Beyond the allure of exclusive games, the biggest selling point for consoles has arguably been their simplicity. The best graphics and performance might be on PC, but it’s a really appealing option for many consumers to simply buy one box, hook it up to their TV and get years of enjoyment. That’s why it’s a bit alarming to see a bit of a change this generation in the form of the now-available PlayStation 4 Pro.
While previous gens saw fit to redesign their hardware with slimmer, sexier models of current consoles, this is the first to provide meaningful upgrades in the specs department (and Xbox One’s upcoming Project Scorpio will bring an even bigger divide between its specs and those of its original model than the Pro). The bottom line is that things are a bit more complex now: consumers who already have PS4 now need to decide whether or not an upgrade is worth it, and consumers who want to purchase a PS4 need to know whether the Pro model is worth their while.
Consumers’ biggest problem with PlayStation 4 Pro is likely to be confusion over exactly what it does for each supported product. Sony’s told people to watch out for a special “PS4 Pro Enhanced” marking on retail boxes, but a) that option isn’t available for digital purchases and b) that still leaves the question of “what’s enhanced?” up in the air. While Sony’s pushing 4K resolution as the biggest advantage the Pro has over the normal model of its console, the truth is that the improvements vary wildly from game to game. That’s not inherently a bad thing, though; in many cases, it provides players with more options related to graphical detail and performance.
Two of the games that got day one support are great examples of the Pro providing player choice. The Last of Us Remastered lets players choose between running the game at a 3200 x 1800 resolution at 60fps and in native 4K (3840 × 2160) at 30 fps. Rise of the Tomb Raider, meanwhile, gives players even more display options: 4K, 1080p/60fps and “enriched visuals” at 1080p/30fps are all available. The increased detail on both games’ higher-resolution offerings, as well as the “enriched visuals” of the latter, are quite stunning to look at — and if you’ve invested in a 4K TV without much content to play on it so far, these modes will likely be more than welcome.
The one downside, then, is that despite increased power, the PS4 Pro has difficulty achieving peak performance with its increased resolutions. Digital Foundry discovered that The Last of Us Remastered can’t quite manage 60fps in the aforementioned 3200 x 1800 mode, meaning Pro owners have to sacrifice a bit of performance for visual fidelity with that release. And across the board, it’s looking like the choice for players is largely going to come down to higher resolution versus higher framerates — the Pro isn’t quite where it needs to be to render 4K at 60fps.
This all might sound like a huge bummer, but the fact of the matter is that we’re still very early on in the Pro’s life, with a lot more support still to come. For what it’s worth, the handful of games supported at launch offer a tantalizing taste of the sort of benefits we might expect later on — and personally, I’m hoping that Sony and third-party developers choose to focus on offering players smoother framerates just as much as (or perhaps even more than) 4K. The fact that Paragon and The Witness have 60fps options in addition to the games above is encouraging; needless to say, as a massive Final Fantasy fan, one of my main motivations for purchasing the Pro is to experience the hopefully-going-to-happen 1080p/60fps version of Final Fantasy XV.
Ah, but there’s one more thing to address here. When the system was still known under its rumored codename, “Neo,” there was a rumor going around that the PlayStation 4 Pro would offer the true PSVR experience for owners of the virtual reality headset, while owners of regular PS4s would get a technically-flawed experience. Thankfully, we now know that the most concerning aspect of that rumor has been debunked — games for PSVR play just fine on regular PS4, as I stated in my review. They only stand to have improvements on Pro, then, although I have to admit the enhanced PSVR titles available at launch didn’t leave as much of an impression as the ones for regular games did.
Thumper, for example, benefits from improved anti-aliasing in its VR version, but it’s difficult to tell the difference without viewing a side-by-side comparison of the visuals. Futuridium EP Deluxe and Rez Infinite offer the vague prospect of “increased detail,” but again, the changes weren’t immediately obvious to me as they were when turning on 4K for The Last of Us or Rise of the Tomb Raider. Perhaps the game that benefits the most in VR is the gorgeous Bound, whose improved resolution made the abstract geometric environments less jagged and janky in an obvious way.
PlayStation 4 Pro is a bit of a confusing product at this early stage, but what I’ve seen of its improvements to current games leaves me very optimistic about its future — especially when developers are working with the system in mind, rather than building enhancements retroactively. I do wish Sony would make it a bit more obvious what improvements come for each game; it could be as easy as a “Pro Enhancements” button that lists the changes in the upgraded versions, similar to how the “Update History” lets players know what’s changed from a patch. Until then, though, IGN has a pretty excellent wiki.
My final verdict is this: if you currently have a PS4 and are wondering if you need to upgrade, I’d wait for now, keeping an eye on the improvements Pro is bringing to new releases. Personally, having a 4K TV and hearing about the potential 1080/60 mode for Final Fantasy XV was enough for me, but your mileage may heavily vary. On the other hand, if you don’t currently have a PS4 and you’re looking to jump into this generation of PlayStation, the $100 extra for the Pro model will likely be well worth it for the improved visuals and performance enhancements — even if you don’t have a television that can output 4K.
The PlayStation 4 Pro is disappointingly not powerful enough to deliver 4K gaming at 60fps, but the improvements it brings to releases both new and old are impressive. If you're looking to play games at their best resolution or framerate, this is the system to have.