Sony\’s PlayStation 4 Pro shows promise, potential and plenty of pretty lighting

Sony\’s PlayStation 4 Pro shows promise, potential and plenty of pretty lighting

During last week’s official unveiling of the PlayStation 4 Pro, Sony executives and game developers peppered their presentations with plenty of technical jargon and sales pitches. Marketing buzzwords, such as “immersive” and “visceral” and technobabble like “temporal and spatial anti-aliasing algorithms”, were liberally used to describe the machine’s potential.

But it was the heroine of Electronic Arts’ upcoming “Mass Effect: Andromeda” who best summed up the PS4 Pro’s potential when she exclaimed, “The whole place is lighting up!” during an impressive gameplay preview.

While the character was actually referring to an impending alien attack in the game, she could have just as easily been talking about the PS4 Pro’s ability to turn every light-based effect into a candy-coated treat for the eyes.

Under the hood

Sporting a GPU twice as powerful as the PlayStation 4, a high-power CPU, a 1TB hard drive and 4K resolution and high-dynamic (HDR) support, the PS4 Pro won’t be wanting for back-of-the-box bullet points when it hits November 10 for $399.99. But it was the PS4 Pro’s HDR support that Sony was keen on showing off during up-close demos.

According to Sony CEO Andrew House, HDR, “contributes to enhancements in visual clarity, color and luminance.” In other words, everything from sunsets to superpowers will look prettier on the PS4 Pro thanks to its ability leverage a spectrum of colors so vast it could make a rainbow blush.

We got a convincing taste of this when producer Victor Harris played Bend Studio’s “Days Gone” on both a PS4 Pro and a standard PS4. When the open-world zombie game’s biker protagonist Deacon St. John lit up a horde of undead with a Molotov cocktail on the regular PS4, the corpse-cooking flames all looked similar. With HDR enabled on the PS4 Pro, though, they looked noticeably better. Different degrees of brightness and various shades of orange and red almost had us smelling the charred flesh.

Sony's PlayStation lineSony's PlayStation line
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The PlayStation 4, PlayStation 4 Pro and PlayStation VR.

A subtler, albeit equally impressive, example demonstrated how the PS4 Pro’s HDR technology can simultaneously handle extreme lights and darks. With Deacon standing in a dim barn, Harris directed us toward a bean of sunlight shining through a window. Without HDR, the bright rays completely swallowed up a tree in the distance.

On the PS4 Pro, though, the tree was clearly visible. To our surprise, the same trick worked in “inFamous: First Light,” a game that’s more than two years old. Thanks to a “forward-compatible” HDR patch for the game, we could see the protagonist’s hand harnessing a glowing superpower; on the PS4, however, the blinding orb consumed her entire hand.

We also witnessed “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End” — arguably this generation’s most gorgeous console game — somehow become even more stunning with the help of a similar HDR patch. Standing on a beach, swashbuckling treasure hunter Nathan Drake peered at a beautiful, stretching sky. The scene went from pretty without the patch to picture-perfect when it was applied, adding previously unseen color variations and cloud-poking sunbeams.

While the majority of our eyes-on demos focused on HDR-specific features, we did spy some of the enhanced detail the PS4 Pro’s 4K compatibility brings to the table. During our time with “Days Gone,” for example, the biker patches on Deacon’s tattered vest were illegible on the PS4, but could easily be read when rendered on the PS4 Pro. Similarly, where tree leaves in Guerrilla Games’ forthcoming action-RPG “Horizon: Zero Dawn” blended together on the PS4, they sported crisper details and defined edges on the more powerful Pro.

The PlayStation VR pickle

What we didn’t see was how significantly the console might complement Sony’s other big fall hardware release: PlayStation VR. PS4 lead architect Mark Cerny promised an “increase crispness of scenes, a higher frame-rate and richer special effects, as well as a double-rendered pixel count for promising PS VR first-person shooter “Farpoint,” but deep-diving details and specific examples were lacking.

With a reported 40 million PlayStation owners in the wild, Sony possesses a substantial ready-for-VR audience. Considering that competing high-end headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive carry far higher price tags and require powerful PCs to operate, Sony’s massive install base stands could make the company the leader in mainstream VR adoption.

Of course, billing the PS4 Pro as the machine to experience PS VR on could alienate current PS4 owners eager to plunk down their cash for a passport to virtual reality. Toss in the fact PS VR lands on October 13, nearly a month before the PS4 Pro’s November 11 launch, and the PlayStation business is in a bit of a pickle. We doubt Sony is sweating it, though. They’ve been winning the current console war since day one — the PS4 continues to thrive, and pre-orders for PS VR are strong.

Buzz from last week’s briefing has been mixed, perhaps because much of the PS4 Pro’s potential won’t reach fruition until future titles get the hardware firing on all cylinders. Increased frame rates, enhanced visual effects and higher scene complexity were just a few of the complementing features Cerny said will “take the PS4 experience to extraordinary new levels.”

While the eyes-on HDR comparisons occasionally had us scooping our jaws from the floor — and may be enough to convince the “highly discriminating” gamers House referenced to pony up for a PS4 Pro — we’ll remain cautiously optimistic until the hardware not only raises the bar, but manages to hurl it through the heart of our expectations, as well.

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