PlayStation VR will work with a standard PS4, but is the experience improved with a PS4 Pro? Photograph: Sony
With the arrival of the current generation of virtual reality, much of the battle for hardware supremacy has focused on one seemingly esoteric factor: the trade-off between image resolution and frame-rate.
It may seem like a curiously technical point on which to define a consumer product war, but with VR, how a game is displayed isn’t just a matter of aesthetics; it can severely impact user comfort, and even function. In designing their respective headsets, the teams behind Oculus’ Rift and HTC’s Vive opted to offer high display resolution. Each headset sports a 2160 x 1200 overall output, comfortably trumping PlayStation VR’s 1920 x 1080 fidelity.
So why did Sony choose to make sacrifices in image quality? One factor, it appears, is that PSVR has forgone peak resolution so as prioritise running at an impressive 120 frames-per-second (FPS), capably beating the 90FPS offered by HTC and Oculus. Technically, some content for Sony’s headset is bumped from 60FPS to the full 120FPS via an approach named reprojection, but the point stands. PSVR sacrifices resolution in favour of more comfortable movement.
That potential for fluidity means a less jarring experience as you spin your head when inside a virtual realm, which in turn serves VR’s ultimate offering: presence. This is the most striking element of a quality virtual reality experience; the sense that you really occupy the world you are visiting. But as potent as that sensation can be, with a stutter of the screen image the illusion can come crashing down.
The PlayStation 4 Pro – which already offers several advantages away from VR – hopes to bolster Sony’s position on this arcane frontline. With a faster CPU and more powerful graphics processing than the standard PS4, it promises to augment the capabilities of the PlayStation VR hardware. We set out to see just how noticeable this is.
Until Dawn: Rush of Blood Photograph: Sony
The boost the PS4 Pro provides to PSVR slightly adjusts the frame-rate/resolution trade-off, potentially bettering both image and movement quality.
Any improvement, however, is strictly limited by the existing PSVR hardware, which is locked at the aforementioned 1920 x 1080 resolution. In other words, whatever technical powerhouse you plug into Sony’s headset, the screen is the size it is. It is not 4K and does not support HDR; two front-of-the-box features on which the PS4 Pro is being sold to traditional flat display users.
However, the upgraded PlayStation does promise to improve frame-rate smoothness and consistency for VR, which should further remove judder and blur from any virtual reality game optimised for the Pro. That is an important note. Many future PSVR releases will come ‘Pro-ready’, while numerous existing titles have already been prepared for the machine via an update.
The key question, then, is what real difference does this all make to those games?
Without considering motion, a given Pro-optimised PSVR game typically looks only delicately improved by the more powerful PS4. Across the spread of smaller experiences in Sony’s own VR Worlds, there appears to be a little more graphical finesse via a Pro, while in the more complex Until Dawn: Rush of Blood or Driveclub VR, there is more discernible improvement in detail and texturing. The tangle of neon-slash wireframes within Res Infinite’s VR mode, meanwhile, do look as if they are a touch more vibrant and present.
Robinson: The Journey is one of the first PlayStation VR to be optimised out of the box for PS4 Pro Photograph: Crytek
And then there’s Robinson, Crytek’s tale of being stranded alone on a dinosaur-riddled island. ‘Pro from day-one’, Robinson is perhaps the best-looking PSVR game yet, regardless of the console version powering it. But bolstered by Pro, detail at distance is notably improved, in tandem with support for the enhanced SSDO/SSAO lighting effects exposing that visual quality. Add in higher quality texture filtering and more seamless level of detail (LOD) generation, and while the difference is neither striking nor game-changing, Robinson is definitely a prettier game when played through a Pro.
However, all Pro-ready titles tested still carry a resolution somewhat lower than scene of a typical HD flat display, thanks to PSVR’s ‘per eye’ resolution of 960 x 1080, so visually, the upgraded console remains fundamentally comparable to that enjoyed on a vanilla PS4.
But there’s something else to consider.
Even sedate experiences such as Tumble VR get a subtle but noticeable benefit from PS4 Pro Photograph: Sony
Start to move around a little more and a few more benefits materialise. Most importantly, there is less motion blurring. A sharp flick of the head from left to right reveals that even rapid movements are greeted with slightly crisper, steadier images, all of which makes things more convincing, and more immersive. The improvement is subtle, but the impact is more significant – it can make all the difference between a comfortable experience and a nausea-inducing nightmare.
Even in low-movement titles, like the understated block stacking puzzler Tumble, that improvement can be felt, and for more energetic experiences like online shooter RIGS: Mechanized Combat League or VR Worlds’ Scavengers Odyssey, things do feel a touch more fluid. Again, the improvement isn’t wild or outstanding, but something feels different.
Res Infinite is very comfortable with the intensity setting pushed to its upper limit via a PS4 Pro, and back in the front seat of Driveclub VR the experience does feel just a shade more comfortable and less demanding of the senses. But then Driveclub VR was always a comfortable game.
Robinson, meanwhile, has a few too many moments that trigger motion sickness on a standard PlayStation 4 – and alas, over on the Pro, it’s the same story, despite all the improvements to level of detail generation and texture filtering. That alone highlights an oft forgotten point when considering the quality and usability of a VR experience: arguably the onus is on the content, not the platform.
There’s more good news, though. Broadly, loading times have been cut a good deal, which also limits how much texture pop-in blights games – another factor that can significantly impact a sense of presence. And while it is a small detail, the extra USB port on the Pro’s rear does make the PSVR’s abundant wiring a tidier business, leaving an extra port free at the front for controller charging; an important consideration when juggling the power levels of Move controllers as well as DualShock 4s.
The VR verdict
Ultimately, The PlayStation 4 Pro does make a difference to PSVR games, but for now, it is subtle, and the true potential may only emerge with time as more and more titles hip with Pro-native features. If you are particularly prone to simulation or motion sickness, getting a Pro now may just make a positive difference to your VR experience.
For those beguiled by even the most delicate improvements to graphically fidelity, meanwhile, there should be some appeal. And if you are already set to gain from the non-VR perks the Pro offers, then the fact that you’ll also have access to the best version of one of the most comfortable, accessible high-end VR experiences could make it very worth your while.