Nvidia DLSS became a must-have piece of PC gaming tech in 2021

As I looked back on PC gaming tech in 2021, one feature continued to tug my ear — Nvidia’s Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS). DLSS didn’t come out in 2021. Nvidia released the A.I.-assisted upscaling tech in 2019, but this is the first year it has felt like the must-have feature Nvidia promised a few years ago.

In 2021, we have seen more DLSS games than any previous year, as well as a boon in support from Nvidia, who seems to continually update DLSS to improve image quality and performance. DLSS may have been released two years ago, but it was in 2021 where it became the most impressive tech for PC gaming. Here’s why.

Booming support in 2021

Nvidia released DLSS at the tail-end of 2018 with support for one game — Final Fantasy XV. Some larger titles, Metro Exodus and Control among them, followed with support in 2019. From December 2018 to December 2020, Nvidia added support for 29 games. In 2021 alone, DLSS arrived for well over 50 additional games.

The Guardians of the Galaxy standing together.
Guardians of the Galaxy is one recent example of a 2021 game that launched with DLSS support.

Nvidia added 10 DLSS games to the roster in November 2021, which is more than the Nvidia added in DLSS’ first year on the market. It’s not a stretch to say that DLSS only became a must-have feature in 2021. And support doesn’t look like it’s slowing down, with titles like God of War and Dying Light 2 launching with DLSS support in 2022.

That’s because Nvidia made some key changes with DLSS in 2021. In July, Nvidia opened up the DLSS software development kit (SDK) to any developer. Previously, developers would need to apply for the kit. Nvidia also expanded the DLSS plugins for Unity and Unreal Engine, bringing in features like Linux support.

We may never know for sure, but I’d wager that Nvidia took a more aggressive strategy with DLSS in 2021, too. AMD released FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR) in June, and the company didn’t waste any time adding support to games. At the time of writing, there are 47 games with FSR support. Given FSR’s rapid adoption, it seems like Nvidia needed to bolster its own roster.

And bolster it has. DLSS is now available in over 130 titles. At launch, it was a nice-to-have feature of RTX graphics cards that never quite delivered on the promise made by Nvidia. In 2021, it’s a reason to buy an Nvidia graphics card, even if that means begrudgingly giving into Nvidia’s walled garden.

Improvements in image quality

The first version of DLSS was a disaster. Developers had to add support through a relationship with Nvidia, each game required training for its own A.I. model, and the trade-off in image quality wasn’t worth it. FSR may struggle when it comes to image quality, but it still looks better than DLSS 1.0 did.

That changed with DLSS 2.0, and Nvidia has been improving the feature since. Nvidia released DLSS 2.3 in November, which improves objects that may flicker due to the upscaling, as well as removes much of the ghosting present in previous versions. They’re small improvements, but improvements nonetheless.

They’re important depending on what games you play, too. Although DLSS generally looks good across games, there are some titles that struggle with the upscaling tech. F1 2021 had some particularly bad ghosting, for example, which the latest DLSS update fixed.

DLSS will continue to improve over time. As the A.I. model is trained on more games, Nvidia will be able to further address issues like ghosting, shimmering, and other visual artifacts present with any upscaler. It might never match native resolution, but with pressure from AMD FSR and Intel’s upcoming XeSS, Nvidia clearly knows that DLSS needs to continue to grow. And in 2021, the feature has improved a lot.

Making ray tracing a reality

This was also the year of ray tracing. Nvidia may have you believe it was 2018 where it first introduced RTX graphics cards, but the first batch of RTX titles consisted mostly of tech demos (Quake 2 RTX, Minecraft RTX) and close partnerships with publishers (Battlefield V, Control). The floodgates opened for ray tracing in 2021.

That was mostly spurred on by the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, both of which brought ray tracing to the mainstream at the tail-end of 2020. However, 2021 is when we saw the much-anticipated addition of ray tracing to Doom Eternal, as well as games like Far Cry 6, Resident Evil Village, Battlefield 2042, and the Crysis Remastered Trilogy. 

Ray tracing demonstration in Doom Eternal.

Ray tracing may not have had the rapid adoption of DLSS in 2021, but it morphed from a niche feature in tentpole titles to a must-have in big-budget AAA video games. Wikipedia even removed its list of titles that support ray tracing, citing that it’s no longer enough of a unique feature to warrant its own page.

And ray tracing needs DLSS. Consoles have the advantage of a closed ecosystem, making ray tracing in games like Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart possible due to image reconstruction tech built specifically for the console. DLSS helps fill that gap on PCs, offering a general solution that still looks and performs as well as its console counterparts (and sometimes even better).

Ray tracing is still too demanding for modern graphics cards. Even the obscenely powerful RTX 3080 Ti looks wimpy when the rays start bouncing. Ray tracing may have been possible in 2018, but it only became practical in 2021 with advancements in DLSS and a growing list of supported games.

The caveat with DLSS

Nvidia RTX 3060 Ti Founders Edition on a pink background.
Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

DLSS has a major downside: It only works on RTX graphics cards. There’s no way to talk about DLSS without bringing up the GPU shortage, and how difficult it is to use the feature when graphics cards are hard to find. Nvidia makes most of the best graphics cards on the market, but that doesn’t matter in a time when you can’t buy them.

In 2021, DLSS has helped enthusiasts who would normally upgrade to the next generation of graphics cards. I hunted far and wide for an RTX 30-series graphics card throughout 2020 and 2021, but I only secured one a few months ago at a local Best Buy restock. Before then, DLSS helped my aging RTX 2060 along in Cyberpunk 2077, Deathloop, and even Lego Builder’s Journey (which is a lot more demanding than you probably think).

DLSS didn’t help my GTX 1070, nor my friend’s GTX 1080 or my partner’s RX 580. And 2021, these cards could use the help much more than an RTX 2060. It’s impossible to separate the impressive technology that is DLSS from the hardware that enables it. That hardware is expensive and in woefully low supply.

What DLSS has achieved in 2021 is a massively improved list of games, image quality that continues to best itself, and a competitive ecosystem of upscaling features. We may not have FSR if DLSS didn’t come first, and we certainly wouldn’t be looking toward Intel XeSS arriving in 2022.

Like Nvidia or not, there’s no denying that DLSS has had a profound impact on how we play games in 2021. And hopefully as competing technologies advance and graphics cards before more available, A.I.-assisted upscaling will become a mainstay in games for years to come.

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