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Red Dead Redemption 2 patch 1.09 tested: has HDR been fixed?

Plus: graphics 'downgrade' addressed - but was it broken in the first place?

Red Dead Redemption patch 1.09 arrived last week, delivering a huge update that took the online component out of its beta period and addressed the game's somewhat disappointing HDR support. On top of this, the patch notes discuss improving ambient occlusion, giving weight to stories circulating for months that the effect was somehow downgraded after the game launched. Were there actually reductions in visual quality? Is HDR now 'fixed'? We took a look at the new update and the news is positive: Red Dead Redemption 2 has never looked better with the new patch installed.

First impressions from an HDR perspective are impressive. The calibration screen now offers two modes - cinematic and game mode - plus there are user-controlled calibration variables for peak brightness and paper white. Side by side, the cinematic mode looks highly desaturated next to the game mode - which is perhaps not surprising as cinematic is effectively identical to Red Dead 2's original HDR implementation. This still presents like an eight-bit SDR image mapped into 10-bit HDR space, and for many users with HDR screens, the standard SDR mode may present a more impressive, vibrant picture.

It's in the game mode where Red Dead 2 delivers the HDR upgrade we've been waiting for. Contrast is exceptionally impressive, the bright sun's interactions with the atmospheric rendering look sublime, while highlights pop beautifully, especially on specular sheen. Moving into interiors and contrasting the darker corners with the bright light flooding into the windows gives us immense contrast, and the impression overall is that this is almost exactly the kind of HDR presentation we wanted at day one. The naming of the cinematic and game modes is interesting though, hinting at how the artists view RDR2's two HDR implementations.

The new HDR game mode is not quite perfect though. As a rule of thumb, the sun is the brightest source of illumination, and so in theory, looking at it should give us our look at peak brightness. It's interesting to note that the game is about 10 per cent short in delivering that. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the spectrum, there's a similar effect - the blackest blacks are not pure black. Perhaps it's down to the game's colour grading or some other variable subtly compressing the final image, but there it is.

Our analysis of the new Red Dead Redemption 2 patch. It's a proper HDR video for those with compatible displays, phones or apps.

Setting up Red Dead 2's game mode for optimal HDR output is a relatively painless task - the calibration screen has you adjusting peak brightness until the Rockstar logo disappears. You may wish to push this a little further to accommodate for the 10 per cent drop in luminance in-game. Meanwhile, the paper white setting is essentially equivalent to the brightness of a piece of paper - in practise, think of this as the ideal level for the HUD to settle at.

Even with adjustments made, there is the sense that Red Dead Redemption 2's HDR implementation isn't perfect - the image definitely seems to be a touch desaturated compared to SDR tone-mapping. If this bothers you, adjusting your display's saturation variable is the route forward - or just leaving the game in SDR if you prefer, though based on what we've been playing, the new game mode is the best way to play if you have a decent HDR screen.

With the HDR situation resolved, what should we make of Rockstar's patch notes about ambient occlusion? The patch notes suggest that AO was adjusted in patch 1.02 in order to increase performance, tying into downgrade reports. However, those reports suggest that the effect changed much later, some time around patch 1.06. Also muddying the situation was that screenshot comparisons were somewhat irrelevant owing to different time of day lighting.

HDR heatmap visualisation devised by Adam Fairclough maps luminance to colour as per this scale.
The left pair of images show the old HDR implementation, pegged firmly into the SDR space, artificially boosted with the in-game configuration. The right pair of images reveals a dramatic transformation, with true high dynamic range rendering.

We compared footage from the disc-based 1.00, 1.06, 1.08 and 1.09, limiting ourselves to the game's initial scenes which always take place at the same time of day. The results show a small variation from 1.06 onwards (and we're willing to bet that the change was indeed introduced in 1.02, as Rockstar says) with the effect improving significantly in the new 1.09. Rockstar suggests that the new AO effect should match the original on-disc version, but our head to head comparisons actually show a significant improvement over that.

Overall, patch 1.09 notches up another win in this respect - albeit a rather subtle one. In truth, matched shots between 1.0 and the 'nerfed' 1.06 only show a slight variation and some scenes actually look better on the apparently downgraded code, but the good news is that the new update improves over all prior AO implementations.

In concluding our tests with the new patch, we wanted to address another issue with the game - and one where many users believe that Rockstar had already made some improvements: the quality of PlayStation 4 Pro's checkerboard rendering. The game launched with 2160p CBR on the disc, but the final resolve was somewhat blurry, exacerbated by resolve issues that resulted in double-width pixels and other artefacts. Up against the pristine native 4K of the Xbox One X version, there was no comparison.

An improvement on the checkerboard solution would certainly be welcome, and many believed there was an incremental improvement a few weeks on from launch, but armed with matched capture from four different PS4 Pro releases of Red Dead 2, we can confirm that this aspect of the game is completely unchanged from the original 1.00 disc code, with the same artefacts manifesting across all tested versions with zero variation.

The HDR update is a winner overall though, with identical implementations in place for both PlayStation and Xbox users. If you own Red Dead 2, it's well worth revisiting - some of the best visuals of this generation now look even better on a suitably equipped HDR display, and if you ducked out of the incredibly long story mode (as we did) now's a good time to polish off your playthrough.

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Red Dead Redemption 2

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About the Author
Thomas Morgan avatar

Thomas Morgan

Senior Staff Writer, Digital Foundry

32-bit era nostalgic and gadget enthusiast Tom has been writing for Eurogamer and Digital Foundry since 2011. His favourite games include Gitaroo Man, F-Zero GX and StarCraft 2.