Elden Ring was the most critically acclaimed game released in 2022, garnering countless awards that spanned various categories, including some related to the technical aspect of the game.
Even so, I'd be hard-pressed to consider Elden Ring some sort of a technical masterpiece. While its art is top-notch, the game doesn't include any cutting-edge technologies, and its default look is far from the most impressive game we've ever seen. On PC, there are texture mods and other user-made graphics enhancements and tweaks, but they can only go so far.
That's why I had been eagerly anticipating the ray tracing update. Bandai Namco first announced that Elden Ring would be updated with ray tracing support months before launch. Then, there were no more official news on the matter (although dataminers had spotted the addition of related strings that hinted at an imminent release) until ray tracing was at last added to Elden Ring with this week's 1.09 patch.
So, did FromSoftware manage to elevate the game's visuals to new heights? Yes and no. It's not a game-changing difference, which is hardly surprising since FromSoftware only elected to implement ray traced shadows and ambient occlusion. While it is understandable that the developers wouldn't want to go into adding ray traced global illumination since it would have required re-authoring the game's entire lighting, they could have at least added ray traced reflections, too. For that, we have the precedent of additions to an existing game and a live service one at that (Grand Theft Auto V on current-generation consoles).
Going back to Elden Ring, the impact of ray tracing (set to max on PC) varies between scenes, which is why I've captured several, both indoors and outdoors, near the beginning of the game. Generally, the ray tracing implementation improves the accuracy of shadows, making objects like rocks or foliage look more grounded and realistic. It can be noticeable, though it is hardly a night-and-day difference. Aesthetically, it tends to make the visuals darker than the non-ray traced option.
Speaking of performance, outdoor scenes are a lot more taxing. In this small cave, for example, max ray tracing costs 29 FPS (on the GeForce RTX 4090, the mightiest graphics card available, at 4K resolution), a 24% decrease compared to ray tracing set to off.
As soon as we step out of the cave, the performance cost is much larger. Max ray tracing runs at 53 FPS, while ray tracing off is up to 99 FPS. The FPS is nearly halved here, though the visual improvement with the foliage is quite visible. Also, note the greatly improved shadowing on the player character's cloak.
Here, we're once again in that cave near the start of Elden Ring. It's so dark the differences are harder to spot, but look at the barrels and you'll see more accurate shadows with ray tracing. The performance cost is nearly non-existent, dropping from 120 to 107 FPS.
That's a rare instance, however. Going onto a large open field once again produces a significant performance penalty. RT off runs at 115 FPS, RT ON (Max) drops to 71 FPS, a 38% decrease.
However, note the improved shadows across all the foliage and even on the player character's equipment and face.
In the next set of image comparisons, we're back at the first site of grace. The performance delta is similar (102 vs 60 FPS, a 41% drop).
Moving slightly to the left, we find the first NPC sitting at a campfire. Here, performance is once again nearly halved (118 to 67 FPS). Look at the rock and foliage shadows near the mule, though - they're far more realistic.
Going near the arched passageway, the performance difference is practically identical. Here, we also observe that lighting doesn't pass through anymore with ray tracing enabled, lending the scene a darker look.
Facing the Erdtree directly, the performance impact is a bit lessened, going from 109 to 75 FPS, a 31% loss.
The last image comparison brings us back indoors. Once again, the performance hit is far lessened (122 vs 97 FPS, a 20% drop). The jar and stone wall's shadows are notably improved.
Overall, the Elden Ring update isn't as disappointing as mentioned by the initial reports, but it's also not great. Additionally, it's not that much of an improvement compared to the screen-space RTGI shader that people have been injecting via ReShade since shortly after the game's launch.
The biggest disappointment, however, comes by way of the lack of any upscaler addition in this patch. There's a reason NVIDIA created the GeForce RTX graphics cards with both RT Cores and Tensor Cores, the latter of which have been dedicated to winning back at least some of the performance loss inherent to ray tracing with clever AI image reconstruction (DLSS).
The games that attempted to introduce ray tracing support without any upscaling can be counted on one hand: Life Is Strange: True Colors, Rune II, Stay in the Light, and World of Warcraft. Saints Row launched without an upscaler but added AMD FSR 2.1 in a patch released in late November.
It's not that big of a surprise coming from a developer that still locks its PC games to 60 FPS, requiring players to use external programs to unlock the frame rate beyond that threshold. That's why I had reached out to PureDark, the author of the DLSS/FSR/XeSS mods for the REFramework (CAPCOM's titles based on the RE Engine) and Creation Engine (Bethesda's Skyrim, Fallout 4), pushing him to look into adding upscalers to Elden Ring. I thought it would be badly needed for the ray tracing update, and it turns out I was right on that count.
PureDark is already working on them, with the DLAA implementation already done. I can also add that he's now attempting to inject Frame Generation, also known as DLSS 3, too. Needless to say, that would be a big deal and likely more than enough to offset the performance cost of ray tracing in Elden Ring. Stay tuned!
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