PS4 goes Pro

Sony makes the mid-cy­cle hard­ware re­fresh a re­al­ity with a new, 4K-ready PlaySta­tion


The mid-cy­cle hard­ware re­fresh is here: meet the new 4K-ready PS4

Jim Ryan is laugh­ing. We’re in New York, where Sony has just un­veiled its PS4 Pro hard­ware, and PlaySta­tion’s global head of mar­ket­ing and sales has been asked about Mi­crosoft man Aaron Green­berg’s claim that we’ll have to wait for Project Scorpio for the ar­rival of “true 4K gam­ing”. “I’m not go­ing to get into that non­sense,” Ryan says, still smil­ing. “You know, you can talk tech­ni­cal specs, you can talk jargon, but at the end of the day we’ve an­nounced our prod­uct with a price, with a date, and we were able to show in my opin­ion a very im­pres­sive range of gam­ing ex­pe­ri­ences on PS4 Pro. As far as I’m con­cerned, that’s it. End of. I’m not go­ing to get into it with him or any­body else. Life’s too short.”

On pa­per, Sony’s new PS4, due for re­lease at £349 on Novem­ber 10, is a con­sid­er­ably more pow­er­ful con­sole than its pre­de­ces­sor, its new GPU of­fer­ing over twice the per­for­mance of the orig­i­nal’s, with slightly in­creased mem­ory band­width and CPU clock­speed help­ing to man­age the load. Is it enough to han­dle “true 4K gam­ing” – that is, games ren­dered na­tively at a res­o­lu­tion of 3840x2160? In cer­tain cases, yes: in its PS4 Pro in­car­na­tion, the forth­com­ing Rez In­fi­nite, for ex­am­ple, will ren­der full Ultra HD im­ages na­tively. Oth­ers will fol­low suit. Many, more-de­tail-heavy games, how­ever, will ren­der at lower res­o­lu­tions and use checker­board up­scal­ing tech­niques for 4K dis­plays.

The ef­fect is demon­strated at the New York event with Pro-en­hanced ver­sions of var­i­ous ex­ist­ing and forth­com­ing PS4 games. It’s a per­fect en­vi­ron­ment to show off what the Pro hard­ware is ca­pa­ble of: de­vel­op­ers are on hand to walk through the demos, and each con­sole is hooked up to a 75” Sony Z9-se­ries HDR TV. On dis­plays of this qual­ity and scale – new to the mar­ket this year, and a snip at just un­der £7,000 if you fancy pick­ing one up – there isn’t much op­por­tu­nity to hide sub­par vi­su­als. It’s for­tu­nate, then, that Hori­zon Zero Dawn and Days Gone, in par­tic­u­lar, look sen­sa­tional in their en­hanced it­er­a­tions. Nei­ther game slouches in stan­dard PS4 form, but when their de­vel­op­ers flick them into Pro mode with the touch of a con­troller but­ton, the ef­fect is some­what akin to what hap­pens when a short­sighted per­son puts on glasses: the im­age be­comes in­stantly crisper, fine de­tails crys­tallis­ing across th­ese enor­mous screens. In­di­vid­ual leaves can be picked out among fo­liage. Rock for­ma­tions gain new di­men­sions in their tex­tures. In Days Gone, the patches stitched onto pro­tag­o­nist Dea­con St John’s sleeve­less jacket sud­denly lose their slight smeari­ness to be­come vi­brantly leg­i­ble.

Clearly the im­pact of the switch will be di­min­ished on more mod­estly sized dis­plays, but here, in op­ti­mal con­di­tions, the Pro hard­ware feels like an up­grade that in­stantly makes sense if PS4 is your main­stay gam­ing de­vice and you just hap­pen to en­joy see­ing videogames at their ma­jes­tic best.

The HDR ca­pa­bil­i­ties of Sony’s Z9 pan­els help to jus­tify the in­vest­ment in a new con­sole. Two demos run­ning side by side, of Un­charted 4 and The Last Of Us, show what the im­ple­men­ta­tion of high dy­namic range can bring to PS4 games in terms of in­creased con­trast and colour in­ten­sity. As Nathan Drake swims through a stretch of wa­ter, pre­vi­ously in­vis­i­ble de­tails emerge, re­veal­ing reflections on the sea bed along­side more vi­brant hues among or­ganic life. The gi­raffe se­quence in The Last Of Us, mean­while, feels like a scene that’s been re­coloured with paints that sim­ply weren’t there on the orig­i­nal palette. Both games are among a grow­ing list that will re­ceive

The im­age be­comes in­stantly crisper, fine de­tails crys­tallis­ing across th­ese enor­mous screens

PS4 Pro patches, at no cost, when the new con­sole ar­rives.

