Skyrim on PS4 Pro runs at native 4K - but there's a catch

The standard PS4 version has smoother performance overall.

By David Bierton. Published 10 November 2016

Skyrim Special Edition is one of the first games to support PlayStation 4 Pro, with the code already included on the game disc., and unlike the majority of Pro enhanced titles, Bethesda's popular RPG runs natively at 4K resolution - that's a 3840x2160 framebuffer without utilising checkerboard rendering or upscaling from a lower resolution. We can also confirm that resolution appears to be locked at that number with no dynamic scaling or any other similar technique. It's fair to say that the boost in pixel count provides an immediate leap over the native 1080p base PS4 game, resolving more detail and definition across the game's rugged environments.

Running on a standard PS4 at 1080p, Skyrim features a distinctly soft appearance that lacks the sharpness you'd expect to see when running 1:1 pixel-mapped on a full HD screen, caused by the game's temporal AA solution blurring the image to a noticeable degree. The upside is that jaggies and other edge artefacts are practically eliminated, which creates a very clean presentation. This is an area where the quadrupling in resolution on PS4 Pro using the 4K mode yields a welcome upgrade. The presentation may still appear on the softer side, but there's a nice uptick in visible fine details across distant scenery and textures, which are smoothed over to a greater degree at lower resolutions.

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Bethesda also employs the same temporal AA solution with the game running in PS4 Pro's 4K mode, and when combined with the increase in pixel count, we get a highly refined image where edge artefacts are a non-issue. Arguably, there's less of a need to use strong levels of anti-aliasing at ultra-high resolutions owing to the tight pixel density helping to conceal jaggies to a better degree than on a 1080p screen - the stair steps are much smaller and thus stand out less obviously.

However, combining both temporal AA and UHD resolution produces a very smooth image, though sharpness is sacrificed as a result. Even so the resolution boost is a worthwhile upgrade for owners of 4K TVs, where avoiding a 1080p upscale is preferable. And in terms of image quality alone the Pro's 4K mode matches up nicely to the PC version running at the same resolution.

Outside of the boost in pixel count, the PS4 Pro mode features little else in terms of visual enhancements. Shadow quality and general effects work is identical to the experience running on a standard PS4, and the core artwork remains untouched. That said, we do get a boost to foliage draw distance, bringing this element into line with the PC version's ultra preset. This leads to plants and tufts of grass getting steamed in more quickly than on the standard PS4, with these objects visible at longer range. It's a subtle difference that doesn't immediately stand out during gameplay, but does add an extra layer of refinement to the presentation that's nice to see.

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However, improved streaming doesn't extend to other aspects of the visuals, and draw distances for geometric objects and other elements appear identical to the base PS4 game. As such, the PC version still features additional details at range, from rocks scattered across the ground to sign posts that have yet to materialize on consoles.

In fact, the increase in resolution is by far the biggest upgrade for PS4 Pro owners, but what does the game offer for those using a full HD screen? Well, as we're likely to see on many titles going forward, Skyrim's 1080p mode provides a super-sampled image, where the image is rendered natively at 4K before downsampling to 1080p. Given that Skyrim Special Edition already has very clean image quality when displayed on a stock PS4 the upgrade here isn't as dramatic as we'd see in titles using a less aggressive anti-aliasing solution.

That's not to say there is no benefit. Slight shimmer across sub-pixel details displayed when running on the standard PS4 are eliminated, while the downsampling effect manages to produce a slightly sharper image with subtle improvements in texture clarity across the game. The increased foliage draw distance is also in effect in 1080p mode, which is to be expected.

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Sony emphasizes that games running on PS4 Pro must have frame-rates that are better than or equal to the game running on the standard PS4 console. However, that's not the case with Skyrim, where the increase in resolution can lead to a visible drop in performance in scenes where the GPU is pushed more heavily.

For example, scenes that feature use of alpha-heavy effects cause frame-rates to deviate from the desired 30fps target. In like-for-like situations, the PS4 Pro game sees a 2-3fps deficit, resulting in more noticeable stutter compared to the title running on the standard PS4 console. The base PS4 performance isn't impacted to the same degree, with only a few 1-3fps drops cropping up on occasion across a general run of play.

As such, the experience doesn't feel quite as smooth when running at 4K, with more substantial hitches when moving through detailed environments. It's not a deal-breaker and by and large, the 30fps performance target is met. However, the drop in frame-rates does feel like step down from the more consistent 30fps update present across the standard PS4 and Xbox One consoles running the game, and that's a shame as the jump to 4K really does provide a tangible upgrade in visual quality in other areas.

It's a pleasant surprise that Skyrim Special Edition does indeed run at native 4K and has no visual compromises over the PS4 version - indeed, it's ever-so-slightly better-looking. The boost in quality allows for the PS4 version to more closely match the PC version running on a powerful graphics card - at least in terms of resolution, as frame-rates remain capped at 30fps. However, performance isn't as solid as the base PS4 game, and ultimately we have a trade off in smoothness for an increase in raw image quality. It pays off for owners of 4K screens, but isn't ideal for users hoping to get a complete upgrade in 1080p mode using a full HD screen.

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It's also disappointing that there isn't a dedicated 1080p mode with visuals matching the PC's ultra preset, especially as the PS4 Pro could easily handle the inclusion of higher resolution shadows, improved volumetric lighting and expanded draw distances that found in that version. In that respect, more could have been done to provide a better 1080p experience - perhaps swapping out supersampling from 4K for higher quality visuals in other areas. In this regard, those wanting a smoother experience would be better served by the base PS4 game, though you do forgo slightly improved image quality as a result.

So, while Skyrim Special Edition has a good stab at bringing the native 4K experience to consoles, the execution isn't quite flawless and it's actually Pro users with 1080p screens that get a raw deal - they get the exact same performance as the 4K users owing to the super-sampling implementation. The end result is that while it may only affects the game in certain scenarios, the bottom line is that Skyrim runs smoother on base PS4 hardware than it does on the Pro - and that's just not good enough.

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