Lara Croft has the distinction of being one of the true breakout stars of gaming, an icon every bit as important as Mario or Sonic. But in many ways she has always taken second place to the titular Tombs of the games she inhabits, with attempts to flesh out her character some of the weakest moments in a venerable series of games.
To this end, Croft has had varying origin stories, and has alternatively been held up as a strong female role model and everything that is wrong with sexism in games (I distinctly remember PR sending me an infographic back in 2005 highlighting the evolution of Lara’s breasts over the years). But despite over 15 years of games and movies, Lara still remains one of the most poorly defined characters in gaming.
One thing that is often forgotten in the focus on Lara, is that the Tomb Raider series started out as one of the titles that pushed 3D graphics into the mainstream. The original 1997 game stands alongside Quake as one of the biggest drivers of 3D hardware, and for many PC gamers Lara’s first forays into tombs and tiger killing was the first thing they saw running on a dedicated 3D accelerator.
We’d almost forgotten that legacy, right up until the moment we fired up the PC version of Tomb Raider, which unlocked on Steam at midnight. From pre-release screenshots we expected something pretty, but what we didn’t expect was something ready to give Crysis 3 a run for its money in the GPU-melting stakes.
After all, the usual practice with console ports is to crank the graphics settings to maximum (in this case the highest setting is dubbed ‘Ultimate’) and then turn on Vsync to eliminate the tearing. However, even on our Core i7-3770K rig, with a GeForce GTX 680 we found doing so rendered the game unplayable at our desired 2560 x 1440 resolution. Even the usual tricks like only using FXAA didn’t help, so we begrudgingly dropped the detail to ‘Ultra’ and tweaked down the anisotropy levels until the game ran at a consistent 35fps.
Forested areas show off the lighting model wonderfully
The result was still something quite spectacular. Make no bones about it, Tomb Raider is one of the best looking games to grace the PC. It makes extensive use of techniques like Tessellation, and the lighting model not only plays heavily into the gameplay, but it adds hugely to the looks and atmosphere of the game.
This lighting is shown off to great effect in the early stages of the game, where one could be forgiven for wondering if gameplay consisted solely of setting stuff on fire. Where the lighting really comes into its own is in the forests, where it pierces through the trees, diffusing appropriately and adding heavily to the mood.
Tomb Raider features extensive tesselation and some great lighting effects
While the game itself shows its console roots in the inherent limitations of the areas available for gameplay, the PC version stands head and shoulders above consoles thanks to this use of advanced features. In fact, we were notified by local distributors Namco-Bandai that Crystal Dynamics had been stopping them from sending out PC review code, wanting to continue polishing the graphics right up until launch. While our inner skeptics usually see this refusal to allow early access as an attempt to avoid an Aliens: Colonial Marines type disaster, in this case there is nothing to worry about as the game looks great and plays wonderfully.
One other thing worth mentioning is AMD’s hyped ‘TressFX’ hair technology. It is debuting in Tomb Raider, and was the subject of a lot of hype when it was first announced last week. In the limited time between installing the game and having to come into work, we played around with the technology turned on and off, and still aren’t sure about its worth.
AMD's TressFX technology involves modelling individual hairs using shader techniques
Despite the fact that it follows AMD’s open philosophy and runs perfectly fine on Nvidia hardware, it does deliver a noticeable performance hit (in our testing it was in the range of 5fps, which is noticeable when the game is running at an average of 35fps). It is also a bit too enthusiastic, with even the smallest of movements setting the hair flailing about. It is definitely an improvement over the standard hair rendering, although it only applies to Lara and the difference becomes highly notable in cutscenes with other characters and their dull, lifeless locks.
Our full review will be coming in next month’s magazine, but for now the takeaway is that Tomb Raider is a surprisingly solid game, and one of the best looking things to emerge from our GPUs to date. It has a graphics engine that is not only highly scalable, but has the all too rare ability to bring even the highest end systems to their knees. It is a shame that we didn’t get code in advance of Tomb Raider’s launch, because Crystal Dynamics have delivered an excellent PC version of the game.