PS4 Pro: A Confusing But Substantial Upgrade, in 4K or Otherwise

Earlier this month, Sony released its long-rumored PlayStation 4 Pro console, embracing not only the latest wave of home theater display technology, but along with it the concept of mid-cycle hardware refreshes. While the PS4 Pro will likely find an appreciative audience among console-owning PC players and home theater enthusiasts used to tinkering to get the most out of their hardware, consumers weaned on decades of generational console design may find its benefits too confusing. Still, if you can figure out how it all works, the PS4 Pro offers substantial improvements to the base PlayStation 4 experience, whether you’re using the latest wave of 4K, HDR-capable displays or are still playing on an old 1080p TV.

The PS4 Pro’s most basic appeal lies in its ability to output games in 2160p resolution (or close enough to it, anyway), but the story doesn’t end there, because it’s also capable of pumping out more frames of animation at 1080p, and displaying images in high-dynamic range (HDR)—a new display standard that, paired with the right TV, allows for a much broader range of colors, more detailed blacks, and brighter whites. Alone or together, 4K and HDR can make already good-looking games look even better—in some cases, even rivaling what’s possible on high-end gaming PCs. It might have some quirks, but for a $400 console, that’s nothing to scoff at.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

4K gaming on a home console is a reality, and it’s absolutely gorgeous.

But here’s the rub for player used to the plug-and-play nature of previous home gaming consoles: none of this “just works” as it used to.  Some games may support resolutions higher than 1080p, all the way up to 2160p. Some may support the HDR color spectrum, while others don’t—even with HDR enabled in the PS4 Pro’s settings menu. And while some pre-existing games have been updated to take advantage of these new features—as well as the improved framerates made possible by the system’s boost in processing power—all other games will look and play exactly like they always have, because unlike PC games, they were never coded to take advantage of the PS4 Pro’s additional processing power.

For games that have been updated for the PS4 Pro, results are varied, but extremely impressive overall.  From the list of games with launch day PS4 Pro enhancements, I was able to test Uncharted 4, inFamous: First Light, The Last of Us: Remastered, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Skyrim: Special Edition, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, and Firewatch extensively. Additionally, I was extremely interested in seeing how the PS4 Pro handled XCOM 2 due to the game’s disappointing performance on standard PS4 hardware, but the game’s developer appears to have missed its launch-day patch, and XCOM 2 doesn’t perform any differently on the upgraded hardware (XCOM 2 publisher 2K hasn’t responded to multiple requests for comment on the matter.)

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End™_20161127233858

Notice the foreground details are darker than they should be; that’s a result of the way PS4 games have to be calibrated to display full-spectrum HDR images, which I unfortunately have no way to show you as of right now. More on the brightness issue below.

Of the games I tested, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Uncharted 4, Skyrim: Special Edition and inFamous: First Light turned in the most impressive performances by far, though emblematic of Sony’s more PC-like approach to the PS4 Pro, each takes advantage of the new hardware in different ways, and console players might be overwhelmed by the amount of options they’re afforded by the new hardware.

A fantastic place to start is inFamous: First Light, which renders by default in a performance mode called “Higher Resolution,” outputting a crisp, gorgeous 3200×1800 image with a variable framerate (hovering near 40fps) that’s comparable to the base PS4’s performance at 1080p. I preferred the second performance profile: enabled by selecting “Better Frame Rate” in the game’s settings, this keeps the image resolution locked to 1080p but pumps out the action at a near-constant 60fps. For a game like inFamous that’s all about smooth action and brilliant, flowing neon effects, I think the game is much better suited to a 1080p/60 presentation than the not-quite-4K “Higher Resolution” mode, especially when the framerate suffers as a result of the higher pixel density. You can also select a locked 30fps mode in either mode, if you’d prefer the action to remain consistent but can’t handle the buttery smoothness of 60fps. Regardless of your chosen performance profile, inFamous: First Light makes some of the best use of high-dynamic range imagery on the system, with main character Fetch’s neon powers showing off a spectrum of color that traditional displays simply can’t achieve. Unfortunately, I can’t show you that either—there’s just no way to capture HDR imagery with current technology. You basically have to have an HDR display, or you’re not going to understand it.

Uncharted 4, which was already gorgeous on the base PS4 at 1080p, looks even better on the PS4 Pro at 1440p.  It’s also an equally impressive demonstration of HDR display technology, with more detail in dark areas than ever before, and lights so bright you have to squint when you look at them. But it’s also demonstrative of a problem I’ve been noticing among friends and colleagues who rushed out to buy a 4K/HDR TV after they got their PS4 Pros: very few people actually know how to set up their TVs to display a proper HDR picture, and the PS4 Pro isn’t doing much to help them.

When I got my Samsung UN55KS9000 4K/HDR TV earlier this year, I spent more time in the first week after I brought it home calibrating each source properly and learning how HDR works than I did actually watching any 4K/HDR content. Even as a seasoned home theater fanatic, I suffered a coupled of “placebo effect” moments, where I was watching Max Mad: Fury Road in UHD Blu-ray and declaring how heavenly I felt the film’s new HDR color grade to be… despite having forgotten to set the TV to output at the panel’s native color spectrum, which is required to get the full benefit of HDR. So, while what I was seeing looked richer than what the regular Blu-ray was capable of, it was still based on a limited color palette that I’d calibrated specifically for regular Blu-rays. Once I’d realized my mistake, it was like having the veil lifted from my eyes.

