Minecraft‘s biggest-ever official visual overhaul, the Minecraft RTX Beta, is now live. It requires jumping through a few hoops, but as long as you own the game’s Windows 10 “Bedrock” variant, you can dive in on PC without paying an additional penny.
To clarify, you don’t have to buy more software. Hardware is another matter.
We went through the basics of Minecraft RTX Beta on Tuesday—read the article to catch up on the basics—but at that time, its handlers at Mojang and Nvidia prohibited us from mentioning our own hands-on impressions or analysis. We’ve actually been tinkering with Minecraft RTX Beta since late last week, and now, we’re free to discuss our findings.
The results aren’t perfect, but in extreme use cases, they are great. So much so, in fact, that you should probably slap this article’s URL into the NetNanny interface attached to your kids’ Web browsing habits, lest you wind up having someone in your home beg for a compatible PC.
A quick word on hardware
Before I break down how this wholly path-traced version of Minecraft looks in action, I’d like to clear up questions about hardware and performance, because as we’ve seen in the past, ray-tracing effects typically come at a serious cost of performance. I’ll start by getting the bad news out of the way: you will need a graphics card that supports DirectX 12’s ray-tracing API.
Currently, that limits interested players to Nvidia’s “RTX” line of GPUs, since AMD has not yet released its own compatible line. Strangely, a Mojang representative told Ars last week that this week’s beta would function on non-RTX graphics cards, albeit at an abysmal frame rate. As it turns out, Minecraft RTX Beta won’t load any of its special ray-traced content unless it recognizes a compatible graphics card. Sure enough, I could load the beta, but not its ray tracing mode, on 2017’s beastly Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti.
Once I confirmed that limit, I began testing five pre-made Minecraft RTX Beta worlds on two extremes of the RTX spectrum. The first is my home office testing rig, which sports the RTX 2080 Ti, the best “consumer-model” RTX card on the market (if you think spending more than $1,000 on a graphics card sounds reasonable). The second is a 2019 HP Omen 17 laptop with a notebook variant of the RTX 2070—the weakest RTX GPU I have in my home office. It’s mildly better than the original desktop version of the RTX 2060, but certainly weaker than its 2019 refresh, the RTX 2060 Super.
Then I began experimenting with benchmark possibilities. I opted to “fly” in the game through the pre-made worlds provided by Nvidia and Mojang, since they were built to show off Minecraft RTX Beta‘s impressive visual tweaks, not necessarily to be performative. In order to guarantee unobstructed flight and measure equivalent visuals on both systems, I had to find paths that were clear and straight. This led to the discovery of a killer bug when I tried flying at a high elevation over the game’s larger stretches of terrain. Taking a long, high-altitude flight triggered a frame rate plunge consistently in some worlds (particularly “Temples & Totems”) and randomly in others. Either way, when it hit, I saw frame rates not only plummet severely but never recover even if I pared back all settings. I had to hard-quit to return performance to a measurable level.
Thus, I settled on two repeatable paths at low elevations. One comes at the beginning of the “Aquatic Adventure” world, and it’s a clear-if-brief path over an impressive, semi-transparent plane of water and into a cathedral. The other starts at the opening beat of the “Imagination Island” world, and it’s a better test of large-world rendering, since it includes a ton of buildings and objects on its path to a mansion whose walls are covered in colorful stained glass patterns.
Time to spew some chunks
In both tests, I began by measuring an average frame rate at 1080p resolution with default graphics and all ray-tracing effects disabled, and in both cases, the RTX 2080 Ti desktop ran roughly 30-percent faster than the RTX 2070 laptop. Then I turned ray tracing on and repeated the same test path with four variants:
- DLSS on, 16 chunks rendered
- DLSS off, 16 chunks rendered
- DLSS on, 24 chunks rendered
- DLSS off, 24 chunks rendered
Before I show the numbers, I’ll explain the above variables. First are the “chunks,” which are a uniform unit of rendering measurement in all Minecraft games—as in, how far you can see in the distance, not the total world size (which can be much, much bigger). In 3D Minecraft space, chunks measure 16 blocks wide, 16 blocks long, and 256 blocks tall. For a comparison, you’ll see 18 chunks of rendered content in the distance on Xbox One and PS4, and 11 chunks of content on Switch. The max chunk value with ray tracing enabled is 24, while 16 to me is an acceptable “see cool lighting effects all around” value. Anything less feels like an oppressive, unrealistic amount of last-gen fog.
