Tomb Raider: 3D patches on test

Having recently acquired a copy of Tomb Raider (the 1996 one), and with all those 3D accelerators gathering dust in my cupboard, I had this idea flash in my mind: why not try and see how the game looks with different cards?

Tomb Raider was one of those mid-90s games which required a different executable for each card it needed to run on. Sounds like a pain, but I guess people back then didn’t really have a choice. Oh, of course, most people could just run the game in software mode, but that wasn’t very good. You needed a very strong CPU to run in high resolution (such CPUs usually weren’t even available yet), while the low resolution mode looked straight out of the Saturn, except without the higher quality cutscenes.

Of course all that changed when the 3D patches were released. But which was the best one? We’ll have to see, though many could take an educated guess and give it to the Voodoo. But who knows. These tests are run on a P3-450mhz with 64MB RAM, Soundblaster 16, and Windows 95. Unfortunately, I can’t take screenshots of DOS games, so you’ll have to bear with some crappy camera photos. I’ve tried to take detailed shots whenever needed.

The good old Matrox Mystique. My 4MB edition allows me to play with an impressive 640x480.
The good old Matrox Mystique. My 4MB edition allows me to play with an impressive 640×480.

So we start with one of Matrox’s most famous cards. Shut up, it was just misunderstood, okay? This is the Matrox Mystique MGA 170, which usually came with 2MB of video memory. Tomb Raider will default to 512×384 on such versions. My own card has 4MB, so I get to play at 640×480. Envy me.

Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider

Not too horrible. The Mystique didn’t support bilinear filtering, as you can probably see from the floor in the first screenshots, but there is proper polygon perspective correction. The framerate is not very good though, acceptable but not quite there.

Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider

Some details. The cages in the first one show the limits of nearest neighboring on textures, while the second one makes the dithered shadow very noticeable. The Matrox was famous for its lack of alpha blending, so this was the best they could do with alpha stippling, short of a simple black circle. It’s already quite enough that they put shadows at all, as we’ll see later. For now let’s move on to something else.

I had promised to myself I would never take the Virge out again... but promises are made to be broken.
I had promised to myself I would never take the Virge out again… but promises are made to be broken.

The infamous Virge. No, this one wasn’t misunderstood, it was just bad. This particular model is a S3 Virge/DX with 2MB of video memory. A very standard graphics decelerator. Let’s see how it compares.

The Matrox version didn't even have a graphics options screen, so this is a step forward. But that 640x480 is a pipe dream.
The Matrox version didn’t even have a graphics options screen, so this is a step forward. But that 640×480 is a pipe dream.

Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider

Welcome to the world of S3. Now, it looks okay, but that’s all it does. Because you won’t really notice that when the game is running under 10fps. On the plus side, it has everything, from bilinear filtering to perspective correction to even high resolution. But the bilinear filtering doesn’t seem to have an appreciable impact on performance (amazingly), so you are stuck with terrible framerates. There is also some strange graphical artefact, and notice the lack of shadow under Lara’s feet. Following, some more images to show how to try and fix the situation.

Tomb Raider
A weird mosaique effect can be seen in the side.
You can disable perspective correction, if you don't mind playing in an Escher painting. You won't gain much though.
You can try disabling perspective correction, if you don’t mind playing in an Escher painting. You won’t gain much though.

The best way to get some more frames out of the old Virge is, as you may have guessed, to lower the resolution. You could also try disabling bilinear filtering or perspective correction, but for some reason they don’t have that much of an impact. Now, as for resolution, the game gives you a choice of 640×480 (ahahah), 512×384, and 320×200.

512x384 is probably your best bet. It gets a little choppy in heavier scenes, but overall it's quite playable and doesn't look bad at all. Also notice Lara has a shadow now. The mosaique pattern is still visible though.
512×384 is probably your best bet. It gets a little choppy in heavier scenes, but overall it’s quite playable and doesn’t look bad at all. Also Lara has a shadow now. The mosaique pattern is still visible though.
320x200 is the smoothest option you have, and boy, it is smooth. It looks very close to the regular software version though, the filtering is not easy to notice.
320×200 is the smoothest option you have, and boy, it is smooth. It looks very close to the regular software version though, the filtering is not easy to notice.

Well, anyone could have expected the Virge to be the worst version. It actually is quite full of features, but with that kind of speed, nobody will want to play this. Not even Turok 2 fans. Maybe we should get something else.

Ati Rage IIc. I don't actually remember where I got it. But it's a very unremarkable card, especially considering its quite impressive 8MB and AGP connection.
Ati Rage IIc. Before Mantle, there was CIF.

Quite interesting to know that Tomb Raider even had an Ati version. Ati had its own API back then, the CIF, which very few games used. In this particular case, Tomb Raider actually becomes a native Windows application when you apply the Ati patch. And you get to use a separate executable, which is handier than renaming Tomb.exe all the time.

Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider

Bilinear filtering, perspective correction, resolution choice up to 800×600, and even a framerate counter. Very impressive despite the lack of shadows. The framerate itself is not so impressive though. 10fps? 13fps? Better than the Virge, but just barely, and considering the card is more recent, quite a poor showing. Of course you can still lower the resolution to get better results. These are my countings, showing the heaviest area (the one with the cages) and one of the lightest areas (the starting room).

800×600: 9-15 fps
640×480: 14-19 fps
512×384: 19-25 fps
320×200: 30 fps

At 320×200 it’s pretty much locked at 30 fps, but so was the Virge. Then again, it’s worth noting that, unlike the Virge, disabling texture filtering will have a strongeffect on the framerate: give or take, you can add 5 more fps to all those results (still, the game will never go above 30 fps). The card seems especially slow with filtering, an effect I had also noticed while testing Forsaken. So if you don’t mind playing with poorer filtering, the Rage IIc will give you a very smooth 512×384 pretty much all the time.

Ati Rage LT Pro. Now we are getting a bit closer to dream material.
Ati Rage LT Pro. Now we are getting a bit closer to dream material.

But the Rage II was quite poor. Surely the CIF supported better cards. Well, not that many actually, and I don’t quite have a 3D Rage Pro yet… but the LT Pro was at least a decent substitute. This card once again has 8MB and AGP, but it’s a lot faster than the IIc.

800x600, all details on, and 30 fps to boot? Hold me.
800×600, all details on, 30 fps, and shadows to boot? Hold me.

Compared to the IIc, it was a bit harder to make the game run at all. I had to revert to an older set of drivers. Once started though, we have some great results. The game is running at 800×600 with all the effects on, and it holds 30fps most of the times, with drops down to 25fps in the cages area. That’s still extremely playable, but if you want that extra smoothness, you can revert to 640×480, or just disable bilinear filtering.

3dfx Voodoo 3. Spoiler: it's pretty fast.
3dfx Voodoo 3. Spoiler: it’s pretty fast.

Most people are probably familiar with the 3dfx edition, but let’s talk about it anyway. This board in particular is a Voodoo 3, so not quite something from the company’s peak days. It’s still a very fast card, and I use it regularly in my Win95 PC due to its Glide support for many old titles. Of course, Tomb Raider is one such game, so let’s take a look.

Well, it doesn't get much better than this, but where's Lara's shadow?
Well, it doesn’t get much better than this, but where’s Lara’s shadow?

Tomb Raider

The only graphics choice in the game is between mipmapping and no mipmapping, which the other cards don’t offer. But unlike on the other cards, you can’t choose to disable perspective correction and filtering. Considering the game is running at 30fps literally all the time, this is hardly a problem. It’s a little weird to notice that Lara doesn’t have a shadow though. This might be an issue with the Voodoo 3 in particular, as the game itself was made to run on the first Voodoo board, and there are other games which show issues with newer cards.

Disabling mipmapping will have some strange effects on the water. I still wouldn't do it, as mipmapping without trilinear will result in those ugly detail jumps, as you can see on the right.
Disabling mipmapping will have some strange effects on the water. And I still wouldn’t enable it, as mipmapping without trilinear will result in those ugly detail jumps, as you can see on the right.

So there we are. For my money, I’m actually surprised to say that the best version is the Ati one: assuming you have a supported card (as there’s probably no wrapper for CIF) and a decent CPU, it gives you the best features of the four, and the highest resolution. I have read that the PowerVR version is even better, but unfortunately I don’t have the means to try it. Maybe one day.

To finish, three actual screenshots. The software and 3dfx ones are taken from the GOG version of the game, while the Ati one was screencapped from my old PC (since the Windows executable allows you to print the screen, unlike all the other DOS-based versions). Click on the screens for their native resolution.

Look at that garish colors palette. It's not even very smooth. But what did you expect from software mode?
Look at that garish colors palette. It’s not even very smooth. But what did you expect from software mode?
The Glide version actually has shadows, unlike on the Voodoo 3. I suppose it means it could be a problem with that particular card indeed.
The Glide version here actually has shadows, unlike on the Voodoo 3. I suppose it means it could be a problem with that particular card indeed.
Ati Rage LT Pro. There are some color banding issues here, but you can't really notice in-game. If I do replay through Tomb Raider, I shall put this card to use.
Ati Rage LT Pro. There are some color banding issues here, but you can’t really notice in-game. If I do replay through Tomb Raider, I shall put this card to use.
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2 thoughts on “Tomb Raider: 3D patches on test”

  1. How do you get the FPS indicator?? I’ve got a Virge GX2 and want to test how well it performs compared to the normal Virge.

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