Rise of the Tomb Raider - Attention 2 Detail
With Crystal Dynamics having a successful reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise we are now looking at a sequel. Being exclusive for 2015 on the XboxOne we learn just what changes have been made both gameplay and technically with direct info from developers and our own playthrough as we take a detailed look at Lara's latest quest
In 2013 we saw Lara return but not as we last saw her, she was younger, more introverted and far less of the confident, adventurer we knew her to be. This was a restart of Lara's adventures and how and what made her such a strong and determined raider of tombs. This was introduced to a further audience with its 2014 Definitive edition release that only further cemented the new direction Lara had taken was the correct one, created a strong foundation for Crystal Dynamics to build upon that with a sequel.
And we have just that thanks to the team’s hard work, technical prowess and concentrating on a single launch platform XboxOne owners are treated to an impressive and expanded adventure that builds upon its core elements but brings much more to the party, but Lara is not alone in this new release on platforms as Nixxes software have also been hard at work creating a last gen version for the Xbox360...so be on the look out for that to also be covered here Within the games multitudinous treasures, So as we see Lara rise once more we can instead delve into the depths to explore just what the teams have delivered here across both platforms and at what if any cost that last gen version release had on the overall presentation, so let's dive in.
First up are the all-important metrics and the pixel allocation worries can be laid aside as the game across action runs at a fully native 1920 x 1080P resolution, this presents the game with a clean 1:1 pixel mapping on 1080P displays and helps the game deliver some breathtaking scenery, shots and sequences allowing the art and design team to bring the action to life in the most impressive showing yet seen in a Tomb Raider game. With Lara’s tale spanning the globe hunting for truth and the occasional raided tomb it has allowed a myriad of locales and choices that not only shows of the level design, mix of puzzles but also the versatility within Crystal’s own Foundation engine. From storm lashed outposts, Sun drenched Iraq rocks to snow swamped mountains complete with tessellated snow mesh deformation as I talked about in my Preview earlier in the summer, it really is both an exciting journey as much as a technically accomplished one. This comes from its mixture of pre-rendered sequences within the real-time game-play adding to its assault on your eyeballs. This is by no means a new technique with Ryse, Uncharted games among others also using similar techniques that mixes well within the in-game visuals and again here contributing to such an impressive showing that would not look out of place in the latest bond movie, time and time again it sets up great set-pieces that although are not outside the standard confines of its Linear action premise are non the less exciting and clear “wow” moments happen regularly throughout the campaign that never cease to impress you and even call others to show them off.
In game-play we now see the fruits of the procedural animation system first seen in the last game and now improved with a vaster range of sets that all blend together much better that before along with offering up a more natural mixture in motion, this includes much nicer contextual animations from ringing her hair when climbing out of water, to reaching out at nearby walls and rocks as she wanders past, further enhancing its organic feel. This includes the physics system improved in the DE version which includes Inverse Kinematics that handle the joint interaction within the world, a vital ingredient in such a rugged world that Lara and co inhabit. And she shakes these moves throughout play, from scrambling up rock faces, losing grips, slipping while running/leaping or in combat the range and almost seamless blending and randomized sets and speeds used create a far more convincing “actress” in play so you feel every impact, wince at every moment and are fully invested in keeping her as safe and in one piece as possible, a tough job as that girl is fearless.
But the games engine and sheer mesmerizing beauty along with such a talented animation team combine with this great technology to create arguably some of the best cinematic's yet seen this generation and yes they are all Real-Time and running on the XboxOne. A small concession is made from the games in play native 1080 display just dropping down to a 1440x1080 display meaning only the horizontal image has any upscaled artifacts showing. This is only a 25% reduction in sheer pixel count and still runs at the same 30fps target of the game and each is well received as the engine effortlessly glides into these and back into gameplay with no horrible and immersion killing black screens or loading screens. This small price is well worth the cost when you see these scenes in action as they are absolutely incredible and at times you question if they can be real time. The exquisite use of Sub surface scattering on the skin of all characters aids greatly in its pre-rendered looks, allowing the light to penetrate through skin while dispersing under the layers as in real life, through hair and cloth with a convincing fresnal calculation within its PBR based pipeline that runs throughout the game with some varying degrees of success but far more accurate and realised in these cinematics which I will touch on shortly, we may see this improved in later showings from the engine but overall it delivers some impressive visuals and this is only expanded further with its HDR lighting system allowing the full spectrum to be used, tone mapping contrast as your eye corrects itself coming from Dark into light, this is used to great effect in the game to deliver some of its vista’s, the system is very well realized within its locations and is where it impresses the most, What really is a generational leap though is the bone and rig animation system used. The combination of blend shapes and high bone count rigs along with its Mova motion capture system really excels here and at times you could convince people you are watching a CGi movie rather than playing a video game.