The other variable is Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS), a proprietary Nvidia technology used to reconstruct a lower-resolution image based on a machine-learning model. Nvidia’s computing farms have been trained on existing game footage to estimate how an image should be reconstructed, even in high-speed scenes or ones full of explosions and particle-loaded effects. The idea: if a huge percentage of gamers already uses anti-aliasing in PC games to smooth out “jaggies,” why not throw dedicated GPU cores at the problem and reduce the raw pixel count that must be rendered?
Nvidia didn’t clarify exactly what base resolution Minecraft RTX Beta starts at before upsampling to 1080p via DLSS, but it’s clearly a lower count than 1080p, as evidenced by the following average frame rates.
A few things about the above stats. For one, the 2080 Ti doesn’t consistently show major frame rate gains with DLSS toggled in 1080p mode, with the exception of the 16-chunk version of the Aquatic Adventure test. I re-tested each of these twice to confirm the above numbers. I imagine many other anomalies will arise as more users test this massive DLSS rollout, since it can’t rely on the pre-made worlds of other DLSS-enabled games like Control.
More importantly, the weaker ray-tracing GPU in this testing environment is much more reliant on DLSS to reach performative numbers at 1080p resolution. In every version of these tests, the RTX 2070 Max-Q enjoys a DLSS gain at 50 percent and above, and you can get closer to a 60fps average if you drop the ray-tracing rendering distance to 12 chunks.
The catch for these charts, of course, is that mere frame-rate averages don’t tell the whole story. In many of the above tests, but not all of them, I noticed “lurching” movement on my variable rate refresh (VRR) monitors, paired with vicious spikes on the frame time counter as measured by RivaTuner Statistics Server (RTSS). Even the mighty 2080 Ti wasn’t immune to these frame time spikes, which all came solely because I was holding down the “forward” movement button. (I wasn’t even chopping trees!) I chalk this issue up primarily to the beta nature of the release, especially since it happens across the board.
In any case, the tests are an indication that you can get into Minecraft RTX Beta with a compatible, minimum-spec machine and guarantee a 30fps lock or toy with your settings and leave DLSS on to get somewhere closer to 60fps.
Time for an AA meeting
Really, you should leave DLSS on—albeit for a weird reason, at least as of press time.
This beta’s default “RTX” rendering pipeline puts a noticeable smear on Minecraft‘s blocky worlds, and this anti-aliasing (AA) system cannot be disabled so long as “ray tracing” is turned on. The first time I noticed a smeary effect on some newly glowing blocks, I assumed an aggressive DLSS model was to blame, so I disabled the “upscaling” toggle, spun my camera wildly to reset my previous viewpoint data, and looked at the blocks in question again. Yep, that’s just the RTX Beta‘s built-in AA.
I’m not sure why Nvidia and Mojang are forcing users to leave this smeary AA option on. Maybe it’s their way of masking DLSS’ impact so that users can’t conduct A/B tests of native, raw pixel counts versus Nvidia’s machine-driven AA model.
For now, DLSS does the freaking trick. You can expect to see equivalently soft pixel counts whether it’s enabled or disabled, but with DLSS on, you’ll enjoy significantly boosted performance. Whether a hallway is bathed in particle-filled crepuscular rays, or a building’s cobblestone exterior absorbs the harsh, orange glow of nearby lava, the scenery tends to look nearly identical, DLSS or not.
The exceptions mostly come in the form of distant details in the skyline. Imagination Island is rich with distant, intricate scenery, particularly a Ferris wheel and a tall viewing platform; the latter has a number of “arms” that stick out for people to stand on and enjoy an insane view. But when you look at these arms from way, way below with DLSS enabled, they have a tendency to flicker and change color at night. Go into the game’s creative mode to fly like Superman for a closer look, and you’ll see a very mild “rolling” lighting effect kissing these arms. DLSS doesn’t quite know how to draw this constant, mild change to the elevated platforms’ lighting when it happens at a ridiculous distance.
Okay, please, I’d like to start drooling now
Depending on how you like to play with Minecraft, this issue can be significant. Do you want to build a series of massive structures, then go into Superman mode to fly around them in quick fashion? This use case will expose Minecraft RTX Beta‘s processing and image-reconstruction issues the most—and will look the least impressive in cases where the sun covers your environs in even light. Like, what’s all the fuss about? You’re making me drop performance and clarity for this?
