Sony’s 4K hardware arrives, and clouds the console-gaming picture
During its opening week on sale in November, 65,194 PlayStation 4 Pro consoles were sold in Japan. Given that the traditional version of Sony’s hardware often sells fewer than half of that number on a good week, this was a successful launch in a territory that has cooled on consoles in recent years, preferring mobile gaming nowadays. It’s easy to imagine Sony execs being pleased with the numbers – until they saw Nintendo’s Famicom Mini shift over a quarter of a million units through its launch weekend. The scale of Nintendo’s success proves that Japanese consumers still have the capacity to go wild over new hardware launches – even when they’re not really ‘new’ at all – but it takes something from leftfield to ignite the touchpaper. In comparison, PlayStation 4 Pro is safe, a studied advancement of a proven success, not some dinky curio.
The hardware itself is the bulkiest PlayStation console since the original PS3, but not nearly as distinctive in its design, its wedge-style appearance seeing it sit comfortably alongside the recently introduced slim PS4. In use, its UI and OS behave just like those of a standard unit – crucial given Sony’s eagerness to emphasise that all PS4 software will work across all devices in the family. The Pro hardware doesn’t feel particularly exciting, in fact, until you hook it up to a screen that will do it justice – and, of course, feed it with some PS4 games re-engineered to show it off.
At launch, however, the simple act of connecting the console to 4K TVs has presented problems in itself, with a number of owners of LG-branded units reporting HDCP issues that resulted in black screens upon powering up their new consoles. Workarounds were soon shared among users online, and LG reps moved quickly to assure consumers that a firmware fix was in the pipe. But the existence of such a problem helped to illustrate how Sony’s hardware upgrade clouds the fundamental concept of the videogame console, whose appeal
versus PCs has always been founded on simplicity and accessibility. It’s just one entry on a surprisingly long list.
Clearly the introduction of PS4 Pro has made game-makers’ lives more complicated, too. With Sony allowing developers to choose how to upgrade their games for resolutions in excess of 1080p, there is no such thing as a standard Pro enhancement. Hitman, for instance, provides a 1440p image on Pro, along with framerate enhancements.
Tomb Raider, meanwhile, uses checkerboard rendering to achieve 2160p if you select 4K mode. Watch
Dogs 2 clocks in at 1800p via checkerboard rendering, while Ratchet
& Clank achieves 2160p with what developer Insomniac calls ‘temporal injection’. Then there are games that fluctuate between resolutions during play, such as Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, (scaling between 1800p and 2160p) and Call Of Duty: Infinite Warfare (1560p and 2160p). To round things off, there are outliers rendering 4K natively, notable examples including
FIFA 17, Skyrim: Special Edition and Rez Infinite. If you don’t have a 4K TV, depending on the game you’re playing you may be offered alternative 1080p modes, with framerate optimisation trading off against higher-detail images, or simply an all-round improved base version, supersampling a higher-resolution image to offer increased detail levels while also reducing aliasing.
There would be more native 4K games had Sony been able to squeeze more processing power into the Pro package, but that was never going to happen at its £349 pricepoint. Importantly, though, the disparity between 1440p and 2160p isn’t as big a deal in reality as it seems on paper: on a 55-inch 4K panel, the Pro version of
Hitman offers clinically clean-looking imagery that contrasts well against the original build. The benefits of higher resolutions obviously come into their
own on larger displays, but let’s be clear: the base PS4 model running Horizon Zero Dawn on a 75-inch display is still a spectacle. PS4 Pro’s resolution increases are gains worth having for aficionados, but they’re refinements, not reinventions.
It’s in using a high-end 4K HDR display that Sony’s new hardware distinguishes itself a little more obviously. The Last Of Us: Remastered is a considerably richer, more realistically lit experience on Pro, as is Infamous: First Light, whose fizzing particle effects feel as if they were created to be consumed this way in the first place. Trying to achieve these results on a budget is dangerous, though, with several of the more affordable 4K HDR TVs doing the rounds at the moment failing to support HDR10, while those and others also have issues with running HDR outside of certain display modes, resulting in a degree of input lag that will be unacceptable to players of twitchy action games. Ultimately HDR display technology is still in its infancy for consumer products, and buying into the first wave is risky unless you have money to burn. For most, it’s a good idea to wait until January’s CES to see what’s in store for 2017; by spring of next year you should be able to get £2,500 worth of 2016’s TV technology for more like £1,500. In the meantime, there are obvious Pro benefits for PSVR owners. Robinson: The Journey, for example – already a greatlooking game in standard form – benefits from increased draw distance, sharper rendering and enhanced lighting.
So PS4 Pro makes life more complicated for Sony, which has to manage two platforms side by side without seeming to favour one over the other; for developers, who have to figure out how best to present enhanced versions (and set aside staff and time to make it happen); for retailers, which have to make room for a new platform whose nuances aren’t easy to communicate; for certain TV manufacturers, which didn’t plan for gaming applications when speccing their HDR configurations; and for the consumer, who not only has to think about what to do with old PS4 hardware but also consider a new, potentially very expensive display, and even then cannot be certain what ‘enhanced for PS4 Pro’ even means on a game-to-game basis.
All this, Xbox devotees will sneer, just to play a version of Skyrim that is essentially the high-detail PC version from five years ago? Yes, there will be more easy-to-knock-out cash-ins in the vein of Skyrim: Special Edition in the future, but they’re distractions from forthcoming PS4 titles with Pro factored during their natural production cycles, rather than bolted on after the fact. When games such as the gorgeous HDR showcase Days Gone emerge, the issues surrounding PS4 Pro today will begin to fade from view.
PS4 Pro’s resolution increases are gains worth having for aficionados, but they’re refinements, not reinventions
One of the key distinguishing Pro features is its central control bar, which is clicked at either end to power up the console or remove discs. Somewhat counterintuitively, the clickable section directly below the disc slot is assigned to power rather than disc ejection
Some PS4 Pro visual overhauls fare better than others, even from within the same publisher. At the suboptimal end of the spectrum is Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, which renders certain UI elements at native 4K while applying rough-and-ready upscaling elsewhere. The messy results were immediately pounced upon and shared online