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Can you get ray tracing on console? Is it good? Let’s talk about the latest and greatest in graphics fidelity, and what you can expect from titles exhibiting ray tracing in games today.
What is Ray Tracing?
Ray tracing is a form of graphics rendering where individual rays of light are “traced” from their source to where they eventually land, including complex light bounces due to reflection and refraction. For a long time, ray tracing was a graphical technique saved exclusively for live action CGI and 3D CG animated film due to how graphically-demanding the effect is to simulate compared to traditional, “rasterized” 3D.
The key difference between ray traced 3D graphics and rasterized 3D graphics is that traditional 3D can only approximate the image based on what is visible onscreen at the time. This means without ray tracing, you will always be limited to “screen space” effects, i.e. screen space reflections that cannot actually reflect any objects that aren’t currently visible onscreen.
Fortunately, times have changed, and since Nvidia debuted real-time ray tracing hardware with their Nvidia RTX series of graphics cards and AMD followed suit with their own GPUs getting hardware ray tracing support not long after, we’re in an era of gaming where the hyper-realism enabled by ray tracing is actually within reach. Especially on PC, where new and more powerful ray tracing GPUs are coming out each year.
Worth noting: ray tracing isn’t just for fancy reflections, though that’s the most visually-obvious difference for most gamers. Ray tracing can also be used to enhance global illumination and ambient occlusion to great effect, highly improving the realism of lighting in a given scene.
What’s the story look like on console, though? Let’s start diving into that.
Can You Get Ray Tracing on Console?
Yes! The following modern game consoles support real-time ray tracing in select titles:
- Xbox Series S
- PlayStation 5
- Xbox Series X
Meanwhile, the following systems and preceding consoles do not support real-time ray tracing:
- PlayStation 4 Pro
- Xbox One X
- Nintendo Switch
Is Ray Tracing Good on Xbox Series S?
As the entry-level console of the current generation, Xbox Series S does support real-time ray tracing…but the most compromised form. The scale of those compromises will depend on the specific game, but a number of titles that have ray tracing modes on Series S will still skip out on intensive features like ray traced reflections. This is a shame, but very understandable considering the cut-down hardware of the Series S compared to the Series X and the super-accessible price point.
Not all ray tracing on Series S is doomed to failure, though. While large scale titles like Fortnite will remove ray traced reflections on Series S, others like Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition or the Resident Evil Remake games will keep that feature intact. However, last-gen games that are being ported forward to Series S/X won’t necessarily support the full gamut of ray tracing features in general, with reflections being the most common feature added in “ray tracing updates” for those titles.
Overall, the Series S provides a very entry-level ray tracing experience at its entry-level price point. I’d consider it acceptable, but I wouldn’t buy a Series S if I were looking for a market-leading ray tracing experience today.
Is Ray Tracing Good on PlayStation 5?
For PlayStation 5, ray tracing looks pretty healthy. Considering it’s one of the most powerful current-gen consoles (only beaten by the Series X in certain third-party titles) and has by far the most first-party development backing of any console in this article, that puts the PS5 in a great place to turn around some console ray tracing good news.
Make no mistake: ray tracing on any console is going to have a few compromises compared to a high-end PC with the latest ray tracing GPU. However, the nature of console game optimization— especially for first-party titles like Insomniac’s Spider-Man Remastered— allows for some of the most gorgeous ray tracing enabled titles on the market.
If a game is being built to support ray tracing on console, PlayStation 5 is one of the two target platforms for the experience. I’d say ray tracing is good on PlayStation 5, though since ray tracing on console is usually a performance mode rather than a fully built-in feature, I’ll discuss why you should consider disabling the feature later on.
For now, let’s move onto the Xbox Series X!
Is Ray Tracing Good on Xbox Series X?
The Xbox Series X is the most powerful modern console, and thus, at least on paper, should provide the best ray tracing experience on consoles. I’d say that the Series X provides a good ray tracing experience, anyway.
However, the status of first-party game development on Xbox isn’t that great. Thus, despite the hardware being stronger and this showing itself in third-party titles that can run at higher FPS and resolution than PS5 if that headroom is utilized…the ray tracing on Xbox isn’t really any better than PS5. Even if it could be, Microsoft isn’t too interested in pushing the envelope.
That said, Microsoft does still have some stellar first-party titles of their own that utilize ray tracing to good effect. One of those titles is actually Microsoft Flight Simulator, which got a port to Series S/X. The Series X version does support ray tracing, and looks pretty good doing it:
Is Ray Tracing Good on Steam Deck?
Yes, I know— Steam Deck is not technically a console, it’s more like a Linux gaming PC in a handheld game console form factor. Regardless, Steam Deck actually does have ray tracing hardware onboard that can turn around some surprising results despite the severe limitations of handheld hardware and power limits. It works surprisingly well in Doom Eternal, as long as you’re willing to settle for 30 FPS in gameplay, as shown in the video embedded below.
However, the performance of Steam Deck ray tracing isn’t going to get you very far in games that are built from the ground up for ray tracing, like Portal With RTX or Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition. These titles are simply far too intensive for the Steam Deck to be able to run at playable framerates above 20 FPS at all— which makes sense, considering the path traced Portal With RTX barely runs above 30 FPS on a mid-range desktop graphics card of the same price as the Deck.
What Desktop Ray Tracing GPU Is Needed For Console Parity?
The Xbox Series S/X consoles and the PlayStation 5 are all using graphics hardware based on AMD’s RDNA 2 graphics architecture. This architecture was actually released for consoles first, but came to PC in the form of the AMD RX 6000 series shortly after. Compared to the ray tracing hardware inside the PlayStation 5 (32 RDNA 2 Compute Units), the closest equivalent for on PC would actually be the RX 6700!
So, does the RX 6700 provide console parity with ray tracing enabled? The answer is going to depend on the game, but generally-speaking, yes, especially if you’re playing one of Sony’s PlayStation-to-PC ports with the feature enabled. Fortunately, AMD GPU support for ray tracing has also improved on Windows since the abysmal RX 5000 series.
RX 7000 GPUs are the most competitive with Nvidia’s in terms of ray tracing performance. but if you want the best ray-tracing performance on PC you’ll still be getting that from Nvidia.
Is Ray Tracing Worth Enabling On Consoles?
So, it turns out ray tracing on consoles actually can turn around a pretty good-looking experience. There are some compromises compared to high-end PC implementations (like to reflection distance, or the fact the consoles aren’t gonna run a path traced game anytime soon), but overall the feature and what it has to offer is still intact on console.
However…if your game allows you to disable ray tracing, the difference in performance between ray tracing enabled and disabled can be quite severe. PC gamers know this too, but on console it’s not very often that changing a single setting can be the difference between a 30 FPS game and a 60 FPS game. Such is the case on console, though.
Whether or not you’ll be enabling ray tracing for your console gaming experience is really going to depend on what games you’re playing and what you want to prioritize in those games. For competitive, high-precision titles, you’ll most likely have the best experience with ray tracing disabled, since that will give you the smoothest game-feel.
But if you don’t play games in pursuit of the most responsive experience possible and you’d rather have prettier graphics than a smoother experience, enabling ray tracing on console might just make more sense to you.
Over in the PC space, I wouldn’t even consider enabling ray tracing in games without also enabling DLSS or FSR to help compensate for the performance drop.
Right now, real-time ray tracing is in a curious space where we’re still waiting for hardware that can adequately support it without greatly reducing performance. Fidelity versus framerate has always been an issue in game optimization, but now that choice is something console gamers get to make for themselves, rather than always having developers lock one choice over the other prior to release.