Pro evo­lu­tion

Sony’s 4K hard­ware ar­rives, and clouds the con­sole-gam­ing pic­ture

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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

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