The next-generation of videogame graphics will be defined by real-time ray-tracing. From Cyberpunk 2077 to Dying Light 2, we go through the ray-traced games on the horizon.
Real-Time Ray-Tracing and The Next-Gen Games We’ll Play
Our in-depth chat with Watch Dogs Legioin senior producer Sean Crooks, featuring details on Legion recruitment and replacing RPG stats with real-world mechanics...
Who Watches Who? Watch Dogs Legion Developer Interview
Ahead of Ubisoft Forward, we got hands-on with Assassin's Creed Valhalla and had a chance to speak with one of the game's producers...
Assassin's Creed Valhalla Preview - Bloody, Brutal, Viking
Hideo Kojima's latest looks wonderful running on a modern PC rig, and it's still as weird and strange and alluring as ever.
Death Stranding on PC - A Stunning Odyssey
Next Level Explosions: GeForce RTX Powered Ray-Tracing, AI, and Battlefield V
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 05:23pm 22/01/19 | Comments
With GeForce RTX 2080 Ti in hand we take a look at its next-gen features, the future, and potential impact on games.

When NVIDIA announced its new line of GPUs last year, which thanks to the release of the GeForce RTX 2060 recently got its most affordable variant so far, a lot of the talk was expectedly around the next-gen features. Like a new form of rendering powered by AI called DLSS (Deep Learning Super Sampling) that could lead to substantial performance increases at high resolutions. And as impressive as that sounds, even that took a backseat to the ground-breaking real-time ray-tracing capabilities of the new RTX line. Which could lead to lighting, reflections, shadows, and other visual flourishes that looked on par with say a pre-rendered modern CG film sequence.

Like the following RTX-powered Star Wars real-time ray-tracing demonstration.

A demonstration of the technology that looks wonderful, no doubt, but what exactly makes real-time ray-tracing so ground-breaking, and what benefits can it bring to the games we all play?

Digital Ray-Tracing: A Primer

When it comes to explaining graphics technology it’s hard not to get a little technical and dive into terms like Tessellation, Bilinear Filtering, Anti-Aliasing, and Vertexicles. A sea of hard to grasp terminology - so much so, that we made that last one up. There’s no such thing as a Vertexicle. Unless of course, NVIDIA decides to one day use that word to give a name to some fancy new visual effect it has in the works.

Ray-tracing is a little different than most other technical effects, in that explaining how it works one only needs to ponder for a few moments how light in the real world behaves. Beams of light or rays spreading out in all directions, passing through objects, reflecting, and casting shadows. Turning your back to a bright open window, you can see the effect of the light being absorbed and reflected by any number of objects directly in front of you. Close a curtain or blind and the few remaining rays vie for your attention.

In terms of the computational power required to simulate these light rays in a digital scene, the cost is so great that it’s one of the main reasons highly detailed computer animation can take several hours to render a few frames. Getting the realistic effect to run in real-time, in the fast-moving ever-changing environment of a game? Well, until the launch of the NVIDIA GeForce RTX – something that was mostly thought of as future tech. A segment on a modern-day version of early 1990s television series, Beyond 2000. Even NVIDIA, who first demoed its research and development into the field of real-time racing, mere months before the RTX reveal - did so via its most advanced non-everyday consumer-based cards.

"Ray-tracing is a little different than most other technical effects, in that explaining how it works one only needs to ponder for a few moments how light in the real world behaves. "

At this point it should be made clear that visual effects in games, specifically in relation to lighting effects, have grown leaps in bounds over the past few years. Screen-space reflections can accurately reflect objects, shadows can grow and bend and diffuse based on various light sources, and the luminance that comes from say a lighter in a darkened room or a fire can appear to flicker and act like the real thing. A torchlight cutting through thick fog, the glow of a red light changing the appearance and look of someone’s skin. The only real drawback however is that all the above is mostly kept well within the realm of trickery, presenting a real-world effect in the most cost-effective and realistic way possible – limited only by hardware and computational power. And often, the limitations of the, for lack of a better term, impersonation – can be broken.

