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True 4K isn't the best way to play Rise of the Tomb Raider on Xbox One X

Digital Foundry's full take on the early demo.

It's true, we've covered Rise of the Tomb Raider so many times over the past couple of years that we've even given it a YouTube playlist - but this is by no means a bad thing. It simply demonstrates the love and care developer Nixxes has poured into maintaining the game over the years. From supporting the ageing Xbox 360 to the PlayStation 4 Pro and PSVR all the way up to the Xbox One X, Nixxes has become the caretaker for Crystal Dynamics' most recent outing. At this point, the only thing missing is a Switch port. But right now, all eyes on are the upcoming Xbox One X port, demonstrating what looks like the best console version of the game yet.

Before we jump into that, a curious anomaly has popped up in our most recent captures of both Rise of the Tomb Raider and Forza Motorsport 7 - a colour-shift that seems to desaturate the footage a touch. Interestingly, the other games we grabbed at the recent Microsoft showcase event that do not support HDR (Killer Instinct, Quantum Break) do not exhibit the issue, possibly suggesting a firmware tone-mapping bug in the preview Xbox One X units. We've alerted Microsoft to the issue, but in the meantime, remember that everything tested here is pre-production software running on production hardware hosting a non-final operating system.

And there's certainly plenty to test. This is the Gamescom demo we're hands-on with, covering off around ten minutes of gameplay from the Syria-based Prophet's Tomb level. We actually played through the demo four times - in 4K, 4K HDR, and using the alternative rendering modes: Enriched 4K and High Frame-Rate. The native 4K mode is indeed impressive as Rise of the Tomb Raider remains a highly demanding game on the PC. Granted, the level of detail is pushed back compared to the PC version, but it holds up better than you might think.

We've been hands-on with the early Rise of the Tomb Raider Xbox One X demo. Here's the detailed report you've been waiting for.

Unfortunately, the Prophet's Tomb is just about the worst level for drawing conclusions on detail settings but essentially, we're looking at settings equivalent to PS4 Pro's 4K checkerboard mode which is lower in turn than PC's highest possible settings. However, we can finally draw an element of confusion about our last analysis to a close. Does Xbox One X run with higher quality textures or not? There was a lot of confusion surrounding this comparison last time due to the procedural dirt system, but with further hands-on time, plus running specific comparisons through the PC version at various settings, we can make some firm conclusions.

Firstly, the extra memory on Xbox One X means that textures nearly on par with the PC's highest setting are available here, and a welcome twist is that these textures persist across all three display modes on Xbox One X, so you'll always enjoy higher quality assets regardless of the selected option. Yes, they even manifest on the 1080p high frame-rate mode.

Secondly, the Gamescom build of Rise of the Tomb Raider on Xbox One X runs with depth of field disabled, giving the illusion of further detail resolved in the scene even though it's an important effect in the post-process pipeline that has actually been removed (for now, at least). Stacking up Xbox One X's results against PC with the same effect disabled, we get a very close match in detail, confirming higher quality assets on the new console build. It's strange that the effect is missing, as it was present in the original Xbox One release. It will be interesting to see if it reappears in the final build and, if so, whether or Nixxes they use the higher quality bokeh depth of field available on PC.

Xbox One XPlayStation 4 ProPC

There are wide variations in lighting between each version. Texture resolution on Xbox One X appears on par with PC while PS4 falls slightly below, if you look closely. Each shot is using the highest resolution mode available.

Xbox One XPlayStation 4 ProPC

Once again the Xbox One X and PC offer higher resolution textures over PS4 Pro but the greatest enhancement comes in the form of Nvidia's VXAO on PC which greatly improves the accuracy of contact shadows.

Xbox One XPlayStation 4 ProPCPC (Depth of Field Off)

Depth of field is missing on Xbox One X which does impact the clarity of texture detail in many scene, so we've included an extra PC shot with the effect disabled to give you a better idea how it stacks up. This helps verify that Xbox One X is a match for the PC's Very High texture setting.

Xbox One XPlayStation 4 ProPC

The variation in colour between each version is once again evident in this scene but we also see a few very subtle background differences on PC using the highest settings. This particular level isn't great for such comparisons since even lower detail settings still manage to look roughly the same.

