When I looked back at PC gaming technology in 2021, one feature continued to pull on my ear: Nvidia’s Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS). DLSS didn’t come out in 2021. Nvidia released AI-assisted enhancement technology in 2019, but this is the first year that feels like the must-have feature that Nvidia promised a few years ago.
In 2021, we’ve seen more DLSS games than any previous year, as well as a big help in supporting Nvidia, which seems to continually update DLSS to improve picture quality and performance. DLSS may have been released two years ago, but it was in 2021 that it became the most impressive technology for PC gaming. This is why.
Booming support in 2021
Nvidia released DLSS in late 2018 with support for one game: Final Fantasy XV. Some bigger titles, Metro Exodus Y 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 more than 50 additional games.
Nvidia added 10 DLSS games to the list in November 2021, which is more than Nvidia added in DLSS’s first year on the market. It’s no exaggeration to say that DLSS only became a must-have feature in 2021. And support doesn’t appear to be slowing down, with titles like God of War Y Dying Light 2 launch with DLSS support in 2022.
This is because Nvidia made some key changes with DLSS in 2021. In July, Nvidia opened the DLSS software development kit (SDK) to any developer. Previously, developers had to order the kit. Nvidia also expanded the DLSS plugins for Unity and Unreal Engine, incorporating features such as Linux support.
We may never know for sure, but I bet Nvidia also took a more aggressive approach with DLSS in 2021. AMD released FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR) in June, and the company wasted no time adding support for games. At the time of writing, there are 47 FSR compatible games. Given the rapid adoption of FSR, it appears that Nvidia needed to beef up its own list.
And reinforce it has it. DLSS is now available in more than 130 titles. At launch, it was a nice feature of RTX graphics cards that never lived up to the promise made by Nvidia. In 2021, it’s a reason to buy an Nvidia graphics card, even if it means reluctantly giving in to Nvidia’s walled garden.
Image quality improvements.
The first version of DLSS was a disaster. The developers had to add support through a relationship with Nvidia, each game required training for its own AI model, and the tradeoff in image quality wasn’t worth it. FSR can struggle when it comes to image quality, but it still looks better than DLSS 1.0.
That changed with DLSS 2.0, and Nvidia has been improving the feature ever since. Nvidia released DLSS 2.3 in November, which improves objects that can flicker due to upscaling, in addition to removing much of the ghosting present in previous versions. They are small improvements, but improvements anyway.
They are also important depending on the games you play. Although DLSS generally looks good in all games, there are some titles that struggle with enhancement technology. F1 2021 it had some particularly bad ghost images, for example, which was fixed by the latest DLSS update.
DLSS will continue to improve over time. As the AI model trains on more games, Nvidia will be able to address even more issues like ghosting, glare, and other visual artifacts present with any scaler. It may never match the native resolution, but under pressure from AMD FSR and Intel’s upcoming XeSS, Nvidia clearly knows that DLSS must keep growing. And in 2021, the function has improved a lot.
Make ray tracing a reality
This was also the year of ray tracing. Nvidia may have you believe that it was in 2018 that it first introduced RTX graphics cards, but the first batch of RTX titles consisted mainly of technical demos (Quake 2 RTX, Minecraft RTX) and close partnerships with publishers (Battlefield v Control). The floodgates were opened for ray tracing in 2021.
That was primarily driven by the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, which brought ray tracing into the mainstream in late 2020. However, 2021 is when we saw the long-awaited 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 may not have seen the rapid adoption of DLSS in 2021, but it went from being a niche feature in cutting-edge 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 is no longer a unique enough feature to warrant its own page.
And ray tracing needs DLSS. Consoles have the advantage of a closed ecosystem, which makes ray tracing in games like Spider-Man: Miles Morales Y Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart possible due to image reconstruction technology built specifically for the console. DLSS helps fill that gap in PCs by offering an overall solution that still looks and works just 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 appears weak when the rays start to bounce off. Ray tracing may have been possible in 2018, but it only became practical in 2021 with advancements in DLSS and an ever-growing list of supported games.
The warning with DLSS
DLSS has a major downside: it only works on RTX graphics cards. There’s no way to talk about DLSS without mentioning the GPU shortage and how difficult the feature is to use when graphics cards are hard to find. Nvidia makes most of the best graphics cards on the market, but that doesn’t matter at 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 looked everywhere for a 30-series RTX graphics card throughout 2020 and 2021, but only got one a few months ago at a local Best Buy restock. Before that, DLSS helped my aging RTX 2060 in Cyberpunk 2077, Deathloop, and even The Lego Builder’s Journey (which is a lot more demanding than you probably think).
DLSS didn’t help my GTX 1070, or my friend’s GTX 1080, or my partner’s RX 580. And in 2021, these cards could use help a lot more than an RTX 2060. It’s impossible to separate the awesome technology that is. DLSS of the hardware that enables it. That hardware is expensive and woefully scarce.
What DLSS has achieved in 2021 is a vastly improved game roster, image quality that continues to improve, and a competitive ecosystem of enhancement features. We might not have FSR if DLSS wasn’t first, and we certainly wouldn’t be looking towards the arrival of Intel XeSS in 2022.
Like Nvidia or not, there is no denying that DLSS has had a profound impact on the way we play games in 2021. And hopefully, as competing technologies advance and graphics cards become more available, the AI-assisted upgrade will become a mainstay of games for years to come. .
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