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Tomb Raider has just come out, and I’m already greatly enjoying it. It was one of my most anticipated games of last year until it was delayed to 2013. A few days ago, right before the game released, I heard something about this new hair-rendering technology that would be included in the PC version called TressFX.

I looked up this tech and was intrigued by what I read. Most intriguing was how it would more realistically render locks of hair instead of the blocky groups of polygons that most games show. Realistic hair is something I’ve dreamed about in video games. The few games that manage to do something more realistic, such as Alice: Madness Returns, are breathtaking. I’m not ashamed to admit that it made me even more excited for Tomb Raider as I read about it.

Of course, I turned the tech on the first time I played the game, eager to see how it worked. At first, I was blown away by the level of detail. TressFX seems to render the hair as individual strands that move according to what is going on. It was quite impressive for the first 30 minutes or so. After that point, the reality of the technology was starting to set in. There are a few issues with the tech (widespread or just on my machine, I don’t know) that need to be fixed before the hair I dreamed of is possible.

First and most noticeable is the strange way the technology seems to try and prevent the hair from clipping into Lara’s body. If you look closely, you can see what looks like some kind of field a few inches off the character model (very noticeable around the shoulders in particular). The hair will just sit there and not actually touch her shoulders. I understand why the game renders it that way as I’m sure that preventing the clipping of models is still a very hard-to-solve issue for developers. However, it looks very unrealistic. I’m sure that it will be the concern most people have about TressFX when they start playing, and it may be a severe turnoff for some of them. I think it just looks too strange for a tech that is supposed to be about realism.

Another issue I have with TressFX is that the individual strands of hair seem to be a little too responsive to the physics elements at work in the world of Tomb Raider. It seems like every slight jerk of the character or gust of wind makes the hair blow about crazily. Maybe it’s just that I’m not used to more realistic hair in my video games, but the physics don’t seem quite right. It’s hard to explain what I mean without seeing it in action for yourself. Shadows from the hair strands also look pretty grungy. It’s almost as if they didn’t alias these shadows as they look pretty blocky and unrealistic.

The reason for this may be that TressFX is quite intensive on the computer. I could run the game at 60 frames-per-second easily without it turned on, but the fps dropped about half as soon as I did. Other accounts I’ve read online say that some computers get unplayable framerates with it turned on. Since the game has to realistically render all of these strands of hair in real time, it can have a pretty severe effect on the framerate. I’m assuming the tech is GPU-based, so it will probably get better with some drivers and newer video cards. Nvidia seems to already be at work on updating drivers to fix some of these issues, but the performance hit is quite a problem now.

At the moment, I don’t feel that TressFX is worth enabling. It looks too odd and unrealistic for me to want to bother with the framerate loss. I’m hoping that some optimization with patches and drivers will resolve the issues so that I can use the technology on a second playthrough of Tomb Raider. Even with these hitches, I still think TressFX is a step in the right direction. I’m all for additional realism in character design wherever I can get it. The hair does look really nice; the physics elements of the simulation can just be a tad bit jarring. I can’t wait to see what future iterations of this technology look like.