This means being able to often find the limitations. Visible light that disappears entirely or cuts through or avoids an object, being able to turn a camera slightly to see shadows instantly disappear or witness a reflective source behave like some sort of defective mirror. Stuff that once noticed, can break realism or remind you that you’re still playing a game. Even the most visually stunning releases from last year, like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption 2, falter in this way.

The RTX and Battlefield V

You might be wondering what it is about the new NVIDIA GeForce RTX line that allows it to perform real-time ray-tracing calculations at the hardware level. The answer of course is exactly that, hardware. Namely the new Turing architecture that includes for the first time in a consumer-based graphics product both dedicated artificial intelligence processors, called Tensor cores, in addition to dedicated ray-tracing processors, called RT cores.

Combined with technology like the still brand-new Microsoft’s DirectX Raytracing (DXR), having something like real-time ray-traced reflections in the PC release of DICE’s Battlefield V late last year – represented a major milestone in the history of computer game graphics. A milestone that was not without its own fair share of issues and teething problems.

With NVIDIA releasing its flagship RTX 2080 cards in late September 2018, it did so in an environment that was still in the process of being set-up to properly implement technology like ray-tracing. Microsoft’s DirectX Raytracing (DXR) was still yet to be released as part of an upcoming Windows 10 update, an update that subsequently had other unrelated issues causing it to see a few delays.

"With technology like the still brand-new Microsoft’s DirectX Raytracing (DXR), having something like real-time ray-traced reflections in the PC release of DICE’s Battlefield V late last year – represented a major milestone in the history of computer game graphics."

Meanwhile, NVIDIA was still working on creating and updating drivers to support the technology with the Battlefield V development team at DICE implementing ray-traced reflections across brand-new hardware and development-software platforms. Meanwhile the promise of RTX powered features like AI-rendering and real-time ray tracing was still untested by an audience of excited early adopters and hardware reviewers. Those lucky few out there with brand-new RTX 2080 graphics cards.

So then, when the first Battlefield V RTX update dropped days after the Windows 10 DXR update – the fact that it had major performance issues caused many to wonder if the hardware cost associated with the technology was still years away. Forming a conclusion like that though, based on a single example from a single game, in a world where performance almost always comes down to both quality game code, drivers, and hardware usage – was premature to say the least. And reactionary to a fault.

In a matter of weeks both NVIDIA and DICE were able to improve things substantially, to where now the NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080 Ti can deliver truly stunning RTX-powered results.

An Explosion to Remember

When it comes to how light reacts, reflects, bounces off objects, and can create a new spark or source where there wasn’t one before, the effect is often subtle. The sort of thing that one doesn’t usually notice. In demonstrating how real-time ray-tracing would be used in Battlefield V to create realistic reflections across a few different surfaces – it did so with a short video highlighting how an explosion behind you might be visible on a window. A car door. The barrel of a rifle.

As is the case with visual effects and lighting, the ambience or mood or finer detail mostly goes unnoticed. When demonstrating new technology or anything new across sight and sound, the best approach – is to blow it up. In our own testing of Battlefield V with RTX features enabled running on an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080 Ti at 1440p resolution with max settings and a rock-solid frame-rate, it was the first thing we noticed. Explosions that carried with them, for the first time, a sense of heat. Heat in the form of light spreading and panning out in all directions, reflecting and creating a newer, brighter, spectacle. In less than a second.

Realistic in a way we hadn’t seen in a game before, and throughout our play-through was something that never failed to impress. Even something we’ve all seen countless times in games before and have quickly grown tired of, explosive barrels, became thrilling again.

"Explosions that carried with them, for the first time, a sense of heat. Heat in the form of light spreading and panning out in all directions, reflecting and creating a newer, brighter, spectacle."

The world of Battlefield V is one filled with various metals, liquids that are both explosive and transparent, and environments that transform and react to the chaos that finds its way into every corner. By using the real-time ray-tracing capabilities of the RTX line for reflections, the result is as stunning as the most transformative digital explosion ever seen – sorry, Michael Bay. Then there’s the subtle visual detail that can be felt in almost every object that encounters light.

