Historically, Tomb Raider graphics have been at the forefront of innovation. When the original game was released in 1996, its lushly-realised caverns and valleys sent shockwaves through the world of gaming. Then, in 2003, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness – whilst glitchy – looked absolutely incredible. Similarly, 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot raised the bar with some noticeably strandy hair atop Lara’s noggin, courtesy of the TressFX physics system.

However, when the first gameplay trailer for Shadow of the Tomb Raider dropped at this year’s E3, I was a bit taken aback. In fact I had to look at the video several times on multiple screens to make sure I’d seen it at it’s very best.

The question is: was its ‘best’ good enough?

Video output syndrome?

Whilst ‘video output syndrome’ is not strictly a medical term, it’s obvious that this video has been compressed. I say “obvious” – I’m no expert, but a lot of the movement seems clunky, which indicates some missing frames. Of course, I don’t expect Eidos Montreal (the developer) to output this Tomb Raiding goodness at 8K Ultra HD and 120fps, but to my untrained eye it looks like they’ve gone for something in the 25 – 30fps range. Which is okay – let’s not be snobbish about this. But it’s not ideal, especially when you’re marketing a game that’s going to appeal to players with very powerful machines, capable of running titles at a native 4K and 60fps.

So we either have a title that is not being shown in its best light owing to video compression, or (dare I say it) this is actually a fair representation of how the Tomb Raider graphics will run once they’re loaded into my trusty PS4.

At the moment – at least when it comes to the frame rate – I’ll give Eidos Montreal the benefit of the doubt, and blame it on videoy things.

Actually, I found this little tidbit from Square Enix over on Windows Central:

Shadow of the Tomb Raider will not run 60 FPS while in 4K. To allow for a more customized gameplay experience, the game will include two visual modes: ‘4K Resolution’ which runs in 4K resolution at 30 FPS, and ‘High Resolution’ which is targeting 1080p at 60 FPS. Both modes will feature a wide variety of additional enhancements such as HDR, improved physically-based rendering, hardware tessellation, anisotropic filtering, additional dynamic foliage, and more.

Good to know! I like my foliage dynamic. So we’re looking at a super-sharp resolution at 30fps, or a less detailed resolution at 60fps. Which is… okay, I guess?

The devil’s in the detail

Ha! So in producing this article I had a quick glance at the YouTube comments on the trailer video. I’m clearly not the first to have asked questions about the graphics! In fact, one user simply commented: “If you need more time on this game, just say.” Lolz.

I’ve also rewatched the video. Dang nabbit – I’ve no idea how to articulate what I’m seeing! What’s the technical term for “this game doesn’t look as good as the last one”?

Okay, well for starters – I think there is less detail in some of the environments. For example, if you freeze the video at around the 1:45 mark, you will see that we have some sort of church-temple environment. The designers have clearly thrown lots of skulls and crumbling debris in there, but maybe that’s just it – these assets look a little ‘thrown in’ as opposed to lovingly crafted into the environment.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider – I raise you The Prophet’s Tomb from Rise. Take a look.

Then there are the colours. Watch this gameplay video on the official Tomb Raider channel.

Don’t get me wrong, the game looks fine. But the colours are just a tad… high contrast? Overly vivid? To me, they jar with the environment and prevent me from feeling naturally immersed. Also, I think the raised contrast dial only serves to highlight some of the perceived lack of detail that I mentioned previously.

Of course, I’m no game designer, but if I had to create a jungle environment that I knew wouldn’t be up to scratch graphically, I’d dim the lights and deploy cloud-loads of swirling mist to paste over the cracks. But then of course, we’d probably end up with a game that was all fog. Which wouldn’t be any fun.

The danger of rising expectations

Another issue here is my own bias. When I heard that Shadow of the Tomb Raider was being created by Eidos Montreal as opposed to the usual Crystal Dynamics, questions instantly sprung up in my mind about the potential difference in quality, and whether this developer was “any good.” It’s possible that I look at these trailers armed with the knowledge that Shadow hasn’t been made by the well-oiled machine that is Crystal Dynamics, and I automatically see things that I don’t like.

There is also the possibility that my own expectations are at critical mass. After the visual feast that was Rise of the Tomb Raider, is it possible that I am in a stranglehold of anticipation? As in, whatever Eidos Montreal produces will never look better than the previous title, because Rise was such a skilfully-realised work of art?

Ultimately, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and we won’t know for sure until we play the game on September 14th.

And I’m hungry for it. Tomb Raider graphics have never been the main reason for diving into Lara titles, cutting edge as they’ve been. We play Tomb Raider for the story and for the adventure, and from what I’ve seen so far, Shadow of the Tomb Raider promises to deliver both of these in spades.

See you in the autumn, Lara.

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