Minecraft RTX ray-tracing beta preview: The win Nvidia needs

Well over a year has passed since Nvidia’s RTX ray tracing was first introduced. It can create stunning results, but as I wrote in 2018, RTX ray tracing struggled to justify the high price of the Nvidia RTX video cards supporting it. The feature simply lacked a killer app.

Now, with Minecraft’s RTX ray-tracing beta, it finally has one.

Simplicity lets RTX ray tracing shine

Ray tracing and Minecraft may seem like an odd couple. The popular sandbox adventure game is now over 10 years old, and while there’s a pleasing logic to its blocky vistas, the game’s not a looker (unless you go all-in on mods).

As it turns out, that’s exactly what makes Minecraft a perfect candidate. Ray tracing’s biggest obstacle is the fact artists have decades of experience faking what ray tracing makes possible. Game developers use numerous techniques to fake reflections, light shafts, dynamic shadows, and more.

Minecraft RTX ray tracing beta
Matthew Smith / Digital Trends

That’s why Battlefield V’s ray-traced reflections can be hard to notice. The game’s reflections aren’t as realistic without ray tracing, but they still exist and look convincing unless you take a moment to closely scrutinize them.

Minecraft is extremely simple. It doesn’t try to fake reflections. It just doesn’t have them. Lighting and shadows are rudimentary, as well.

When you turn on ray tracing, the difference smacks you across the face like a 10-pound mackerel. Reflections, dynamic lighting, dynamic shadows – all this and more appears with just one click. I wouldn’t say it transforms the look of Minecraft, but it does hugely enhance it.

The difference is drastic, obviously. One look at the screenshots will make that clear. Where ray tracing is truly stunning, though, is in subtle touches. Light shafts shine through windows and filter into caverns, yes, but also peak through the leaves of Minecraft’s pixel-art trees. Reflections appear in rivers, but also in the mirror-like finish of a window as you hide from zombies in a villager’s house.

Frankly, having played it, I’m going to find it tough to go back (which, because I sometimes play Minecraft on my Switch, I’ll have to tolerate). RTX ray tracing is a magic switch that makes a nearly 11 year-old-game one of the most impressive visual treats you can enjoy in 2020.

A literal game-changer

Minecraft RTX ray tracing beta
Matthew Smith / Digital Trends

Once I picked my jaw off the floor while touring the maps designed by Minecraft content creators for Nvidia, I started a game in survival mode and played as I normally would. RTX ray tracing was still gorgeous and, to my surprise, it slightly changed how I played the game.

It all comes down to lighting. Minecraft’s rudimentary lighting system is tuned to provide a good bit of light even at midnight, and torches have expansive range. The RTX ray-tracing beta is less accommodating. No light source means no rays to trace. Exploring the wilderness by moonlight is out of the question, while torch placement in mines requires more thought to maximize its radius.

Minecraft RTX ray tracing beta
Matthew Smith / Digital Trends

The result is a darker, more frightening experience. It brings me back to Minecraft’s release over a decade ago. In that more innocent time, long before the rise of the now hugely popular survival genre, Minecraft was regarded as a difficult and scary experience — at least in its first hour. Players who didn’t build a hut to hide in before dusk on the first day often found themselves a zombie’s dinner.

Don’t get me wrong. Turning on RTX ray tracing doesn’t suddenly make Minecraft a survival horror game. It does force you to be just a touch more careful, however, and adds new danger to venturing out at night.

RTX cards can play it, but many won’t hit 60 FPS

The Minecraft RTX ray-tracing beta is a showcase for how transformative the feature can be. It’s also further proof that today’s PC hardware isn’t ready to handle ray tracing in most games.

I played the beta on Intel’s NUC 9 Extreme with an Intel Core i9-9980HK, 16GB of RAM, and a Nvidia RTX 2070 graphics card. It’s a powerful system – certainly more than most people have at home. Yet Minecraft’s ray tracing pushed the system to its limits.

Minecraft RTX ray tracing beta
Matthew Smith / Digital Trends

Like many sandbox games, performance can swing wildly as you navigate the world. At best, average frame rates hovered around 50 to 55 FPS. At worst, the frame rate could plummet to a hair above 30 FPS. That’s at 1440p resolution with the performance-enhancing DLSS 2.0 turned on.

The good news? Minecraft is certainly playable with ray tracing on. Even RTX 2060 owners should be able to enjoy it so long as they stick to 1080p. The bad news? Ray tracing is a massive performance hit. Minecraft is a game that runs well on my laptop’s Radeon Vega 11 graphics chip. It also runs well on an Xbox 360 or a Nintendo Switch. Turn on ray tracing, though, and Minecraft is suddenly as taxing as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.

I don’t want to go back

Minecraft RTX ray-tracing beta is the win Nvidia’s cutting-edge feature needed. It has appeared in popular games, like 2019’s award-winning Control, but Minecraft takes it to another level. Minecraft has sold over 176 million copies. Like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty, it’s a household name.

You can access the RTX ray-tracing beta starting at 10 a.m. PT today April 16. You’ll need to own Minecraft for Windows 10 and install Xbox Insider Hub from the Microsoft store, which you can then use to access the beta.

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