E3 2017: Why Project Scorpio is good news for PS4 Pro users
More 4K hardware on the market means better support for everyone.
We are mere hours away from Microsoft taking the wraps off Project Scorpio at the firm's E3 2017 media briefing. We'll find out what it's called, we'll see final hardware, and hopefully we'll be told how much it costs. But the big story will be software and the continuing transition of console gaming to 4K displays. Comparisons with PS4 Pro are inevitable, with Microsoft promising the best versions of the top games. But if the arrival of Scorpio sounds like bad news for the Pro, we beg to differ - another 4K games console on the market can only be a good thing.
The bottom line is this: game development is primarily cross-platform in nature, and for the last six months, PlayStation 4 Pro has been in a class of its own. That's a good thing for Sony in carving out a niche in the marketplace, but not so good for developers, uncertain of how much in the way of resources they should invest into 4K gaming. The result has been a lack of consistency in the quality of Pro support, with only a minority of titles really pushing the boat out in pursuit of a top-tier 4K experience. Put simply, Pro users can buy a new game and never quite know to what extent the enhanced hardware will be utilised - if it's used at all.
And let's be clear - 4K done right is simply glorious. We've seen it this week with the excellent WipEout Omega Collection, while Guerrilla Games' Horizon Zero Dawn is a breathtaking ultra HD experience. In fact, there are a big bunch of beautiful 4K games on PS4 Pro: Rise of the Tomb Raider, Ratchet and Clank, Resogun, COD Infinite Warfare and Thumper, for example. The Gran Turismo Sport beta also promises great things.
But there are disappointments too. Despite retail box labelling to the contrary, Bethesda's Prey launched with no PS4 Pro support at all and when the upgrades did arrive, they looked fairly subtle. Tekken 7 brings 1080p resolution, improved texture filtering and minor effects upgrades. It's nicer than the same game running on base hardware, but not to the extent that makes a console upgrade justifiable. And it's the same with Dirt 4, released this week. It's still 1080p, but with improved anti-aliasing and other, less obvious visual boosts. Again, given the choice, we'd play all of these titles on Pro, but these kinds of upgrades aren't really what we were promised when the hardware was announced to much fanfare last September. It's more akin to the kind of boost you get when moving up a rung on the PC graphics card ladder.
And then there's the bafflingly long list of Pro titles that up-res the existing PlayStation 4 versions to 1440p, sometimes with smaller graphics upgrades. Injustice 2, Outlast 2, Dishonored 2, Ghost Recon Wildlands, Fallout 4, Titanfall 2, Firewatch - the list is extensive and even includes the mighty Uncharted 4. All of them offer clear visual improvements on a 4K screen - and techniques like Naughty Dog's temporal anti-aliasing solution can make a big difference - but fundamentally, judged in terms of the numbers alone, we are looking at the equivalent of a 720p presentation running on a 1080p screen, scaled up for the 4K display era.
Based on the range of Pro titles we've tested, it's becoming difficult to avoid the conclusion that Sony's preferred 'smart rendering' solutions for 4K aren't getting anything like the universal take-up we would have hoped for. There's the sense that the easiest route forward for developers is to ramp up resolution until frame-rate stumbles, or else to import some higher quality visual effects from the PC versions. The user gets extra value, but equally, we're left with the feeling that we should've got more, that somehow the Pro is being sold short.
Before writing off 1440p though, we'd urge Pro owners to check out Ubisoft's For Honor. Base resolution is indeed at the QHD level, but whatever temporal sampling approach the developers are using here is simply exceptional, to the point where the presentation compares highly favourable with the same content running on PC at native 4K. But this is another example of 'smart' rendering techniques that clearly involve more developer resources. And the same goes for high dynamic range support. To be fair, PS4 Pro has by far the biggest HDR library, but overall support is still spotty - despite most titles internally operating with high dynamic range graphics pipelines.
All of which brings us onto Project Scorpio and the mutually beneficial effects we hope it will have. In the cross-platform development era, the arrival of a new Xbox can only have good things for more comprehensive 4K support, no matter which console you choose to own. More machines on the market aimed at ultra HD displays means that there's more of a financial incentive for developers to support them with more ambitious features. The volume of native 1440p titles on Pro may suggest a basic system limit on what the GPU is capable of, but we can get some idea of a potential way forward by looking at the work of EA's Frostbite team. An excellent HDR implementation debuted in Mass Effect Andromeda, but it's just one part of an engine upgrade deployed first on PS4 Pro, but likely to feature on Scorpio too.