In all of th­ese demos, how­ever, Sony has cho­sen to pri­ori­tise res­o­lu­tion and HDR ef­fects over fram­er­ates, which re­main as per the stan­dard PS4 counts. In a sep­a­rate demo area, how­ever, Crys­tal Dy­nam­ics is show­ing a Pro ver­sion of Tomb Raider that al­lows play­ers to choose be­tween three graph­ics op­tions: 4K (up­scaled) at a tar­geted 30fps; 1080p with in­creased de­tail at 30fps; and 1080p with a tar­geted 60fps but de­creased de­tail. It brings the con­sole ex­pe­ri­ence closer to that of a PC, and it’s an ap­proach that will surely be fol­lowed by other stu­dios in the fu­ture. Com­mu­ni­cat­ing such fea­tures to con­sumers may be a chal­lenge. A big­ger hur­dle, though, is show­ing off 4K res­o­lu­tions and HDR ef­fec­tively. It’s fine for those of us priv­i­leged enough to be in New York, but not so much for those watching over the In­ter­net. As for­mer Sony exec Phil Har­ri­son tweeted dur­ing the Pro stage demo, “Watching HDR demos live-streamed from press events is like try­ing to au­di­tion ex­pen­sive new hifi speak­ers via a phone call”.

“The mar­ket­ing chal­lenges [in­volved with] the var­i­ous in­no­va­tions that we’re bring­ing to the mar­ket over the course of the next three months, whether it’s PSVR or PlaySta­tion 4 Pro, are not in­con­sid­er­able,” Ryan con­cedes. “I do tend to think, though, in this net­worked world that we now live in, that in­for­ma­tion does dis­sem­i­nate in a far more ef­fi­cient man­ner than it used to.

“I think our mar­ket­ing ef­forts in­ter­nally, in terms of both PSVR and PS4 Pro, we’ve got to kind of shift the par­a­digm and come at it quite dif­fer­ently, and I think other in­dus­try stake­hold­ers have an im­por­tant role to play, too. I think you’re go­ing to be look­ing at game stores which will have the stan­dard PS4 in one part of the store and PS4 Pro sit­ting side by side with it. I think it’s re­ally im­por­tant that to­gether with our re­tail part­ners we do a good job of en­sur­ing that store staff are fully cog­nisant of the dif­fer­ences and ben­e­fits each of the two mod­els bring with them. De­vel­op­ers and pub­lish­ers have a role to play too, whether it’s the pro­vi­sion of con­tent that sup­ports th­ese var­i­ous ini­tia­tives or the evan­ge­li­sa­tion of them. So I think, across the whole ecosys­tem, it all needs to come to­gether and ev­ery­body needs to do their bit. I think if that hap­pens, we’ll be fine. If we don’t ex­e­cute prop­erly, we could run into choppy wa­ters.”

An­other is­sue cloud­ing the PS4 Pro pic­ture is its lack of 4K Blu-ray sup­port – a fea­ture avail­able to­day on Xbox One S. Is its ab­sence sim­ply down to cost? “Ob­vi­ously there’s a whole bunch of fac­tors that play into th­ese de­ci­sions, and for us the pri­ce­point of 399, $399 and £349 was an im­por­tant one,” Ryan tells us. “But equally we pay close at­ten­tion to the way that PlaySta­tion 4 users be­have and what they do with their hard­ware, and we’ve un­equiv­o­cally ob­served an in­crease in the way that they like to en­joy video con­tent through stream­ing ser­vices… At the end of the day, PS4 is a gam­ing con­sole, and that is some­thing we’ve spo­ken about a lot. We’ve been pretty clear and pretty con­sis­tent in the way that we’ve po­si­tioned PS4, and while non-game ser­vices are cer­tainly an im­por­tant part of the PlaySta­tion 4 ex­pe­ri­ence, it is, in its essence, a gam­ing con­sole. The de­ci­sions that we take around fea­tures, price and ser­vices are all taken with that mind­set. I know it’s a mar­ket­ing mantra – ‘this is for the gamer’ – but it is true.” As we pre­pare to leave New York, pon­der­ing yet an­other playthrough of The Last Of Us and wrestling with the prob­lem of what to do with the rather ex­pen­sive 4K TV we bought just last year, which now needs re­plac­ing with an HDR­com­pat­i­ble model, we won­der what PS4 Pro means for the long-term fu­ture of the PlaySta­tion brand. Now that it’s em­braced the con­cept of a re­freshed con­sole as op­posed to a re­place­ment, will Sony ever pro­duce a PlaySta­tion 5?

“I don’t know,” Ryan says plainly. “We’re do­ing some­thing that’s never been done in this in­dus­try, and while we’re con­fi­dent that we have good logic to be­lieve that what we’re do­ing will be suc­cess­ful, we’re still two months away from launch­ing it, and we don’t know whether it will suc­ceed. We don’t know how it might in­form fu­ture de­ci­sions that we have to take. So the hon­est an­swer to that ques­tion is I don’t know.”

“We’re do­ing some­thing that’s never been done. We don’t know how it might in­form fu­ture de­ci­sions”

The Pro model is con­sid­er­ably larger than the orig­i­nal PS4 hard­ware, while its third ‘layer’ and re­flec­tive PS logo make it im­me­di­ately dis­tin­guish­able from the re­cently launched slim­line model. Nat­u­rally, it plays hap­pily with the newly revamped DualShock

Jim Ryan, PlaySta­tion divi­sion global head of mar­ket­ing and sales

Hori­zonZeroDawn is one of the most vis­ually ac­com­plished games on PS4, so nat­u­rally it’s also a show­case for the Pro ar­chi­tec­ture

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