I've adjusted the contrast and brightness to approximate what HDR looks like on my TV, but again, there's just no way to show the technology off without an HDR display.

I’ve adjusted the contrast and brightness to approximate what HDR looks like on my TV, but as with the previous Uncharted 4 example, it’s simply too dark. There’s just no way to show the technology off without an HDR display.

The problem with the PS4 Pro is, once you’ve figured out that you have your TV set to output in HDR color (which the console never explains to you), you’ll then have to manually tweak your TV’s backlight or brightness settings to actually be able to show that full spectrum of color. See, even when you turn on HDR within a game, the PS4 Pro doesn’t tell your TV to adjust its backlight to the maximum value—an absurd idea, I know, but that’s literally what the TV has to do to be capable of displaying the HDR color spectrum. This is in stark contrast to UHD Blu-ray players, which send a packet of metadata to your display so that it automatically adjusts its backlight and brightness settings to display your UHD Blu-ray correctly. Once you start your movie, the TV should tell you that an HDR video is playing, then adjust the picture settings to the appropriate values until the movie is over, at which point it resets everything to the standard values you’ve set for non-HDR content. The PS4 Pro does make sure your TV knows an HDR video is playing, but you’ll still have to adjust the backlight yourself, every time… both when you start your HDR gaming session, and when you end it. And perhaps worst of all: you’ll also need to adjust the brightness within your game’s settings menu when you turn on HDR, because by default, the HDR setting tends to wash images out in games. In my case, I have to manually adjust the backlight on my TV to its maximum value, then go into each game’s settings menu and turn the brightness all the way down. This presents a rich, deep, gorgeous image… and as an expert-level home theater and gaming enthusiast, it’s something I’m willing to put up with. But I don’t expect most of my friends gaming on new HDR setups have any idea about any of this, and I have a feeling they’re going to be in for a rude awakening when they read this feature.

Ah, Skyrim. I could stare at you all day.

Ah, Skyrim. I could stare at you all day.

The PS4 Pro has breathed new life into some of my favorite modern games, and even though I only recently finished the final story mission on my Xbox 360 copy of Skyrim, I’m finding the game just as addicting as ever on PS4 Pro. Skyrim’s definitely showing its age in 2016—it’s hard to believe it came out five years ago already—but on PS4 Pro, it renders in native 2160p, and paired with some new post-processing effects, increased draw distance, and more voluminous foliage, the game manages to stand toe-to-toe with any other modern western RPG, including Bethesda’s own Fallout 4 and CD Projekt RED’s The Witcher 3. I do think that if Bethesda wanted to put a little more effort into it, they could coax more frames out of the PS4 Pro, but even at 30fps, Skyrim is simply a work of art on the new hardware.

Perhaps the best overall example of what the PS4 Pro can bring to the table is Square Enix’s Rise of the Tomb Raider. Although it doesn’t support HDR, it does have a multitude of rendering modes available, and just like with the inFamous games, there are benefits to each one of them. However, unlike inFamous, which I prefer to play at 1080p60, I think Rise of the Tomb Raider looks best on PS4 Pro rendered in 4K. In some ways, it’s actually a bit of a step backwards from 2014’s Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, which played on the PS4 at a locked 60fps in 1080p. The problem with Rise of the Tomb Raider in 1080p is that it features some very heavy post-processing that causes the game to shimmer in areas of dense foliage (a lot of the game), giving the illusion that it’s running at a sub-1080p resolution. Setting the game to display in 4K, on the other hand—despite it sometimes failing to keep up with its targeted frame rate of 30fps—is a sight to behold. It’s simply breathtaking, besting even Uncharted 4’s already stunning graphics and approaching uncanny valley levels of reality. If the shimmering doesn’t bother you, there are actually two 1080p modes available on Rise of the Tomb Raider: a “High Frame Rate” mode that shoots for 60fps but regular dips below 40fps in complex scenery, and an “Enriched Visuals” mode that locks the action to 30fps and renders more foliage and overall detail and makes for the most consistent experience, performance-wise. Best of all: because of Rise of the Tomb Raider’s lack of HDR support (admittedly a disappointment), it’s also the easiest to show off the benefits of gaming on a 4K display: just start the game, select the 4K resolution mode, and settle in for a good time.

Just in case you needed another reminder of how gorgeous Rise of the Tomb Raider is in 4K.

Just in case you needed another reminder of how gorgeous Rise of the Tomb Raider is in 4K.

The PS4 Pro is notable for bringing a sort of PC-lite style of customization to the console experience, and I expect with next year’s release of Project Scorpio, we’re going to be seeing a permanent shift away from the traditional console release cycle. For the time being, I do think Sony’s latest system is more likely to confuse the typical consumer thank to make them rush out for an upgrade; in the long run, I think it’s in the company’s best interests to drop competing PS4 models from the market and focus on the Pro only going forward. That said, despite any issues I have with the system, it remains far and away the most powerful non-PC platform out there, and since it’s up to individual developers to decide how best to take advantage of the new hardware, its benefits are tangible even without the addition of an expensive new 4K/HDR display to a gaming setup. The curious lack of a UHD Blu-ray drive aside, I give the PS4 Pro a wholehearted recommendation… especially for those hardcore players who will know how to use it.

 

Thanks to Square Enix and Bethesda Softworks, respectively, for providing copies of Rise of the Tomb Raider and Skyrim: Special Edition for the purposes of this feature.