Cyberpunk 2077, although it received mixed reviews due to technical problems at the start, has become the biggest game release in recent years. This is an atmospheric immersion in the world of the future with great graphics and high system requirements. This is a tough nut to crack even for top-end graphics cards, especially those with ray tracing. And the activation of the «rays» hits the performance the most, which raises the question of the appropriateness of using this technology. What do we gain from tracing, and how much does it change the graphics? Let’s find out in this review.

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077

Let’s evaluate visual changes in graphics in different tracing modes, talk about NVIDIA DLSS technology and compare performance in different modes.

Cyberpunk 2077 has three settings related to ray tracing. This is the quality of lighting, shadows and reflections. Lighting takes into account light from small sources and affects additional shading, taking into account surrounding objects. Traced shadows have a more realistic shape with softer edges. The reflections option creates more correct and accurate reflections on surfaces, and these reflections depend on the type of surface and material. If there are exact mirror reflections on the glasses, the contours of the surrounding world will be blurred on the metal surfaces. It is often reflections that are best seen when using tracing. But in our comparison, we will show other important changes in the overall visual perception of the game.

Let’s compare the picture in several scenes with different graphics settings. The comparison was made on a system with a GeForce RTX 3070 graphics card at a resolution of 2560×1440. Standard tracing quality profiles were used. Ray Tracing Medium uses lighting with medium level tracing and shadows, while Ray Tracing Ultra maximizes the quality of lighting, shadows and reflections.

Below are screenshots with different settings. It is better to compare them in full-size mode.

With medium tracing mode, there is a clear change in overall shading. The entire lower zone of the street is lighter, the upper part of the buildings is darker. Given the many light sources below, this seems to be true, but there are no smooth transitions and the picture looks less convincing. With Ultra-quality tracing, the shading is closer to the normal mode — the area under the protruding elements is darker, there are shadows under the signs. At the same time, reflections and glare appear on objects, which dramatically changes the entire perception of the frame. Pay attention to the glass canopy above the first floor on the left — with tracing, it not only receives clear reflections, the feeling of the texture of the object and its metal elements changes. Also pay attention to the windows at the top of the frame — they have a transparent effect.

Let’s now look at the interior of a dark factory room.

Medium quality tracing enhances shading in the side areas where the lighting is weaker. The boxes in the foreground are facing us with their dark side, and with tracing, this shading is more intense, which is consistent with the general lighting in the frame. Switching to tracing in Ultra mode adds sharper floor reflections. The gloss of the pipes at the top and their general texture change. There are small reflections of light on the illuminated side of the boxes, and even in the shadows there are lighter and darker elements, which better highlights the geometric shape of the objects. When you turn on DLSS, the picture sinks into the “fog” a little — the overall clarity of small details decreases, the intensity of glare on pipes and other objects. In the first scene, the effect of DLSS was less pronounced.

Let’s try to better highlight the features of middle-level tracing using separate examples. Let’s look at the merchant’s shop with many small items.

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077

With tracing lighter than the countertop, the trellis on the left also brightens, with more highlights on the pans in this part of the frame. The pillar on the left side of the frame has the effect of a pronounced light side. Areas in niches closed from the light are darker — pay attention to the shelves, the drawer in the foreground and the large object on the right. Plates and trays have a stronger shadow at the bottom. That is, the effect of the top and side light is better taken into account in the scene.

For clarity, below is an animated fragment comparison.

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077

Let’s look at another example.

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077

The contours of the shadow of the fence are slightly blurred. A shadow appears from a bush of grass in the foreground. You can see small shadows from the stones. All corner areas are darker — at the bottom of the fence and the trash can, in the corner between objects. Notice the light surfaces of the slabs to the right of the tank, which cannot be lit, and with tracing they are completely immersed in shadow. At the same time, a slight lattice shadow from the fence appears on the top cover of the tank, which is not present in normal mode. As a result, the whole scene looks more convincing.

Let’s see how traced shadows change urban landscapes.

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077

Tracing adds more intense shadows under air conditioners, balconies and other protruding elements. The palm tree in the foreground darkens due to self-shadowing and a shadow from one of the upper structures. But with all the changes, it cannot be said that the perception of a picture without tracing is worse.

Now let’s see how the picture changes with the inclusion of maximum level tracing.

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077

In the night city scene, Ultra-Trace adds clear reflections in the puddles. The general perception of puddles and wet roads is changing. The shading of hanging umbrellas, small objects and large buildings is changing. On the windows of nearby buildings, some glare disappears, but a translucent glass effect appears on distant buildings.

Let’s look at another scene.

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077

Here tracing, on the contrary, adds glare and reflections on the windows of the central building. The reflections on the ground change and there is a feeling of smooth wet surfaces. More reflections on the surface of the car, even from the yellow markings on the pavement.

Next, let’s compare the picture in normal mode with Ultra-tracing and DLSS.

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077

This is the most obvious example of the effect of tracing. Initially, the water looks very faint, and the ray tracing adds normal detailed reflections to the dynamic surface. Glare also appears in the lower part of buildings, which is due to the influence of light reflected from the water.

Another clear example of qualitative reflections.

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077

Initially, on the glass of the machine there is a pixel daub instead of a reflection, with tracing — a clear reflection of the street. Along the way, the shading of the scene changes. There is a slight decrease in the clarity of the inscriptions and scratches on the surfaces with active DLSS, but the frame with reflection still looks prettier.

Below is an animated snippet comparison.

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077

The following example will better reveal the difference in the influence of light sources.

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077

With tracing, a glowing ad block on the right side illuminates the near area and affects nearby objects. This effect is completely absent in non-tracing mode. We also see better reflection detail in a puddle and brighter highlights on wet pavement. A reflection of the girl appears on the metal surface of the door.

