Shadow of the Tomb Raider PC performance review

Our in-depth analysis of Shadow of the Tomb Raider's PC performance and graphics options on four different GPUs

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Lara Croft returns with the final chapter of her origin story in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. That’s a big moment for gaming’s most iconic female character so PC performance had best be top-notch for such an occasion.

To find out just how much attention has been paid to the PC version of Shadow of the Tomb Raider we’ve put together this PC performance review. You’ve only got to take one look at the game’s screenshots and trailers to know that this is a game that requires extensive testing: with all that dense jungle, there’s no way Lara’s latest adventure will take it easy on your GPU.

Our performance reviews are written to offer you the broadest picture possible, focusing on hardware similar to what the majority of players have installed in their machines, based on the findings of the Steam Hardware Survey. We test the game on all graphical settings using an i5 powered rig with 8GB of RAM, and try to hit 60fps with four popular graphics cards. Even if your PC is not identical to our test setups, you should still be able to estimate the performance levels you can expect from your own machine with our results.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider graphics menu

Graphics options

Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s graphics menu is home to 15 different options, covering a respectable range of settings. Starting with vital components such as texture and shadow quality, the list goes on to incorporate more advanced systems such as screen space reflections and contact shadows, and the Pure Hair technology that provides Lara with her signature ponytail.

The Test Rig

The Test Rig

For this performance review we're using our reliable test bench: a PC designed and built to match the kind of machines that most people play on at home. Forget that Titan X and 4K display, this is a rig that’s actually affordable.

  • CPUIntel i5 6600K @ 3.5GHz
  • RAM8GB DDR 4
  • GPUNvidia GTX 1060

Many of these settings are only able to be toggled through binary options: on or off, and normal or low. This means there’s not as much granularity as there first appears, but it’s not that detrimental – there are enough individual settings to allow for a great variety of configurations.

Governing these settings is a preset for those who would rather opt for the path of minimal fuss, and there are five setups: lowest, low, medium, high, and highest. These can be switched in-game without the need for a reset, although if you wish to transition from DirectX 11 to 12 you’ll have to relaunch the game.

Finally, a built-in benchmark tool allows you to see a detailed chart examining the frame rate of your chosen set up. The benchmark test itself is lengthy, sampling a multitude of locations, which helps provide an accurate figure.

Graphics analysis

For our graphics analysis we compare similar screenshots taken on the four standard presets of highest, high, mid, and low. Shadow of the Tomb Raider does have a ‘lowest’ preset, so it can be scaled back even more than the least intensive settings as sampled in these screenshots.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider highest

Highest

Following in the tradition of the previous two installments in the series, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a gorgeous game. The Peru setting allows for a variety of locations, from dank underground caves to dense jungle mazes. The screenshot above is taken in one of Peru’s villages, which demonstrates both the lush plant life and harder, rougher terrain.

At highest, there’s really no expense spared: Lara’s character model is packed with different textures, all layered over an intricate model mesh. The ground is pleasingly tessellated, allowing for realistic cracks into which shadows are authentically cast. Shading among the foliage is on a per-leaf basis, and the draw distance allows the ridges on the bell tower in the top right of the image to be clearly seen.

All these pretty elements will cost you, although performance is still pretty solid. Using a GTX 1060 at 1080p resolution, Shadow of the Tomb Raider achieves an average of 53fps. Sure, that’s not 60fps, but it’s not an upsetting distance away. For those who don’t subscribe to the holy values of 60 frames, the highest preset is an option worth considering.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider high

High

A lower depth of field setting makes this screenshot look slightly less natural than the highest setting image, but the actual quality of the graphics remains strong. The reduction of ambient occlusion from HBAO+ to BTAO means the detailed shadow work around the likes of the roof tiles, stone work, and the creeping vines on the wall is reduced or removed entirely, stealing a little of the lustre from the scene. But, these shadows aside, there’s very little difference between highest and high settings. Textures remain sharp and the world retains its detail despite their respective settings being dialed down.