As I covered in my older preview this is a florescent paint system that allows the camera to capture the minute details of the actors performance and turn these into key information that the animators and riggers can use to deliver such a life-like delivery. But what I absolutely love is the muscle and skin deformation system in use here, it truly is a step up from most other animation systems bar a few exceptions and we are looking at 1st Party studios or exclusives only here, remember this is a multi-platform timed exclusive and one of the reasons it made it into my Top 10 visually impressive games list earlier this year and in person it delivers that and more. You can see as the neck and more specifically muscle underneath moves as Lara speaks, subtle facial expressions, rapid blinking & bloodshot eyes which includes the parallax depth , eye brow raises even the pupil constriction and dilation when hit by light or to express emotion in a scene. Lara is the most loved and lavished with this attention which includes the improved Tress FX or PureHair tech that was a joint development with Crystal Dynamics and AMD and will be later seen in anger with the forthcoming Deus Ex. But here Lara has her own hairstylist residing in a Compute shader running on the GPU that handles each hair strands movement and light volume, penetration and interaction including physics from movement, wind and debris, snow collects on hair along with clothes. The decal work in the game is again impressively realized allowing skin and clothes to show blood, sweat, dirt and water within any combination which allows the adventure to leave its impression on Lara in more ways than one. The system also uses a LOD system to reduce it strands/splines when further away within the frustum and this can be seen here in gameplay adding more strands as I move in, but in the realtime sequences it is of vastly greater density and physics/lighting calculation along with its own anti aliasing and can be the cause of some dips in the cutscenes, but damn it looks good and what ever conditioner Lara uses it is of industrial strength.
The incredible skin and bone system carries over to the in-game animations with seamless skin deforming over the joints in a connected mesh that successfully shows muscle movement under skin as she stretches for a ledge or runs again and works very well, in fact the entire animation system as a whole is one of the games high points as you spend a great deal of time staring at the main character while she vaults, swipes, swings, leaps, shoots and dives so it has to be of a high level. But enemies are also treated with a Good range of both move sets and key frames with a high animation sample rate which is only slightly reduced in its presentation by some heavy clipping through scenery and location centering as you move and get pulled by an invisible force into a spot, but this game is by no means the only one guilty of this and is rarely an issue but as I say can reduce some impressive presentation. On another negative is the underwater swimming looks great complete with the In games bokeh edged DoF now distorting the surface view, but while swimming on the surface Lara can seem a little disconnected from the water and does not convince as well, but again no exclusive to just this title and only stands out due to the high standards elsewhere in the game.
Which brings us nicely onto another high point in the game, lighting which it uses impeccably to enhance scene, set-pieces and location alike, along with the cinematic's. Sporting an Image Based Lighting system IBL this has probes dotted around the levels at fixed points to capture a detailed view of the surrounding area, ( imagine a panoramic photo from all angles) I mentioned this in my Horizon preview from the great work over a guerrilla games, now this is not a new technique as I say Shadow fall, The Witcher 3, Far Cry 3 and others have used this and many upcoming games will also like the forthcoming Quantum Break. In conjunction with its own ambient occlusion solution the team have named BTAO broad temporal ambient occlusion and also stated superior in both performance and quality, shadow maps are also calculated using sample distribution maps as we saw in The Order 1886, enabling edge blending providing a smoother gradient of higher Map quality dependent on camera distance. All this benefits the entire lighting model and presentation complementing the IBL enabling indirect light to become part of a games visual display, this works wonderfully here by using these light probes it can emulate this bounce of Global illumination across each area and scene, like the blue reflection of the ice here on Lara's jacket which looks great as the ambient light bounces off the caves and her. Then dissipates as she walks out into the open space, it allows light bleed through cloth or sun to cascade and bounce within a cave, the blue light here within this tomb along with its direction shadow cast looks superb and it is these kind of improvements this generation and lighting models can bring, but this works equally as well in more open areas as seen here with the snowy mountains drenched in a blood red from the signal flair or the volumetric light cascade through the trees, complete with depth aware particle snow that even collects on you, the game packs in such a visceral and impactful punch it can at times knock you out.
