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Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Technical Analysis


It seems that the Oxford lass cannot travel anywhere without disaster striking, from boats….jeep rides and planes she is a constant insurance firms nightmare. With the 3rd entry in the rebooted saga we reach the end of the origins story, even if Lara is still the centre of her own world we now get a chance to branch out further into hers. Shadow is not an exclusive this time with a full assortment of PC and console versions shipping day this week.

 

Building base camp

 

The foundations of a great game come from its engine and TR is built on solid foundations, Crystal Dynamic’s own engine in fact, entitled The Foundation engine. This has been the basis for the previous 2 chapters in the reboot and now concluded in this 3rd entry. One of the many advantages it brings is a fast and iterative development cycle using the inbuilt editor Horizon. This tool allows the team, among other aspects, to design levels, tombs and areas quickly and play test to determine what works and what does not. The central hub design from Rise is a core feature of Shadow but on a much larger scale. The game ranges from intimate linear moments to much larger, open and exploratory terrain offering up impressive expanse & detail. Tombs are a big part of Lara’s attraction, the clue is in the name, with this latest entry Eidos have carried the torch seamlessly from Crystal Dynamics having worked with them across the previous 2 entries and them now swapping roles to support the engine Knowledge share during this development cycle. As they already have a strong foundation in..er..foundation this has evidently allowed them to hit the ground running in short time from the 3 years taken we have a title that instantly fits into the saga mold with little sign of the drastic shift this must have taken.

Animation has always been a key element within these adventures, MOVA motion capture tech was used before. Rather than adopting the typical spandex suit and sticky balls, instead fluorescent paint is used releasing the actors to feel more natural while still allowing over 7,000 sample points to be mapped from each capture session. The technology focuses on facial capture giving Miss Croft and crew a far more human and natural level of expression, emotion and realism within gameplay and story beats,this may have been used again here or not. Regardless we are treated to subtle eye movements, nose flair, muscle and tendon simulation and even the wrinkles of lips as they contour over teeth. This remarkable level of bone rigging, blend shapes and skin mapping only heightens the suspension of disbelief throughout. They are joined by a plethora of other nuanced moments that would be all but impossible for an animation team to instill themselves alone. The downside to this like most MC methods lies with the capture points and resulting data limiting the ways to build on this, luckily the cast all appear to be sufficiently talented to deliver some rousing moments throughout this epic adventure and I am sure the animators have worked tirelessly to bring these polygons to life with remarkable success, it has raised the level over Rise on this score. You will of course experience a mix that hit some emotional highs and lows along with an equal mixture of success and failure, collectively though this is better performed throughout with a clearer understanding of what it is trying to deliver.

Character models are impressively detailed throughout direct and indirect player control. Polygon count has certainly been balanced well here to maximise the details without over spending the budget with reductions on faces, hands to be used elsewhere making minor difference. Normal maps are brilliantly used to add extra depth and detail to players faces, clothing reactions and muscle deformation. This enhances the level of mobility each of them have without making all segments reliant on vertex points and bone rigging. As the cast speak, wince, scream or cry you can see the immense amount of effort and detail that has been spent on them, not only within the aims of the story but also with thought of the host machines.

 

 

Do the Locomotion

Procedural animation has been used again with the IK, cloth physics and soft body physics allowing Lara to run, slide, fall and wade through this vast terrain with a fluid grace. The same balance of blending and gameplay designs does highlight some obvious warping moments or miss-alignment from time to time it does not divert from the impressive move sets you and the NPC’s and enemies exhibit during play. The new stealth mechanic does add far more connection to Lara now making it a genuine choice and at many times a necessity to progress. Rubbing mud on yourself and then blending into the environment works wonders to the gameplay not to mention Lara’s complextion. As you slide into position and unsheathe your home-made knife (that’s not a knife). This is a key addition to the game and allows a higher level of precision as you work through a camp with Rambo like guile and an equal level of brutality she is still not full self-ware of just how much a cold-blooded killer she is.

