When Microsoft announced an exclusivity deal for Rise of the Tomb Raider, we were surprised to learn that such an important game shipping in late 2015 would receive a port to the ageing Xbox 360 - yet here we are. Lara Croft's latest adventure has arrived day and date on two Xbox consoles and the results are far more impressive than we ever imagined. There may well be eight long years separating the two generations of Xbox, yet Rise of the Tomb Raider manages to work beautifully on both platforms. On Xbox 360, it's a remarkable piece of work.
Of course, ports to last generation platforms are nothing new. Even once a new generation is well under way, there is still be money to be made on older consoles. Yet, traditionally, the quality of these ports tends to take a dive as time passes. We saw this last year with ports of games such as Shadow of Mordor, Far Cry 4, and Dragon Age Inquisition - all of which were significantly pared back next to their next-gen siblings. Go back a generation further and we even saw a port of Tomb Raider Underworld make an appearance on PlayStation 2.
However, with Rise of the Tomb Raider, the situation is different. This time we have the talented bunch at Nixxes taking point on the Xbox 360 port and the results are remarkable. This is the same game that we enjoyed on Xbox One with nips and tucks made in all of the expected places. It lacks much of the visual panache of the next-gen version, but it's still an attractive title and a worthy sequel. It doesn't feel like an afterthought at all - it's a project that has received a lot of care and attention.
First off, the most obvious difference comes from image quality. Xbox 360 renders the game at 1280x720 with a pass of FXAA producing results in line with the last game on the same console - a world apart from the most richly detailed 1080p Xbox One title. Beyond that, it would appear that the colour depth has been reduced resulting in noticeable color banding in numerous scenes. Also, outside of a few unique instances, we're looking at very low levels of texture filtering.
Curiously, while image quality is worse on the whole, there are some instances where component elements compare favourably against Xbox One. We mentioned previously that Xbox One exhibits some strange pixelated artefacts in a number of scenes along with plenty of shimmering. With less complex materials in play, the Xbox 360 version actually comes out ahead in these select instances. Don't mistake that for superiority though, as the 1080p presentation on Xbox One is a huge step up overall.
Cut-scenes on Xbox 360 will look familiar to anyone that has played the game on Xbox One - all of the main cinematics are now pre-recorded videos based on captures from the current-gen version, as opposed to the pristine real-time rendering we have on the full-fat version. With the Xbox 360 version weighing in at a mere 6.23GB in its entirety, this basically means that the video sequences have little bandwidth available, meaning that video quality is very murky, with visible artefacting. We would have been interested in seeing these scenes rendered in real-time on 360 just to see what could be achieved.
Nobody expects Xbox 360 to match Xbox One in terms of overall image quality, but what of the other effects? Rise of the Tomb Raider is a cutting-edge game on Xbox One with a lot of modern visual features that exceed what Xbox 360 is capable of. The approach Nixxes has taken is to replace these effects with suitable, cheaper replacements in order to deliver a comparable experience.
With a fraction of the space available on the disc and a limited amount of memory, it should be no surprise that textures and models are cut down. Lara herself fares well with changes that are difficult to see during normal gameplay, but other characters fare worse with an obvious loss in quality in terms of geometry detail, texture resolution, and material quality.
Along those same lines, the quality of character rendering has been cut down with subsurface scattering replaced with faked lighting designed to create a similar appearance. It's not a bad effect but there are moments where the illusion shatters and we're left with skin that appears unnatural. TressFX is removed, replaced instead with hair similar to the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of Tomb Raider 2013. It doesn't look bad at all actually - and we can't help but wonder whether a similar approach could have stabilized frame-rates on Xbox One. After all, TressFX is a computationally expensive effect.
It's also no surprise to see that volumetric lighting is also axed, replaced with flat alpha textures instead. The typical sun glare effect is still there though, and the HDR lighting remains intact complete with tone mapping. Lighting in general is a definite step back and that really should come as no surprise here. Thankfully, the game doesn't look entirely flat either and still manages to closely resemble the Xbox One version in many areas.
Another impressive element on Xbox One is the tessellated snow encountered early on in the game. We never expected this effect on Xbox 360, of course, and its loss can leave some of the snowy sections looking a bit plain in comparison. The replacement effect works well enough but it's a definite loss. Thankfully, the game only really uses deformable snow in a select few areas so it's not something you'll miss throughout the game. The Xbox One version features a superb technique that involves overlaying pre-rendered video of an avalanche over real-time rendering. Remarkably, this effect also makes its way over to Xbox One.
Shadows are pared back with a lower resolution implementation. Shadow maps are already relatively low resolution on Xbox One but on 360, we're often looking at shadow resolution reduced by upwards of 50 per cent. The sample distribution method used on Xbox One is also absent, resulting in more obvious transition points along the shadow cascade. Ambient occlusion is now replaced with a more basic SSAO effect instead of the broad temporal in-house solution used on Xbox One.
When you start looking at all of these missing details it certainly doesn't seem like a great port but we need to keep in mind that we're talking about a modern, cutting-edge title ported across to a ten-year-old piece of technology. Yes, many of the finer details are absent, but owners still playing on Xbox 360 still get a great experience here, carefully modified to run well on the platform. And crucially, gameplay content is entirely identical. The map layouts, animations, and general gameplay are all completely intact and the game plays very well. It doesn't feel like it was just pared back in order to run - real effort was put into properly converting this game to run well on Xbox 360.
In fact, there is a strong argument that in one sense at least, the Xbox 360 game is actually more playable than its current-gen sibling. On Xbox One, we complained about input latency and its impact on the game experience. It's not unlike Killzone 2 or the initial release of Uncharted 3 - there's just enough latency there to make aiming mildly frustrating at times. Moving to Xbox 360, we were stunned to discover that this same issue does not exist on Microsoft's older console to anything like the same extent.
In fact, Rise of the Tomb Raider feels significantly more responsive here on Xbox 360. Pulling off headshots and manipulating the camera is a joy and the entire game feels more satisfying to play. So we decided to pop in copies of Tomb Raider 2013 on both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 only to discover that these versions feel similar to the last-gen sequel. We're certainly hoping that Crystal Dynamics can sort out this issue on Xbox One in the future but right now, for Xbox 360 owners, there is nothing to worry about.
Rise of the Tomb Raider: the Digital Foundry verdict
Ultimately, what we have here is one of the best down-ports we've seen in a while. Transitioning a game from a modern platform to less powerful hardware is not a trivial task. The sheer number of technical features included in the Xbox One version seems to suggest that Crystal Dynamics went all-in from a visual perspective during its creation - it does not feel as if its vision for the game was limited by the need to release the game on Xbox 360.
So when a studio comes along and delivers such an excellent last generation version of a game like this we can't help but commend those responsible. Nixxes has regularly delivered excellent products but this one feels like an even greater triumph. The talented Dutch studio has managed to translate everything over to Xbox 360 in a way that doesn't fundamentally impact the gameplay - and judged by last-gen terms, it's still a beautiful game.
If you've kept an eye on Rise of the Tomb Raider and have both consoles it should be clear that the Xbox One version is the way to go. It's more advanced rendering features add a lot to the experience and it's clear that this is the way it was meant to be played. That said, if you're still enjoying your Xbox 360, you can still pick up Rise of the Tomb Raider and have a great time as well. Either way, you simply cannot go wrong with Lara's latest adventure.