Far more important from our perspective is the matter of performance. Nixxes has set a lofty target for itself in the native 4K mode of Rise of the Tomb Raider, but it's fair to say that the Gamescom build is a little shaky here. The PS4 version uses triple-buffering for a tear-free experience, while Xbox One - and X - use an adaptive sync technology, allowing frames that run over their rendering budget a little wiggle room in when to present, manifesting as noticeable tearing at the top of the screen. Most of the demo plays out at 30fps, but busy scenes can drop beneath - a little concerning bearing in mind that The Prophet's Tomb is actually one of the lightest areas of the game.

Nixxes knows what it is doing so we expect improvement in the final game, but even now there is already a preferable solution. The PS4 Pro's 1080p Enriched mode - gets a 4K upgrade, retaining what looks like the same visual feature-set (enhanced draw distance, tessellation etc) but using a reconstruction technique similar to checkerboard rendering to produce a pixel count of 2160p just like on the Pro. Not only does this mode look great on Xbox One X, it also offers improved performance. The areas that struggled to hold 30fps in native 4K mode run without a hitch. You lose some fidelity when using this type of rendering but it works beautifully on a 4K screen, performance is improved and the graphics are just straight-up better. What's not to like? Right now, this gets our vote as the best way to play the game.

Then we have the high frame-rate mode, which is quite impressive based on this showing. It offers a 1080p output just like PS4 Pro but as we mentioned earlier, it now supports higher resolution textures. It also uses nearest neighbor scaling when output to a 4K display - that means a sharper but slightly more pixelated image compared to a filter and scaled one. As the name implies, this is a mode with a higher frame-rate but not one promising a locked 60fps. The demo comes close to this with most areas running locked. While the drop in resolution is certainly noticeable, the improvement in fluidity and controller response makes for a nice change of pace. It feels fantastic to play in this mode.

4K Resolution4K Enriched ModeHigh Frame-Rate

This shot showcases each of the three modes captured exactly one frame after a camera cut. This provides additional insight into how the sparse rendering mode functions - we see native pixel images on certain edges while others require a couple of extra frames before displaying correctly.

4K Resolution4K Enriched ModeHigh Frame-Rate

All three modes look virtually identical in this scene but the high frame-rate mode loses texture definition because of the resolution drop. Even though textures are displayed at the highest level in all modes, it's difficult to appreciate them at 1080p.

4K Resolution4K Enriched ModeHigh Frame-Rate

This famous scene receives some extra foliage and detail when using the Enriched mode but otherwise looks very comparable. The loss of clarity when using high frame-rate mode is rather significant, however.

4K Resolution4K Enriched ModeHigh Frame-Rate

Once again the difference is subtle but the Enriched mode offers tessellation, more refined ambient occlusion and improved texture filtering. All of these enhancements will become much more evident in the later outdoor areas.

Unfortunately, it's not a complete lock. The very last section of the demo exhibits minor slowdown and tearing compared to the rest of the level. Now, to be fair, these dips are rather minimal in this particular area but this is also one of the least demanding sections in the game. So if we're seeing minor dips here, it's fair to assume that later areas, like the Geothermal Valley, will struggle to hit 60fps. What we can confirm though is that like-for-like tests on the demo area confirm that Xbox One X does indeed run the same content faster than PS4 Pro. We should see that reflected across the full game, something we'll check out upon release.

Meet the man trying to finish every game on Steam 'I rarely talk about this with anyone.' Meet the man trying to finish every game on Steam

Ultimately, this demo is just our first extended encounter with this iteration of the game. Overall impressions are good - the improvements over PS4 Pro are readily evident and by extension, this places Xbox One X in pole position. However, question marks remain, specifically related to missing features and unstable performance in native 4K mode. The lack of depth of field is puzzling, but the frame-rate drops in the native 4K mode are more of a concern bearing in mind the relatively non-complex part of the game chosen for the demo. If we're seeing issues in this level it could be much more of an issue later on - but we should remember that this demo is quite old now, and Nixxes has a proven track record in rolling out improvements to its work. Even if issues remain though, the Enriched 4K mode seems set to get the job done.

With around 130 titles confirmed for Xbox One X upgrades, we're in for a busy end to the year. Games like Doom, The Witcher 3, Titanfall 2 and Forza Horizon 3 are genuine tech showcases that have the potential to look stunning on a 4K screen. But with its extensive support for high frame-rates, increased resolution or improved visual effects, it's Rise of the Tomb Raider that has become more than just a game, and just as much of a technical benchmark for current-gen console hardware. Our extensive hands-on with the Gamescom demo actually asks as many questions as it provides answers, and we're really looking forward to checking out final code.

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