Just over a month has passed since PlayStation 4 Pro arrived in the Digital Foundry office - and we've been gradually working our way through its rapidly expanding library of game upgrades. The quality of Pro support varies from title to title but at its best, the new console absolutely delivers in providing an enhanced PlayStation experience worthy of a 4K display. Call of Duty Infinite Warfare, Battlefield 1, FIFA 17, Ratchet and Clank, Hitman, inFamous, Robinson: The Journey, Titanfall 2 - and doubtless many more - all provide a palpable, compromise-free upgrade. However, it's fair to say that it's also been a rocky road for the Pro and with Project Scorpio on the way, we can sure that Microsoft is watching intently, tweaking and refining its own 4K proposition based on feedback to the new PlayStation.
So with the benefit of experience, what works and what doesn't with Sony's new console? At the most basic level, the platform holder has demonstrated that there is demand for a mid-generation PlayStation refresh, and the time is right for a machine that targets 4K displays. Ultra HD screens are shipping in volume, the prices on new panels are often irresistible and while there are still aspects of TV technology that require refinement - principally HDR support or the lack of it - we're at the point now where even bargain-basement branded screens offer excellent value and performance.
Beyond the Pro's spec, there are two major achievements to highlight that will change console gaming going forward: it has taken 4K gaming (or an approximation of it) to the mainstream and it has also prioritized and started to deliver on the promise of full high dynamic range rendering. And in both respects, it has managed to leapfrog PC - the usual pioneer in gaming innovation - in terms of wider-scale consumer adoption. Back in April, I saw some exceptional HDR software at the GTX 1080 launch - but it's Sony hardware that is now delivering HDR games in reasonable volume. By the time Scorpio arrives, HDR support should be commonplace in new games and TV implementations to support it should be more robust. But let's be clear - it's Sony that has been the catalyst here.
4K support doesn't necessarily require native 4K rendering
Sony also deserves kudos for pushing 'smart' technology to achieve decent 4K results as opposed to relying upon pure rendering brute force, and a 4K experience from a 150-160W power consumption envelope is a remarkable achievement. Call it 'next-gen upscaling' if you like - and results are certainly mixed in the launch period - but a key area where PlayStation 4 Pro has laid solid foundations is in challenging the concept of how important native resolution is in delivering impressive image quality on ultra HD displays. PlayStation 4 Pro plays host to a range of native 4K titles, several of which operate at 60 frames per second, but it's fair to say that the more demanding games out there operate at a range of pixel counts.
It's early days for Pro but a couple of trends are emerging. Titles operating at 1800p or higher, using checkerboard rendering or not, deliver an image that looks highly effective on an ultra HD screen. Games that run at 1440p can also look good, but typically, it's the titles that utilise temporal super-sampling anti-aliasing that fare best here at this reduced pixel count - Titanfall 2 and Uncharted 4 are prime examples. Others - like Dishonored 2 and even the dynamically scaling Battlefield 1 - don't seem quite so well suited to a 4K display, but still deliver an enhanced experience over base hardware running on a full HD screen.
The big question Microsoft would have been struggling with in the run-up to Pro launch is the extent to which their 'true 4K' marketing has meaning in a world where the likes of Rise of the Tomb Raider, Ratchet and Clank and Infinite Warfare look so good on the Pro, and where key titles like FIFA 17 are already delivering 4K at 60fps.
Whether native 4K is the right target for Scorpio remains to be seen, but there's a certain softness to many Pro titles, and perhaps more 1440p releases than Sony would have bargained for. Certainly, the platform holder went into the PlayStation Meeting talking about 4K, 1800p and enhanced 1080p. At no point did it market the machine as a 1440p console - principally because it's not exactly a big sell - and yet in many cases, that is exactly what has been delivered in the launch period.
Bearing in mind the limited resources deployed to Pro consoles and the fact that support has mostly been retrofitted into existing projects, the results are generally positive and with the arrival of Project Scorpio, hopefully more time and effort will go into supporting these new machines - but based on the Pro's launch showing, there is the sense that in many cases, more can be made of 4K displays. If Scorpio delivers that, Microsoft should continue to press it home as an advantage.
Whether it's native or 'true' 4K or not is perhaps less important though. Checkerboarding works, Ratchet and Clank's temporal injection is exceptional. Even in the PC space, the temporal upscaler used in Watch Dogs 2 hands in exceptional results with a huge performance win. Its small artefacts are not an issue when you're getting a 50 per cent increase in frame-rate, to the point where even Nvidia - with a vested interest in pushing native 4K - is impressed with the results, calling it a 'revolution for gaming'. Next-gen upscaling is a game-changer - 4K is a great marketing tool, but perhaps pushing native pixel-counts as a key message is not the way forward.
The real challenge: selling the advantages of the box
What does PlayStation 4 Pro actually do? The challenges facing Sony in communicating the benefits to users are two-fold - first of all, developers have carte blanche to deliver what they want within a set of loose guidelines. This means we can see genuinely ambitious projects like Rise of the Tomb Raider with multiple performance and image quality modes, while on the flip-side we can see Pro upgrades that barely offer any improvement whatsoever - like Overwatch or Assassin's Creed Syndicate.
The big issue here is that Sony has been remarkably reticent about telling users what the Pro actually does on a title-by-title basis - which is perhaps not surprising bearing in mind how the extent of the upgrade can vary. As things stand, it's often difficult to find out what the advantage of the Pro is on certain titles, to the point where had to contact Blizzard with a kind of 'is that it?' email once we looked at the Pro patch for Overwatch and saw little utilisation of the hardware. Some updates arrive with no mention whatsoever of Pro support at all - such as FIFA 17 or Battlefield 1. Super Stardust Ultra's Pro support actually extends only to VR functionality - a real disappointment when one of my favourite games gets no tangible improvement otherwise.