Accompanying these finely balanced models is an equally high level of textured assets and PBR based material shaders enriching each fabric stich or worn rock with convincing surface details. Skin balances a high quality sub-surface scattering pass during real-time cut-scenes with a cheaper gameplay version that still provides an impressively rendered heroine when the camera is pressed up close. The main model of Lara sports a wealth of dynamic decal elements that are likely stored in memory and then blended between vertex mesh data in real-time using the collision system. Dirt, water, blood, sweat and even mud now all form the cascade of legacy her adventure leaves behind. Pull yourself free from a swim and your clothes will be wet along with an added specular highlight on your skin, slowly fading over time. Equally rolling around in the mud will splatter her arms and face like a visit to the local spa. This dynamic mechanic not only play a part with your new stealth skills but also grounds the model and your actions far more within the world itself.

Which is the biggest character in this new adventure by far as the polygon savings from character models have been spent on the captivating forests, mysterious caves and vast villages this journey takes you. From looming tree branches & atmospheric fog to amazon streams and Tsunami lashed city’s you are on a relentless barrage of sights, sounds and moments to enjoy and each of them feels equally lavished with care and attention to the same equally high targets. Expanding on the snow system in Rise we now have a fully hardware based adaptive mud system that tessellates with your movements leaving a grove where you have been. Various levels of mud exist from shallow footprints to knee deep marshes the memory limit is kept low as you trail restores behind you the more you walk, even so it is a great addition and feels much better placed here with it not being over used and enhancing the exploration.

Backing this up is the excellent use of POM at various sections of the game across both versions and showing that many elements we saw from the Enriched release on Rise are now present across the board. Self shadowing and depth aids the impressive vistas on show with each new Tomb found or stream feeling like a genuine adventure. The environmental construction does not end there though, Screen Space reflections back up your common or garden Cube-maps with large pools of water both above and below being obvious signs, but they also use them in much denser areas to simulate Global Illumination dynamically, reflecting the surrounding colour back at the player across walls and ceilings which you can see on the edge of the screen as the camera moves. Mixing the lighting probes with view port dependent solutions like this do add a great deal of load to the GPU which is worth it for the elegant results they provide. Screen Space Ambient Occlusion is another effect that add contact shadows to edges or objects enhancing the look of many areas, in some places this is absent from view and obviously so with sacrifices on the triangles normally accompanying it, by and large though it is ever present and a welcome box in the post effects bag.

Light scattering with colour bleed is factored in and many of the most vivid areas mix up all these elements with high geometric construction which at times can look almost realistic. The careful balance of volumetric light sources using a volume fog along with light bounce from within stone chambers or seeping through overhead trees portrays a strong artistic flair with vivid colours. The physical interaction with the world is another high point, brushes past foilage, into weeds or through lily pads on top of water grounds your character and others within the world. With the new stealth system you can slip into and out of cover with ease backed up by the mud system is an excellent addition. Per object motion blur tracks fast camera movement or limbs in action which helps smooth the 30 and 60fps action even more and is very clean in action. Confusion zone Bokeh is used during many sections even in gameplay such as the underwater sections, which adds to the sense of scale and depth. This is vertex based and not pixel which aids the GPU in hitting those times and still looks excellent, at points they do use a cheaper Gaussian blur which still portrays the required aesthetic with a less cost as required.

 

Resolution & Image Quality

Last time Lara rose on the Xbox we had 2 versions covered from the 360 and the still new XboxOne, 2 versions are tested again as the bigger X version taking top honours First up is the resolution shift, ROTR managed to run with a full 1920×1080 resolution during gameplay and this dropped to 1440×1080 level during all cut-scenes, some 33% less. The game suffered greatly from specular shimmer and general high frequency interference in many scenes, something which has been addressed well here with an improvement to assets and post processing within the lighting model, backed up by a temporal AA pass. This gives the game a cleaner but softer look than before which is also due to a reduction in gameplay resolution, the S model here running what appears to be a fixed 1600×900 resolution. In this modern age a dynamic resolution of course could always be in affect and IF it does dip lower or raise higher it is rare and I never caught any points, but that is still a possibility. What may sound strange to some is that this sacrifice of 44% within the gameplay resolution actually looks better due to the far more stable IQ. The real-time cinematics have an almost indistinguishable 8% sacrifice from before, as such they also look better from an IQ POV, you can learn more on this in my other video.