Below is another prime example where tracing adds a lot of reflections.

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077

Please note that the clarity of details (inscriptions, bush) in the DLSS screenshot is lower, but due to reflections, the whole scene is richer in detail and is perceived better.

Let’s finish the visual comparison with a scene where light breaks through the courtyard of a residential complex.

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077

Tracing enhances the effect of directional light — some surfaces are lighter, there are small highlights, and the lower zone is darker. With tracing, the scene gets extra depth.

Next, consider performance with different tracing settings. At the same time, let’s evaluate the impact of DLSS on the overall performance in heavy modes.

test bench

The test bench configuration is as follows:

  • Processor: Intel Core i9-9900K;
  • cooling system: be quiet! Silent Loop 280mm;
  • motherboard: ASUS ROG Maximus XI Formula;
  • Memory: Kingston HyperX HX434C16FB3K2/32 (DDR4-3466@3600);
  • system disk: Kingston SSDNow UV400 480GB;
  • Optional Drive #1: Kingston A2000 NVMe PCIe 1000GB;
  • Optional Drive #2: Kingston KC2500 NVMe PCIe 1000GB;
  • case: Antec NX800;
  • power supply: Antec HCG850 Gold;
  • monitor: ASUS PB278Q (2560×1440, 27″);
  • operating system: Windows 10 Pro x64;
  • AMD Radeon Adrenalin Edition driver 21.7.1;
  • NVIDIA GeForce 466.77 driver.

Testing was done by repeating a walk through a crowded city block. Measurements were taken using MSI Afterburner.

Test results

First, let’s look at the results of different video cards in Full HD without DLSS.

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077

The flagship model GeForce RTX 3090 shows 80 frames at medium tracing settings and about 60 at the maximum quality of the “rays”.

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077

The GeForce RTX 3070 shows less than 60 frames with an average quality of the «beams», and at the maximum it gives out about 40. The lag behind the GeForce RTX 3090 in the heaviest mode is close to 50%.

Well, for clarity, let’s look at the results of the Radeon RX 6900 XT.

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077

At normal graphics settings, AMD’s flagship model is comparable to the GeForce RTX 3090, but with tracing enabled, it is weaker than the GeForce RTX 3070. In the maximum «beam» quality mode, the performance is below 40 frames.

We performed a visual comparison of graphics on the GeForce RTX 3070 at a resolution of 2560×1440. Now let’s look at the results of the video card in this resolution.

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077

Switching from normal mode to medium-level tracing reduces performance by 54–58%, and with the maximum quality turned on, the drop is twofold. NVIDIA DLSS technology compensates for such fps drops. With medium «rays» with DLSS Quality, the results are at the performance level in normal mode. At maximum tracing quality, a little less than 50 frames are obtained. Since the influence of shadows is not always obvious, an additional mode has been added: shadows with tracing are off, lighting is medium, reflections are on. Combined with the quality DLSS mode, this resulted in an average result of 59.8 fps.

Let’s finish the testing by comparing several NVIDIA video cards at 2560×1440 resolution — regular Ultra graphics mode versus Ultra tracing with DLSS in automatic quality mode.

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077

When choosing standard graphics profiles, the drop in performance is small. You get all the tracing effects when you lose a few frames. But here the game does not use DLSS Quality, but the faster Balanced mode, and the decrease in image clarity will be more pronounced. In Full HD only, the game automatically selects a DLSS mode equivalent to DLSS Quality.

conclusions

The greatest impact on visual perception is the maximum quality of the trace due to detailed reflections. At the same time, tracing does not just add reflections, it better emphasizes the texture of shiny surfaces. More detailed reflections in puddles and on glass. The effect of translucent glass in windows is better transmitted. There is an influence of small light sources on the environment — advertising signs and lanterns do not illuminate the space near them. Color reflections from bright objects appear. The influence of reflected light is noticeable, for example, in the illumination of objects above the surface of the water. But even the average quality of the tracing, which affects only the shadows, shows certain advantages. Object shading takes into account light direction better, and proper shading adds a sense of depth. But in some scenes, the effect is barely noticeable against the background of a normal render. Therefore, the benefits of the average tracing quality are not always obvious and doubtful, and the maximum tracing quality with reflections is definitely better than standard graphics.

The choice of the optimal mode rests on performance. The maximum quality of the «rays» reduces fps by half. Even for Full HD resolution, video cards of the GeForce RTX 3080/3090 level are needed. They cope with high resolutions thanks to NVIDIA DLSS technology, which leads to certain losses in image clarity. At 2560×1440 resolution, the image degradation is noticeable even in DLSS quality mode. But with tracing turned on, scenes with complex lighting and many reflections still look richer and more beautiful than in native resolution without tracing. And if there is a choice between regular graphics and graphics with tracing and DLSS, then the second option will give more visual impressions. You can also speed up tracing performance by eliminating shadows, leaving only traced lighting and reflections. In the case of the GeForce RTX 3070, this is 22% faster than the standard Ultra-routing profile. And in combination with DLSS Quality, you can comfortably play on the GeForce RTX 3070 at 2560×1440.

Applying DLSS in 4K is a must. The game itself chooses settings equivalent to the Performance level, which is associated with a certain “blurring”. DLSS Quality at 4K looks good, but it may not be enough to achieve a good frame rate. Therefore, the optimal solution in 4K would be DLSS Balanced. In Full HD with DLSS, the input resolution is very low, and this is an extreme option if you really do not have enough performance.

If we talk about AMD video cards, at the moment there are no models that would allow you to comfortably play with Ultra-tracing in Full HD. The beamed Radeon RX 6900 XT shows frame rates below the GeForce RTX 3070. And there is no way to somehow speed up the performance due to scaling. The situation may improve if support for AMD FidelityFX Super Resolution technology is added to the game.

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