What is ray tracing?

Find out about the biggest development to gaming graphics in years with our handy guide…

25 Nov 2020

Want to experience virtual adventures and matches with added ‘wow!’? Ray tracing is transforming gaming – not just the way we compete, but the way we engage with our environment in the heat of the match. But what exactly is it?


Ray tracing explained

At its core, ray tracing is an advanced way to render lighting and shadows in a scene. It’s been used for years in Hollywood to blend CGI with real life shots so that it’s tricky to tell the difference. In essence, it does what it says on the tin – ray tracing literally tracks and simulates rays of light produced by a source to make them seem realistic. But it’s this super-realistic flow of light that make your games look that much better, and can even spell the difference between picking up that W or taking an L.

In a battle royale like Call of Duty: Warzone, for instance, the more intel you have on the rival teams around you, the more successful your next move is likely to be. Devising that plan of action is much easier when ray tracing renders opponents’ reflections in building windows and shadows peaking around blind spots.

But of course, it’s mainly about the visual improvements. Once you start playing in high resolution with high frame rates, it’s the subtle details that make the environment look more vivid and true-to-life. Don’t believe us? Look at the difference between the same game side-by-side, with and without ray tracing enabled.

The true boost ray tracing gives to realism is with diffused lighting (that’s light that reflects off of one surface and onto others). When Grand Theft Auto V was first released in 2013, it was a visual marvel. Seven years later, huge graphic developments have meant that not only is GTA still going strong, but the landscape and scenery look refreshed and better than ever. Walking the sidewalks in the rain, you can see the wet floor surfaces reflecting the buildings that tower above them. Driving through the fog, you can see the trajectory of the streetlights.

It even transforms games like Minecraft. This lo-fi blocky world has been a fan favourite for years, but the added lighting transforms the game into something else. It’s the little touches that ray tracing can render that make games sing with detail.


What do you need to run ray tracing?

When ray tracing was first made available it was restricted to NVIDIA RTX graphics cards, exclusively for PC gaming. Now, thanks to driver updates, if you’re a PC gamer with a GeForce GTX 1060 6 GB card or higher, you can switch to ray tracing on any game that supports it.

You’ll need a powerful processor, but that’s a given when you’ve got a PC gaming rig. Be warned though, rendering graphics in real time uses up a lot of power, so you’ll almost certainly trade smoother gameplay for realistic visuals. That’s why the NVIDIA RTX 20 series have ray tracing units specifically for the task.

Ray tracing is no longer exclusive to PC gamers, though. Both Sony and Microsoft’s latest consoles, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, feature AMD graphics cards with the power to render graphics this way. And there are plenty of games available with ray tracing support from the start. Both machines can push to 120 frames per second in 4K, so console gaming has taken a huge leap this generation.

Which Xbox and PlayStation 5 games support ray tracing?

Here are the games you can expect to see using ray tracing for hyper-realistic graphics. Some of these are yet to be released, so keep your eyes peeled!

  • Astro's Playroom (PS5)
  • Bright Memory: Infinite (Xbox X/S)
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War (PS5, Xbox X/S)
  • Call of the Sea (Xbox X/S)
  • Chorus: Rise as One (Xbox X/S)
  • Demon's Souls (PS5)
  • Devil May Cry 5 Special Edition (PS5, Xbox Series X only)
  • Enlisted (Xbox X/S)
  • Fortnite (PS5, Xbox X/S)
  • Forza Motorsport (Xbox X/S)
  • Gears 5 (Xbox X/S)
  • Halo Infinite (Xbox X/S)
  • Maneater (PS5, Xbox X/S)
  • Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales (PS5)
  • NBA 2K21 (PS5, Xbox X/S)
  • Observer: System Redux (PS5, Xbox X/S)
  • Poker Club (PS5, Xbox X/S)
  • RIDE 4 (PS5, Xbox X/S)
  • S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 (PS5, Xbox X/S)
  • The Medium (Xbox X/S)
  • Watch Dogs Legion (PS5, Xbox X/S)

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