Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a strikingly good-looking game. That’s not really a surprise as Tomb Raider, the first game in the series reboot, was widely praised as a visual showcase, and its sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, looked even better. The surprise comes when you dig into the details of what’s being shown on the screen. Overall, Shadow of the Tomb Raider looks better than its predecessors. However, Digital Foundry discovered that in some respects Rise of the Tomb Raider has better technical metrics.
Lara Croft from then to now.CREDIT: DIGITAL FOUNDRY
Shadow’s resolution on the Xbox One S is fixed at 900p (1600 x 900). That’s a downgrade from Rise’s 1080p (1920 x 1080). In contrast, Shadow’s resolution on the base PS4 is fixed at 1080p, the same as Rise.
This might seem like a cause for concern, but Shadow adds a high-quality temporal anti-aliasing solution to the mix which wasn’t present in Rise and which compensates for the resolution difference to a large degree. In Digital Foundry’s opinion, the difference between the One S and PS4 versions is noticeable but not significant enough to be important. (If some technical terms are unfamiliar, check out this guide.)
The Xbox One X and PS4 Pro versions offer the choice between high frame-rate and high resolution modes. Resolution is fixed at 1080p on both consoles in the high frame-rate mode. In the high-resolution mode, the Pro uses checkerboard rendering to reach 1872p (3328 x 1872 or 75% of native 4K’s 3840 x 2160). The One X does better with a straight 2016p render (3584 x 2016, 87% of native 4K).
Shadow’s resolution falls short of Rise on both the Pro and the One X. The One X offered a mode that rendered Rise in full 4K while the Pro used checkerboard rendering to produce an approximation of native 4K.
While the resolution differences between the One X and the Pro are muted by Shadow’s refined temporal anti-aliasing, Digital Foundry notes that Shadow is markedly sharper and more detailed on the One X. Both of the high-powered consoles also benefit from 4K texture assets that are not used on the base consoles.
Keeping in mind that you may be watching compressed video on a screen that isn’t capable of displaying 4K, Digital Foundry and NX Gamer offer comparison videos so you can get at least a rough idea of the differences between the consoles.
Frame rate can drop as low as 40 fps in the high frame-rate mode on the PS4 Pro.CREDIT: DIGITAL FOUNDRY
Neither of the base consoles can maintain a lock on their 30 fps frame-rate cap. Both exhibit relatively slight frame-rate dips and frame-time aberrations in scenes with dense foliage or intense action. The PS4 does a slightly better job and uses an adaptive V-sync solution that eliminates the screen tearing that occasionally occurs on the One S.
The high frame-rate mode on the more powerful consoles targets 60 fps. Again, neither console can maintain a lock on the targeted frame rate. However, the One X runs at 60 fps more frequently than the Pro and doesn’t drop as far when it dips. A sequence with Lara running through dense jungle foliage averaged 56 fps on the One X and 51 fps on the Pro with the Pro dropping as low as 40 fps at times.
The situation is reversed when frame rate is capped at 30 fps in the high-resolution mode. The Pro hits the target almost all the time with only occasional brief, shallow drops. The One X, on the other hand, drops more frequently and can fall into the mid 20 fps range under high stress. Screen tearing is also present on the One X but not the Pro.
None of the consoles can maintain a lock on their respective frame rate targets and, with the exception of the base PS4, resolution is lower in Shadow than it was in Rise. So why does Shadow look so much better? In a word? Visuals.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is gifted with a range of visual enhancements that make it stand out over its predecessors. Much of Shadow plays out in a dense jungle environment that would have challenged the engines that ran the prior games in the series. For example, the anti-aliasing used in Riseproduced very noticeable shimmering during movement through scenes with a lot of foliage. The shimmer is gone from Shadow’s even denser jungle environments.
‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’CREDIT: DIGITAL FOUNDRY
Lighting is also improved in Shadow. Light interacts with leaves in more naturalistic ways and there are a lot of leaves in the jungle. Volumetric lighting gives jungle scenes a feeling of mystery and provides enhanced depth to both indoor and outdoor locations.
The shadows in Shadow of the Tomb Raider play an especially important role in jungle scenes where light is broken up by moving foliage, and in outdoor and indoor scenes lit by candles, torches and camp fires. Shadows are presented in high resolution but are softened to provide a more naturalistic look which greatly enhances realism and depth.
Speaking of depth, Shadow makes heavy use of parallax occlusion mapping on both ground and vertical surfaces. These maps add three-dimensionality to the forest floor and the stone walls found in tombs. It’s a subtle effect that contributes to immersing the player in the game world.
Lara always seems to spend a lot of her time in the water and Shadow uses cube maps and screen space reflections to produce naturalistic water surfaces. The reflections are disturbed realistically by rippling on the water’s surface and by Lara’s movements when she swims or thrashes about.
‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’CREDIT: DIGITAL FOUNDRY
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an excellent example of why focusing solely on a single technical feature such as resolution isn’t an ideal way to evaluate a game’s visual presentation. Shadow has lower resolution than Rise for all modes on all consoles except for the fixed 1080p displayed on the base PS4. And yet, it’s obvious that Shadow looks better even though Rise is a very good-looking game. The relatively small decrease in resolution is more than offset by the combination of Shadow’s refined temporal anti-aliasing and its many visual enhancements.
A nitty-gritty comparison between the consoles produces the results that have become familiar by now. Processing power wins the day. The One X is the preferred console follow by the Pro, the PS4 and the One S in descending order.
Players who place a high value on frame-rate while eking out as much resolution as they can with whatever processing power is left over might be tempted to go with the high-resolution mode on the Pro. However, the Pro’s frame rate advantage in this mode only appears during high-stress scenes while the One X’s higher resolution is apparent everywhere all the time. If you value frame rate above all else, the high frame-rate mode on the One X is the obvious choice.
Comparison of the One X and the One SCREDIT: DIGITAL FOUNDRY
Focusing on the differences between the consoles glosses over something important. Digital Foundry frequently takes pains to point out Shadow of the Tomb Raider looks great on all of the consoles. Yes, it looks the best on the One X, but it also looks great on the One S. If you own several consoles, play it on the One X. If you don’t, play it on whatever console you have and don’t worry about it. You’ll be playing a terrific looking game.
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Kevin Murnane covers science, technology and video games for Forbes. His blogs are The Info Monkey & Tuned In To Cycling and he’s The Info Monkey on Facebook & @TheInfoMonkey on Twitter.
– By Kevin Murnane