Of course, there have been plenty of developers who have been open about Pro enhancements, detailing exactly what you should expect to see. Canny indies have used the arrival of the Pro to reinvigorate sales by offering key enhancements - but the point is that we shouldn't have to use Google or scan developer websites to find out whether a game even has Pro support. At the absolute minimum, the existence of Pro support and the features available should be mandatory in the patch notes - which are readily available on the console itself. Ideally, Pro features should be listed on the PlayStation Store and notifications of Pro updates for games in your library would be useful too.
This is probably the most baffling element of the Pro launch so far - the layers of mystery surrounding what games have been enhanced, what the improvements provide, and crucially, what benefits 1080p display users get - or don't get. It's basic communication and the lack of it has been bizarre to say the least. This is one area that must improve and that Microsoft must get right on day one. The remarkable reality is that the majority of the Pro's userbase would have bought the console without actually seeing anything like the quality it is capable of delivering. And this still remains a significant issue. In-store 4K HDR demos would be the right step forward - though kitting out stores with displays that show PS4 Pro or Project Scorpio at their best is not going to be cheap. Sony demoed the Pro at press events on the £4000 ZD9 display. Our preference for HDR gaming - the LG OLEDB6V - costs a minimum of £1900. Mid-range displays like the Sony KS7000/KS8000 can provide a nice HDR image, but let's be clear here: it's nowhere near as good as the full-fat HDR experience provided by the top-tier screens on the market today.
The unboxing wow factor - or lack of it
Call it a ritual if you like, but when you buy a new console, unbox it, and set it up, there must be a pay-off - a wow factor, an instant 'win' - an immediate validation of your purchase, if you like. To put it simply, first impressions matter. PlayStation VR arguably ticks the required boxes, while there's a compelling argument that PlayStation 4 Pro does not. The new console is designed to offer an iterative upgrade to base hardware, but in the flesh, it must at least look and feel a little more special. PSVR's beautifully designed, futuristic headset delivers the wow factor when you take it out of the box, while the game-heavy demo disc offers a wealth of experiences that validate your purchase. If you've only had limited exposure to VR before, the wow factor is off the charts.
PlayStation 4 Pro is nowhere near as successful here. It relies upon you owning software already, where the benefits of the upgrade can vary radically from one title to the next, and crucially, there's no demo disc packed with Pro-enabled samplers that highlight what the machine is capable of. It's a far cry from the PlayStation Meeting, where press were guided through a range of really impressive software. Download tokens for the Horizon Zero Dawn or Days Gone demos I saw at Sony's event would have solved this issue instantly and given a taste of the incredible software to come. Perhaps if Square-Enix could have been convinced to produce a cut-down version of Rise of the Tomb Raider's Syria level (another excellent PlayStation Meeting demo), a similar effect could have been achieved.
My understanding is that Microsoft is looking for a premium finish with Project Scorpio, but the out of the box wow factor is about more than just the fit and finish of the box itself. We can safely assume that Forza Horizon and Gears of War 4 will arrive in a 4K-enhanced Scorpio format - why not include one of them ready-installed on the hard drive? The very nature of the mid-gen refresh consoles means that exclusive games are off the table, making it even harder to generate buzz. Neither Pro nor Scorpio will ever have a Ridge Racer, Super Mario 64 or Halo moment - an out of the box launch experience that live with you for years, that defines the hardware if you like. But clearly something more must be done to make that all-important initial set-up experience much more of an event.
One month on, it's fascinating to see the reality of the PlayStation 4 Pro vs the selected highlights Sony presented to us pre-launch. On the one hand, playing Infinite Warfare or Ratchet and Clank on a 4K screen - or even 1800p fare like inFamous and Watch Dogs 2 - sends a clear signal that the PlayStation 4 Pro hardware can deliver in bringing the console experience to a 4K screen. Even 1440p, backed by temporal super-sampling, still looks good scaled up to ultra HD. However, what's equally apparent is that there is an inconsistency in the quality level, to the point where at the most extreme end, some Pro upgrades offer next to nothing in terms of enhancements. Tweaking of quality assurance is required, along with refined technical requirements from Sony - as we mentioned earlier this week, specific Pro implementations should not be siphoned off to users of a particular display.
But there's another important factor to consider too. By and large, Sony has managed to launch a premium platform that does not unduly impact on the quality of the titles running on base hardware - which clearly remains the main target for developers. A key concern when 'PS4K' was first revealed would be that the standard PS4 would be left behind in a scramble to support the newer console. This has not happened, and based on the direction we've seen for 1800p and 4K on titles like GT Sport, in addition to other upcoming titles like Days Gone and Horizon Zero Dawn, this is likely to remain the case. On the flipside, we had concerns that Pro would be under-utilised - and while there have been some unfortunately slight upgrades in the launch period, it seems clear that the Pro will get more attention on future titles - Death Stranding being presented at 4K at the PlayStation Experience is a strong statement of intention, for starters.
It's been a year of risk-taking for Sony with a VR platform and a mid-gen console refresh launching within weeks of each other - and a split focus from the platform holder could have produced disastrous results. However, in both cases, compelling experiences have been delivered and the firm deserves kudos for pushing back boundaries in console gaming so audaciously, even if it has led to some mixed results. In that sense, Microsoft has several luxuries going forward: 4K and fully featured HDR technology will be more established - and cheaper - by launch, it can pivot on what its spec boost delivers in terms of the experience and it can work on better evangelising what the advantages of the mid-gen refresh actually are. Personally, I'm hoping for that work to begin at CES just a few short weeks from now.
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