Mass Effect targets checkerboard 1800p, which is then upscaled to 4K. Many elements of the presentation resolve at a native 1600x1800, before going through the checkerboarding process to 3200x1800. The raw numbers here are eye-opening in that 1600x1800 is just 78 per cent of 1440p's pixel count. And yet, as you can see from the Mass Effect comparison on this page, the 1800p presentation manages to compare favourably to the full-fat 4K output from PC. In fact, it's the quality settings elsewhere in the engine that show more differences as opposed to the core rendering resolution - post-processing, texture quality and terrain detail, for example.
The Frostbite team's PS4 Pro checkerboarding presentation talks about base PS4 and less specific 'Xbox' support for future work - and changes will be required as both consoles lack the Pro's specific, targeted hardware for checkerboarding support. Chances are we'll see more native 4K games on Scorpio in the fullness of time (it is the more powerful console overall, after all) but based on developer documentation we've seen, checkerboarding is a good fit for Microsoft's new machine. Especially for Xbox One titles operating at 900p (or with dynamic scalers, like Battlefield 1), checkerboarding allows for more GPU power to be thrown at the sophistication of the rendered image, as opposed to raw pixel count.
Internal Scorpio developer documentation we've seen describes how well Microsoft's console manages to run the most basic of ports of key Xbox One titles. The names of the games aren't specifically mentioned, but one example stands out - it's described as a 60fps first-person shooter that has shipped using the DX12 API, running on a proprietary engine and rendering at 720p resolution. By a process of elimination, this sounds like Star Wars Battlefront - a Frostbite title - and the data is fascinating. Based on GPU performance alone - CPU isn't included in the data - the unoptimised Scorpio port running at the same resolution could hit 120 frames per second. But at native 4K, it's only 36-40fps.
That kind of scalability is still impressive but the thing to stress here is that the docs are describing the most basic of rough ports, and a conversion process that disadvantages Scorpio hardware. For example, Xbox One's ESRAM is now mapped into Scorpio's unified pool of GDDR5, meaning lots of hugely unnecessary read/writes between memory that would be stripped out in Scorpio-specific code. But the point remains that it's a good example of a title that stands to benefit immensely from using checkerboarding techniques. On top of that, the Frostbite-driven Battlefield 1 demonstrates how well that can merge with other great 'smart' rendering techniques, including dynamic resolution and temporal anti-aliasing - as seen in the PS4 Pro version. Again, it just makes sense for these techniques to roll out onto Scorpio too.
So, if the future is perhaps 1800p on Pro and 4K on Scorpio for the most demanding third party engines - checkerboard or not - it's not difficult to imagine other developers deploying more resources to match the kind of results seen in Frostbite. And an 1800p/4K divide between the two consoles will likely prove perfectly serviceable - 900p/1080p wasn't that bad in practise with current-gen hardware, and the difference is subtler scaled up to the vast 8.3m pixel canvas of today's UHD panels. We have a feeling it'll be other aspects that will prove more divisive - improved texture quality on Scorpio, for example, owing to its larger memory allocation.
But the volume of evidence so far in terms of shipping titles suggests that '4K done right' with smart rendering techniques perhaps isn't as simple as Sony initially thought. It needs time, effort and iteration - our interview with Housemarque on its excellent Resogun 4K implementation is worth a read. Early Pro 4K implementations saw just one or two developers working on the upgrades - Housemarque deployed a team of engineers working for several months.
That kind of investment in time and effort is more likely to happen with more 4K machines in users' homes, but it also helps if there are more UHD screens in place too. The good news is that 4K TVs will significantly outsell 1080p screens this year, and by next year, we suspect it'll be hard to find standard HD displays in stores in any great volume. But for those who hold onto their 1080p screens, we expect to see a greater level of super-sampling support going forward - something that remains patchy on PS4 Pro. Downsampling is incorporated on all higher resolution Scorpio titles, which in turn, is more likely to drive feature parity on Pro.
Clearly, the focus will be on the Project Scorpio reveal this weekend. Native, true 4K gaming will take centre stage. The next Forza Motorsport hasn't been revealed yet, but it would be massively surprising if a full 4K presentation on Scorpio isn't a part of the proceedings, based on what we saw during our visit to Turn 10. We've no further insider knowledge to share, aside from the fact that Microsoft's developer presentations corroborate what the firm told us when we lifted the lid on Scorpio's hardware spec. Factor in that the firm has been shipping PC versions of its titles with 4K assets since Gears of War Ultimate Edition, released in August 2015, and we suspect it's not a case of whether the new console can handle 4K gaming - it's more of a case of how many Scorpio-enhanced 4K titles it already has in the bag.
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