powerful cards. I will leave on a positive note, because we have so many exciting games coming out in 2020 that promise ray tracing. They potentially might not all support it at launch, but sometime in the future, and at least that’s kind of exciting. Having said that, until performance is not cut in half I think we should remain skeptical. If you own an RTX graphics cards, let know if you have tried ray tracing and what your experience been like.