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Gaming

How the PS4 Pro made me a believer

Commentary: The PlayStation 4 Pro won't play your games at 4K. But it looks so close, you might not care.

The texture of her face. The detail in the moss. The birds, flying distantly in the background.

It was as if a pair of dirty goggles had been lifted from my eyes. I could see them now. The only difference: the game was running on a $400 PlayStation 4 Pro, instead of the regular $300 PlayStation 4 game console.

Why would anyone pay $100 more to play the same games? That's a question I asked, too. (In case you're not aware, the PlayStation 4 Pro won't have any new, exclusive titles.)

The answer: earlier this week, Sony's lead architect Mark Cerny showed me demo after demo of games running side-by-side on PS4 and PS4 Pro, and with the Pro they looked incredible. I saw Horizon: Zero Dawn, Infamous: First Light, Days Gone, Rise of the Tomb Raider and Shadow of Mordor look better than I'd ever seen them before -- except perhaps that time I played Tomb Raider on a beefy Windows computer.


And with a $400 game console, some of those games did something even my $1,000+ PC still struggles to do: run beautifully on a 4K television.

Let me break it to you: even with a 31% faster CPU (2.1GHz), an extra 1GB of memory and over double the graphics power (4.2 TFLOPS), the PS4 Pro won't play your games at 4K. It won't even run every game at 1080p, unlike the promise in Sony's original press release. "The games play on PS4 Pro exactly as they do on the standard model of PS4 unless the game is patched to take advantage of the PS4 Pro capabilities," clarified a Sony rep.

Plus, every single game developer needs to patch its games to support better graphics -- admittedly a process that Cerny says can take as little as a day, or a few weeks for a single developer.

But the games can look so much better that I actually believe Cerny when he says most games will support those enhanced graphics. And it's all because Sony found a clever trick to make them look nearly indistinguishable from actual, native 4K.

An old GIF from TweakGuides that illustrates what basic anti-aliasing can do.

TweakGuides

Ever heard of aliasing? It's the enemy of clarity in games, and it's the main reasons that games look so much better at high resolution. Basically, aliasing is the nasty shimmering you see around the edges of practically every 3D object in a video game, particularly fine details, distant objects, or ones like fences, power lines and strands of hair where you can see through to the background.

The game objects are three-dimensional, but your TV screen is made up of blocky, square pixels, which is why you'll often see blocky, jagged edges. That's why most games use antialiasing (AA), which tries to figure out where the edges are, and selectively blur and/or sharpen them by blending the colors of the object's edges and whatever's behind them.

Or, you could simply up the resolution so you can spread the edges of those objects across more pixels. That's why games look so great at 4K.

But PS4 Pro games don't need to go all the way to 3,840x2,160-pixel-resolution 4K or use vast amounts of AA because of a clever trick: developers are using a technique called "checkerboard rendering" to vastly reduce those jagged, shimmering edges. With only half the horizontal resolution -- 1,920x2,160 -- the graphics are nearly indistinguishable at TV viewing distance.

Because I'm not a computer graphics programmer, let me rely on a couple of simple slides (From a Ubisoft presentation at GDC) to show you how it works:

In this first slide, programmers remove half the vertical lines from the original image on the left, turning it into the image on the right. The result isn't great.

Ubisoft

With checkerboard rendering, the pixels are removed in a diagonal, checkerboard-like pattern. Much better!

Ubisoft


At 5 feet away from a 4K TV, the difference in Horizon: Zero Dawn and Days Gone was stunning. At 10 feet, they still looked noticeably better. Admittedly, I have 20/20 eyesight and review products for a living, but it was enough to make me consider trading in my existing PS4 for a PS4 Pro.

And even on a standard HDTV, one with a 1920x1080p resolution, the checkerboard technique (combined with supersampling, where a game is rendered at a higher resolution and then shrunk down to a lower one) greatly improved the quality. Lara Croft's hair, and the tree branches around her, didn't shimmer nearly as much. Old PS4 games looked like they'd been remastered once checkerboard rendering and supersampling were turned on.

Again, each and every PS4 game needs to be designed, or retroactively patched, with these techniques in mind, and even then not every game will run at what Cerny calls a "checkerboard 2160p." Out of Sony's initial flagship PS4 Pro games, only Horizon, Days Gone, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Rise of the Tomb Raider will support the highest resolution.

Days Gone.

Sony

Watch Dogs 2, Killing Floor 2, Infamous: First Light and Mass Effect Andromeda will run at "checkerboard 1800p," which I can attest is still much sharper than PS4 games were before. I could only notice the difference between 1800p and 2160p when I got within 6 feet of a 65-inch 4K TV. (I could only notice the difference between checkerboard 2160p and native 2160p from about 3-4 feet.)

And some games, like Uncharted 4, may take a different route entirely. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided will have a variable resolution from 1728p to 1952p, Spider-man and For Honor are trying different techniques to get to 2160p, and Paragon won't get improved on 4K TVs at all.

While most of these games will get supersampling for HDTVs, a few of them will not. There's even another technique called geometry rendering that takes less work, or developers can give gamers a high-frame-rate mode for smoother gameplay instead of higher resolution. (Tomb Raider will be the first to use the latter.)

Cerny's -- Sony's -- message is that it's up to developers to use the power of the PS4 Pro however they choose, which admittedly makes me wonder if some choose not to use it at all. Because the PS4 Pro won't offer faster game load times (according to Cerny) or any other new features, it wouldn't hurt to wait and see if developers play along.

But seeing what I've seen, I can only tell you how I felt: when I walked out of my briefing, I wanted a PS4 Pro.

Horizon: Zero Dawn.

Sony