And this is a good time to take a well earned break from exploring as we take a look back at the last generation offering as the talented team at Nixxes have outdone themselves with what is an incredible and complete package on the Xbox360 which unlike the native display of the XboxOne comes in at 1280 x 720 and with the more aggressive plain FXAA as seen in the last Lara adventure on this machine along with the lack of the XboxOne's abundance of shader effects within scenes it actually has reduced shimmer in some places than the native display on XboxOne, but by no means does it ever come close to looking as good or better with a much softer display across the entire screen but Nixxes have again excelled themselves on decade old hardware and in isolation any 360 owners will be ecstatic as they receiving the same game and experience as its younger brother,just without most of the flamboyance and visual niceties that adorn its sibling. The list of features included is much smaller than the ones that are not though with most of the real-time cutscene's now being video files taken from the XboxOnes real-time versions. It also has no motion blur, Image based lighting, screen space reflections, much lower quality textures, geometry, no DoF around the camera edge which also includes a bokeh pass that is also used in the cinematic's. Lighting, draw distance, shadows all are much lower than the full fat release, as you can see here the draw distance and density is vastly reduced. At a glance the games look very similar but once you start looking the cutbacks are both obvious and totally understandable, as expected Lara model is mostly from the last game while also being devoid of Tress-FX which can create clear and stark changes in the face compared to the XboxOne and video cinematic's, but all these and more do not distract from a stellar job the tea have done but it also gives us an answer to the question we asked at the beginning of this video, even though the game looks superb the PBR implementation is not fully realized at least within game-play. Much of the lighting and colour information seems baked into the albedo map rather than allowing a pipeline dependent energy conservation model across the game, wood, floors can look plastic at times, specular, bounce can be exaggerated. But in the cut-scenes it all looks far more accurate and convincing and these are the only assets not shard with the last gen release as these just run the video files, the only expecting to this is Lara herself with a now gen model being used for XboxOne and last gen for the 360 and the difference is night and day or is that light and dark. Running the same model for the cinematic's means the PBR used in her clothes and hair portray much more accurate and convincing light consumption properties than the rest of the world and is a clear balance the team would have had to work with. I have said this many times before as shared assets are a big portion of A games development and scope and we can see this here and a possible reason why we have a variation in its lighting delivery. With games like The Order 1886/assassins creed and Battlefront not tied back to last gen highlighting the kind of standards we can expect to enjoy in future games including future titles from Crystal, but this by no means is a show stopper and by and large the game delivers an impeccable display in motion. Which on the X1 includes a high sampled motion blur that really works well in both action and story sequences to enhance the visuals, it can oddly become inactive at times but this I am pretty sure is just a bug that may get patched later. The 360 does not have any of this in action mind and even though they both target the same 33ms rate (see 30fps) it is one of the reasons why the XboxOne can feel much smoother most of the time even if the performance tests say otherwise.
In addition to the textures, post effects, view range, lighting is a huge change and highlights the leap that we are already taking for granted, from much higher resolution shadow maps we also see much more realistic and higher quality lighting now, far more shadow casting light sources, see here as the 360 has no shadow here unlike X1, but overall the lack of both direct, volumetric and ambient light makes a huge change in the delivery of the games presentation, as seen here in this forest battle.
Sound is not ignored with much better acting from most of the cast and better written dialogue, it allows the scenes to feel more organic in execution and create tension, the main head of Trinity’s heavy hand is Konstantin played very well and the scenes where he and Lara interact work very well. Music follows a dynamic implementation also changing and raising based on the scene or action you are taking and helps deliver the games action, cinematic feel within play making it all feel more personal to your experience and actions. But it never comes across as such an improvement over the previous installment as other areas of the game, the visuals and animation are really a generational leap and even over the current X360 release this can be seen.
One of the other issues and differences between the 2 releases is also seen in their respective performance metrics, both target 30fps but while the Xboone one runs an adaptive vsync solution allowing the top 3rd or so of the screen to tear when slightly over budget the 360 runs a full vsync solution but allows its buffered frame to flip whenever it runs over budget to catch up, this is what is called a frame pacing issues or micro stutter. Some of this comes from new sections loading in, some from the heavier throughput sections on the GPU with a few enemies, volumetric light, heavy alpha smoke and fire not forgetting the games GPU usage compute work from Lara's hair to the aforementioned Voxel based volumetric light. From my tests this is of no great concern in most sequences that allow you tackle each section as you see fit from all out action to a more stealthy assassin style, even a complete evade and slip past unannounced approach keeping both Lara’s hands and conscience clean the choice as they say is yours, a touch call indeed with the girls kleptomaniac affliction.
The 360 is by far the more affected by its frame deliver as you can see on the frame time graph as the spikes between 16 and 50ms causing judder, even though throughout a second it cans till deliver 30 unique frames they are delivered in a disjointed sequence and this feels much less smooth than a solid and flat 33ms and what we get most of the time on the XboxOne, although it can also dip under this level we never drop any lower than 26 in my tests with the 360 not far behind at 23 but the XboxOne rarely breaks its cap of 30fps but the Xbox360 can hit heady heights of 32 which just adds to what feels and is a less smooth presentation, but the controller issues are not another story with the XboxOne having a weighted control system even in comparison to the 360 release which although not a huge deal side by side the 360 has a more responsive control for combat making it slightly easier to aim and kill, you get used to this but hopefully the team will patch this soon to help as the polling time seems either too long or hidden behind some split frame rendering logic adding to its delay. Th 360 is helped by the game logic seemingly running slower including enemy movement which reduces the difficulty, again another tip here is play on the highest difficulty you can from the menu to improve the games enjoyment and challenge.But you can still enjoy the combat or avoid it entirely as you wish which is a great gameplay tough enabling you to tackle most sections and obstacles in a fashion suited to you and can help each play feel slightly different, even if the AI is not on the same level as the visuals.
Crystal have delivered a true improvement over the first game and shown off the teams technical skills as much as the XboxOne with the Real-Time cut-scenes being the highlight of them all, it manages to capture the feel of the older games with a more natural discovery of tombs and treasure that makes you feel like a true pioneer when you do. Yes it can have some pixel shimmer in places with high specular but these are a minor issue with a package that ultimately impresses you as you play.