The Pros and Cons of TressFX

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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 came out, I heard something about this new hair-rendering technology that would be included in the PC version called TressFX.  I went and looked up this tech and was intrigued by what I read.  Most intriguing was how it would much more realistically render individual strands of hair instead of the blocky groups of polygons that most hair in games use.  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 it 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.  The tech seems to render the hair as individual strands that move according to what is going on.  It was quite impressive for the first thirty 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 ironed out before the hair I dreamed of ever since this generation started is possible.

First, and most noticeable, is the strange way the technology seems to try and prevent the hair strands 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 see why the game renders it that way, as I’m sure that preventing clipping of models is still a very hard-to-solve issue for game 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 it looks like the physics aren’t quite right.  It’s hard to explain what I mean without seeing in action.  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 FPS 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 updated drivers to fix some of these issue, but the performance hit is quite the problem now.

Right now, I don’t feel that TressFX is worth having on.  It looks too odd and unrealistic for me to want to bother with the framerate hit.  I’m hoping that some optimization with patches and drivers will fix my issues, so I can use the technology on a second playthrough of Tomb Raider.  Even with these issues, I still think TressFX is a good 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.

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