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