Many of you out there probably think I’ve been waging a one man war against Sony’s mid-generation upgrade to the Playstation 4, the PS4 Pro. I mean, I’ve written cynically about it enough.
I rambled my concerns of newer titles performing poorly on the base console pretty much immediately after rumours of the “PS4K” started doing the rounds last March. Once both Sony and Microsoft confirmed at E3 that multi-tiered console generations were definitely going to be a thing, I tried to put my disappointment aside and discuss how it could all work. And when The Last Guardian finally escaped development hell this past December I pointed to its garbage performance on the regular PS4 compared to the smooth frame rate of the Pro version as a kind of “I told you so.”
Now that last one ticked some people off, with forum users around the web saying I was falsely claiming that if the Pro didn’t exist then The Last Guardian would have had a perfect frame rate. I feel those responders missed my original point, which wasn’t that the Pro crippled the base PS4 version, more that Sony allows Pro owners to alter the graphics quality to improve performance but doesn’t allow regular console owners to do the same. This is a key aspect of the multi-tier hardware culture of PCs consoles seem to want to emulate so much.
Now enter Nioh, a recent PS4 exclusive which, as well as being a pretty darn good Dark Souls clone (stay tuned for our full review in the coming days), is a huge, if imperfect, leap in the right direction.
On top of the usual selection of visual options like brightness, Nioh gives players the choice of three different graphics modes: Action Mode, Movie Mode and Movie Mode (Variable Frame Rate). All three options alter the image resolution of the game on the fly in order to maintain a certain level of performance.
Action Mode lowers the resolution and aims to run Nioh at a constant 60 frame per second, whereas Movie Mode targets 30fps at higher resolutions (up to 1080p on base PS4, 4K on PS4 Pro). The variable frame rate Movie Mode attempts to balance the frame rate and resolution to give the best possible performance at any given moment. These modes are consistent across both the base PS4 and the PS4 Pro, meaning despite the Pro being capable of rendering higher resolutions, both versions can target the same frame rate.
To really spell it out, it means the game actually plays just as well on both systems while PS4 Pro owners can ultimately get a prettier looking image, which is the only difference the Pro should have ever had in the first place.
Now granted, the quality of the actual visuals in these modes are far from perfect, especially in the wildly inconsistent variable mode and in Action Mode on the base PS4. Digital Foundry crunched the numbers in their tech analysis, and they found that while in both Action and Movie mode the PS4 and PS4 Pro hit their frame rate targets with minimal drops, the base version primarily renders as low as 720p in Action Mode in order to hit 60fps, occasionally jumping up to 1728×972.
Yeah, that’s not great since it’s the kind of resolution you’d expect back in the PS3 days. I’ve been playing on a base PS4 in Action Mode and it hasn’t looked that bad to me. Not the best looking game, but I would never have guessed it was 720p until I saw Digital Foundry’s analysis, so textures and environment effects really pick up the slack. But still, 720p is pretty terrible in 2017.
But regardless, a lower resolution is the kind of hit you have to take to run a new game on older hardware, like when you don’t have the top of the line GPU in your PC. If you want that 1080p resolution, you can either have it at 30fps on the base PS4 like Digital Foundry deduced, or fork out for better hardware and have it at 60fps on the Pro.
And that’s been my whole point this entire time: I’m not against the PS4 Pro (I really want to get one since I want the best performance I can have), just as long as it isn’t shafting base console owners with games that run like garbage. If that means dropping the resolution, so be it; that’s the concession you have to make for not having the top of the line model.
Obviously in an ideal world the both consoles should be powerful enough to run games at 1080p/60fps on base model and native 4K and 60fps on the other, but we don’t live in Should-Land. With the level of detail people have come to expect in their AAA games we won’t see that kind of performance on consoles until the eventual PS5 at least.
But for now, Nioh gives us the options to choose our own best experience out of it, and that’s something in the current multi-tier console world that should be commended.