With an average of 65fps on our test PC, though, that slight change in overall appearance provides a great boost to performance. By exceeding 60 by a whole five frames on average, high is our personal recommendation if your own Tomb Raider setup is similar to ours.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider medium

Medium

Shadow quality takes another hit when reducing the preset to medium, resulting in silhouettes with sharper edges and less natural colouring. Texture quality is also reduced, making for a slightly blurrier look to most surfaces, although the effect is only slight: the overall image is still attractive. Tessellation has been turned off for this preset, and while that’s not so obvious in this specific screenshot, you’ll find areas with particularly rough or riven surfaces don’t look their best.

But, while there is an obvious reduction in graphical quality, performance averages at 66fps. That’s just a single frame better than the high preset. Performance gains will vary from system to system, but it appears there’s very little reduction in hardware strain on the medium preset, calling into question what it actually achieves.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider low

Low

There’s a fair jump between the medium and low presets. Textures are reduced to the point that large amounts of detail are eradicated from the image. The chipped plasterwork on the walls now only displays the largest missing sections, rather than the smaller ragged edges to each imperfection. Model work is less detailed, and when combined with poorer shadows objects like the palm tree leaves look like a block of green rather than individual parts.

The reduction in quality comes with an equally balanced increase in performance, though: an average of 77fps. Naturally, anyone with a system akin to ours won’t be looking to play at this kind of level, but for anyone with a lower-spec machine this makes it clear that there’s a reasonable amount of scaling available. If you’re really struggling, the additional ‘lowest’ preset completely removes the shadows from the game, offering a little extra processing bandwidth and up to 20 extra frames per second.

Performance benchmarks

To see how Shadow of the Tomb Raider performs on various hardware setups, we test the game on four graphics cards – two from Nvidia, and two from AMD. We’ve sampled popular cards from the current and last generation of GPUs based on the findings of the Steam Hardware Survey in order to offer the most useful information.

All four cards are tested at the highest settings, with every texture option set as high as they’ll go, and every graphical effect turned on. For this test we have used the in-game benchmarking tool, which renders a variety of gameplay samples to generate an average frame rate count.

In the graph below you can see how all four cards perform.

All the bells and whistles of the highest preset certainly takes its toll, but all four cards provide perfectly playable frame rates. At an average of 55fps, AMD’s RX 580 is our best performer, although its older R9 380 sibling fares surprisingly well at an average of 34fps, which is better than standard console performance.

The Nvidia camp fares similarly, with the GTX 1060 averaging 53fps and the GTX 970 coming in at 40fps. If you’re a 4K gamer, we’ve also tried the game with our Titan X-powered machine, and that hits a respectable 39fps.

These numbers demonstrate that Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a well-rounded experience, with no clear better choice when it comes to hardware manufacturer. Whatever system you run, you can expect a similar experience to those on comparable components.

How to run Shadow of the Tomb Raider at 60fps

Getting a solid 60fps out of Shadow of the Tomb Raider is not difficult, but – thanks to its densely detailed environments – those with graphics cards from the previous generation will find that they have to make many visual sacrifices. If you’re running a GTX 1060, RX 580, or a GPU of similar power, you’ll find that the high preset is perfectly within your grasp. Our GTX 970 had to be dialled down to low settings to achieve the right frame rate, while the R9 380 had to be dropped all the way down to the lowest preset.

If you’re struggling it’s worth turning off the most intensive graphics settings. Depth of field and the screen space technologies adds a nice sheen to the image, but are far from vital. While I’m a big fan of the Pure Hair effect, it’s also entirely unnecessary and can be a resource hog.

Conclusion

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a beautiful game. With its detailed texture and model work, environments really come alive and help create one of gaming’s most immersive jungle locations. Significant attention has been paid to Lara herself as she has been treated to one of the best facial animation systems you can find on PC. For anyone looking to get the most out of a new monitor or GPU, this is certainly a game to try.

Best of all, though, is that all this beauty comes as part of a robust piece of software. Nixxes Software, the studio behind the port, has always been reliable, and this is no exception. While the settings menu could afford to be a touch more granular with its options, there’s plenty to work with, and the game scales well across the vast majority of its settings. And with no notable bugs experienced across the entire game, there’s little to marr the final chapter in Lara’s origin story.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider

With gorgeous visuals and great performance across a variety of hardware setups, Eidos Montreal and Nixxes Software have created a robust PC port for Lara’s latest adventure.

great