Control will be the best showcase yet for NVIDIA's RTX tech - if you have the GPU to handle it

Nvidia's real-time ray tracing technology pushes in-game lighting, shadows, and visual wizardry far beyond what has ever been possible before. That said, RTX tech hasn't exactly set the world on fire since it was announced last year along with the company's new RTX graphics cards.

Though we saw elements of RTX features in action in games like Battlefield V and Shadow of the Tomb Raider, those applications were limited in scope and often came with serious performance compromises. These first-generation RTX games suffered early adopter pains, and both those titles and Nvidia itself paid a PR price for what looked like grandiose promises that weren't quite ready for real-world applications.

But at E3 2019, real-time ray tracing felt a lot more present and solid. Many of the show's biggest games, including Cyberpunk 2077, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, Watch Dogs Legion, Doom Eternal, and Remedy's Control implement RTX features to some degree, and all are expected to do so more smoothly than the titles that came before. Nvidia and game developers have had more time to optimize and properly deploy real-time ray tracing features in game engines, and the results look promising (for those PC gamers with powerful enough Nvidia cards, anyway).

The new crown jewel of RTX

Control, a supernatural action game from the makers of Alan Wake and Quantum Break, is set to be Nvidia's best new RTX showcase. While previous games have only shown part of what real-time ray tracing can do (with Battlefield using enhanced reflections and Tomb Raider focusing on shadows) Control will have it all. Improved shadows, indirect diffuse lighting, opaque and transparent reflections, ambient color around objects - Control will take advantage of Nvidia's RTX cores in ways no other game has yet in order to make its mysterious world as dazzling and realistic as possible.

You can see some of what Control has in store in this new video focusing on the RTX features:

I had a chance to go hands-on with a Control demo running in Nvidia's E3 2019 meeting room. The RTX features at work in Control are the most comprehensive and impressive applications of the technology seen in a game so far. They add depth and realism to every visual aspect of the world, from shadows to reflections to lighting to color. After playing with the features all turned on for a few minutes, toggling them off made for a shocking experience. The game looked flat and artificial with RTX off, and it really did feel like it would be a less immersive, less satisfying experience to play the game that way. Nothing about Control without RTX features looked bad, in game terms, but once you experienced the game with those extra touches it was hard to go back to "normal."

One of the biggest challenges of talking about real-time ray tracing features is that unless you are specifically looking for them they are easy to overlook, specifically because we are used to things looking that way in real life. In reality reflections are partially transparent, and looking through a window involves seeing your own dim reflection in the glass, and looking through that to the world beyond. We're so used to that experience that we can miss how revolutionary it is for windows to work like that in a game. Toggling that option on and off, in the Control demo, made an enormous difference. The game offers a kind of partial transparency that looks more like real-life glass than anything I've ever seen in a game before.

A challenge for all but the most powerful GPUs

Of course, all this new graphics wizardry comes with a cost. The demo was running on a PC sporting one of NVIDIA's most powerful consumer graphics cards (the full technical specs of the machine are under wraps), and we were told that with all the RTX features turned on the Control demo was maintaining a steady 60 fps. Nothing about the hands-on experience gave me any reason to doubt that - indeed, I couldn't notice a framerate difference in the game with the features on or off - but it's significant that no one from Nvidia was claiming higher fps numbers from one of Nvidia's most capable RTX cards, running the game at what looked to be a typical 1080p resolution.

Control is the right sort of game to take advantage of real-time ray tracing, and to really push it to its limits. It's a single-player experience full of striking visuals, dramatic lighting, and shiny surfaces. There is combat, but not the sort of twitch-reaction combat that Battlefield demands. The enhanced realism and beauty of the game with RTX features turned on is absolute worth a framerate hit - up to a point. No matter how realistic and beautiful a game looks, the difference between 30 fps and 60 fps is a huge one.

It's already clear that the very best way to experience Control will be playing it on a PC with a 2080 or better GPU. Other RTX cards, like the 2070 and 2060, will likely be able to support some of the RTX magic the game is capable of, and with so much more development time we can probably expect better performance across the board than the rough road we got with Battlefield and Tomb Raider. But more than any game we've seen yet, Control is poised to be the title that really makes the promises of real-time ray tracing worth the investment.

Control releases on August 27 of this year.