But many players think of Minecraft as a world of close-up details, whether because they’re playing along with its built-in mix of survival and adventure content or because they’re more interested in decorating lavish building interiors. In both of these cases, Minecraft RTX Beta is a jaw-dropping stunner.
Think about your average dig through a Minecraft cavern; maybe you’re looking for valuable ore deposits, or maybe you just like the thrill of discovering what evils and treasures hide behind every dig. In either case, the natural flood of light you can generate from either a torch or by punching through to a wave of sunlight adds a remarkable effect to an average dark-and-narrow Minecraft path. The same goes for hallways built out of colored glass, which now accept and bend light in pretty remarkable fashion. This Minecraft build includes quite a few types of glass both in terms of colors and light-refraction properties, and the results are stunning, whether because a given world blends intersecting rays of light to make new colors or because a given area’s light bounces appear realistically. The first time I walked through a hallway covered in blue glass and saw accurate, dark-blue ambient occlusion on architectural edges, I started involuntarily drooling.
When I was done obsessing over DLSS glitches or triple-checking frame rate counts, I was delighted to fly around like a fairy in some insane, Disney-produced explosion of my imagination. I flew through intricate, light-kissed tunnels, then emerged to glide over gorgeously reflecting pools of water. From there, I dove into those pools, revealing rich, non-obnoxious sheets of light as I swam through until I found underground lairs. While walking in those lairs, I could see light bend and refract through the water in their windows, correctly turning and bending as I walked forward. When I found a door back to the surface, I saw day had turned to night and that nearby pools of lava were draping their environs with a realistic orange glow.
[Update, 5:58pm ET: I try not to pilfer from the tech-analysis wizards at Digital Foundry, but I have to shout out their test of the RTX Beta‘s path traced lighting model. They built a camera obscura inside the game as proof of how realistically its dynamic lighting works. In his lengthy analysis video, DF staffer Alex Battaglia created a custom wall of emissive light blocks, then cut a pinhole into the opposite wall that opened up into a pitch-black room. Sure enough, that exact glowing pattern was projected in reversed, upside-down fashion on the pitch-black wall to spell “DF.” Bravo, Alex.]
That looks good. I want it.
My prior article talks about how Nvidia began its path tracing work on the computationally expensive Quake II RTX build and how that system has since been paid forward with Minecraft RTX Beta‘s addition of customizable materials, which users can build and edit using Adobe Surface software. The results are almost exactly as advertised: every major space you can expect to enter in Minecraft looks more realistic and more alive with the ray-tracing effects turned on. Turn them off in the same space, and light bounces look flat.
Once you get used to the RTX Beta‘s lighting model, going back looks weird: why isn’t any of that sunlight properly making its way through this giant opening in a cave? Or, how come this squid-filled ocean looks like a polluted lake when I swim through it, instead of a clear ocean full of varying slices of light?
That being said, it’s not a perfect, hyper-realistic effort across the board, though this mostly boils down to the game’s geometry adhering to the classic Minecraft standard of perfect blocks. A waterfall’s bending water looks really cool if you move your view directly through it, but pull your view back, and it falls in a weirdly unilateral square pattern.
But for a game as fantasy-friendly and blocky as Minecraft is, that’s a pretty small complaint. Otherwise, this world looks pretty impeccable and well beyond what I’d imagined. The smeary, default AA is the biggest exception as of this article’s publication, and I’m hopeful Nvidia offers raw, jaggy pixel options for the RTX Beta in the near future, even if it would cost users some precious frames.
Nvidia has pulled off one helluva PR coup with the Minecraft RTX Beta. We’ve seen official teases of similar ray-tracing tweaks coming to Minecraft‘s Xbox Series X version, which will be powered by AMD architecture, but this free, successful launch of the unfinished version is all Nvidia’s to claim. And with no guarantee that Minecraft‘s XSX version will be ready by year’s end, that gives Nvidia a huge leg up. It has already put out massive guides to help fans convert existing worlds to ray-traced snuff, and the gorgeous results will probably set off a chain reaction for the ray-tracing uninitiated: That looks good. I want it. I want whatever RTX is.
Listing image by Mojang