A statement that only begins to resonate once RTX is disabled. Even though Battlefield V still looks great without RTX features enabled, the absence of ray-tracing robs the world of some of its feeling. The best way to describe real-time ray-tracing in Battlefield V, which unfortunately can only come from a few hours spent with the technology, is that it won’t be long until you begin to feel its presence more so than simply ‘see it’.

From the reflective heat of explosions to the subtle ways vehicles and weapons and puddles react in a realistic fashion to their surroundings. It’s a technical marvel, one that’s also about to be taken to the next level.

I, Robot

DLSS (Deep Learning Super Sampling) is a hard one to put a finger on. In that things get a little confusing when you realise that for several games currently available to play, like Battlefield V, and soon-to-be-released titles, like Anthem, DLSS will take over the visual setting spot reserved for anti-aliasing tech like FXAA or MSAA. The stuff that makes the edges of objects look like straight lines, without impacting overall visual quality. As anti-aliasing cuts into performance, the question then becomes how exactly will DLSS improve frame-rates. Robots! Or more specifically, AI. AI that will improve get better and smarter over time, where theoretically games will look and run better the more you play them.

For Battlefield V this will result in 4K performance with RTX features turned on that will be a substantial improvement over what’s playable today. With AI-powered DLSS essentially you get the power of a super-computer rendering a lower resolution image only to output, say, a pristine 4K one that’s identical to what it would look like natively at that resolution. Upscaling, but without a loss in detail. Like all those times in movies and television shows where technicians enlarged and enhanced low-res images in the most unrealistic way possible - come true.

How it works sounds even more futuristic than real-time ray-tracing. Essentially NVIDIA uses images from a game to train an AI via “deep learning” what constitutes how this game should look across any given situation, or frame. An AI profile is created, then downloaded as part of NVIDIA’s driver package. The Tensor cores of the RTX take over to then render the same high-quality image with, again, substantial performance gains. Where, admittedly based on NVIDIA’s own internal numbers, 40-50% performance boosts and even much higher than that will be possible. And because we’re talking about AI, and the inevitable downfall of the human race, performance will improve over-time thanks to the Tensor cores of the RTX line.

Here’s hoping it’s a few years before the RTX 2080 Ti's of the world realise they don't need humanity to play games/run the world’s economy and labour force. Ahem.

As modern titles now enter the realm of native-4K rendering, for those that have become used to frame-rates in the 100-frames-per-second range for titles running at much lower resolutions than that – something like DLSS could represent its own generational leap. Especially for the more affordable cards in the RTX line-up, like the GeForce RTX 2060.

The Future is Still Being Ray-Traced

The number of real-world examples that take advantage of RTX features like real-time ray-tracing and DLSS rendering are still very few, for the simple reason that it’s the sort of cutting-edge technology that will take time to appear. And the technology itself, at both the hardware (driver) and software level (Microsoft’s DirectX 12 DXR capabilities), is still being fine-tuned. But with the now impressive results seen in Battlefield V, soon to be DLSS-powered, the stage is being set for several titles to take advantage of the RTX’s next-gen like features. Shadow of the Tomb Raider will add support for realistic shadows, Metro Exodus will take things one step further with full lighting support, with Anthem from BioWare and Control from Remedy Entertainment leveraging the RTX for improved performance and real-time ray-tracing effects.

"With the now exceptional results seen in Battlefield V, soon to be DLSS-powered, the stage is being set for several titles to take advantage of the RTX’s next-gen like features."

And sure, with very few examples out in the wild (funnily enough, here’s a look at what Quake II looks like powered by the GeForce RTX 2080 Ti) - it’s all very much a wait and see affair. But, with what we have seen so far across both real-time ray-tracing and DLSS – we’re excited to see just what this year holds for the RTX line.

And with that we’ll leave you with this RTX-powered look at the upcoming Atomic Heart, a new action-RPG from developer Mundfish.