The X is a considerable leap over this though, even though it states a 4K resolution it does have 2 options from the main menu that can be adjusted as you play. Resolution or Frame-rate mode, the latter I will get to in a moment. The higher resolution options pushes dem pixels to an almost full size 4K image, falling short by around 1 millon pixels with an approximate 3584×2016 almost 15% reduction, again this appears to be across gameplay and realtime story moments. I did have some signs that a dynamic element is in play with a few points hitting 3200×1800 and a native 3840×2160 but the amount of motion blur and TAA can make this much harder and may have been muddying the counts at times. That Temporal AA also helps much here with the far higher resolution helping resolve almost all the softening it can produce, leaving a crisp, clean and almost jaggy free image. Some artefacts do show up, but they are possibly the temporal elements rather than a Checkerboard solution itself as the Motion Blur and post effects can also cause some of these, it is still possible though as is a dynamic element as at this resolution we are nearly 6x the pixel count of the base Xbox model. In addition, the extra resolution and bandwidth means textures, materials and shadow filtering is better with obligue angles on floors highlighting much higher detail into the mid and far distance, helping improve the visual quality even further. The other option reduces this down to a native 1920x1080p image, which on its own is fine, once you jump between the 2 though the change in pixel clarity is quite stark and certainly makes it an obvious choice as to which mode you are in when on a large 4K screen, this is a much smaller sacrifice on a 1080P one in my opinion mind and certainly worth it as you gain significantly on another area, performance.

Performance

In Frame-rate mode the X is still pushing over 4x the resolution (any dynamic elements non-with standing) and as such is still noticeably sharper than the S. Over and above this though the 2 versions side by side highlight the 30fps cap is removed giving us a target of 60Hz. During a comparison here of light combat, cinematics and heavy actions sequences we can see that both versions run the same adaptive V-sync as Rise which allows the top section of 200 or so pixels to tear when running slightly behind frame budget. It is never often or pro-longed and would largely be missed by many I think, with the improvement to controller response aiding this choice. What is clear though is that both the S and the X do not keep a flat line on those frame times. We do see some mild stutters into the 60ms between kill sections and other stutters from time to time in action giving us a few 16, 33 and back again frames, occasionally accompanied by the mild tear. The far faster controller times and smoother gameplay can be a huge improvement to the visuals and enjoyment factor of the game, largely due to the high frequency of gun battles and precision moments. The S and X in 4K mode can have monger 83 to 133ms spikes between kill sections and cutscenes as the scene shifts and models are loaded into Ram along with animation sets. This can cause both Lara and NPC to shift dramatically into position to allow this to happen.

The input latency is another area that has not improved, in fact from my tests it is back where it started on the launch version of Rise with it ranging between 220-250ms which is slow for a 30fps game but clearly a core element of the engine and framerate. The X in 4K mode is slightly better with the average pushing towards the 217ms times with the frame-rate mode being the best of the bunch cutting this in half to around 140ms as an average with a new low of 126ms, much better and adds to the attraction of this mode as it improves visual update, temporal AA and controller feel which is a great benefit.

The game does suffer worse on the 4K mode though, just like the other versions or modes, cutscenes are where it can dip the most. Other moments do appear with dense jungle and geometry causing dips which are not as bad on the X in frame-rate mode which points to a probable bandwidth/fill-rate limit on the S and 4K modes. We even have a repeated Thermo valley moment with the village section later into the game showing longer performance dips and tearing across all versions, this can bring the 60fps mode down into the 40’s, again though it is but a small section of the overall vast game and could very well be patched to improve this at a later date, which will happen with some of the mild bugs on the review code so be sure to hit them updates on release as it will have a day 1 patch. These heavier sections on performance are not that often, even if it, like the story moments, they do not distract from the enjoyment or play I have noted for detail.

 

This is still VERY MUCH a modern Tomb Raider game, with a much better balance of action, exploration and puzzle elements and those all important tombs giving the game a more consistent feel, this is still TR though and will likely not change your mind if you hated the last. Some weaker areas such as the AI and animation blends can distract from time to time but the visual package is still of a very high and consistent manor (pun intended). If you are looking to play a new Tom Raider title this is still my choice for the best of the 3. Incredible locations, plenty of exploration and secrets to find, enjoyable puzzles and really shows of the technical skills from the team and engine. For Xbox, Playstation or PC this is a great choice to sink in some hours and is a showcase for any hardware you run it on.

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