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NEW YORK CITY – I’ve seen samurais and Vikings fighting way off in the distance. I’ve seen the sun-drenched beaches of Madagascar, dappled in breathtaking afternoon light. I’ve seen eye-searing explosions tear apart undead creatures crawling out of inky black shadows.
This week, Sony officially unveiled the next iterations of the PlayStation 4: a physically smaller version of the core PS4, unofficially called the PlayStation 4 Slim, and a more powerful evolution of the console, known as the PlayStation 4 Pro.
The PS4 Slim, which goes on sale Sept. 15 for $ 379, will take the place of the existing PS4 that has been around since the console launched in late 2013. It’s not quite as chic and sleek as the original PS4. For instance, it does away with the cool, but baffling, power and eject touch-strips in favour of more intuitive buttons – but it’s smaller and quieter and cheaper to manufacture. As with the slimmed-down versions of the PS3 and PS2 before it, this model will eventually become the standard PS4.
The PlayStation 4 Pro, on the other hand, is a curious bird. Going on sale Nov. 10 for $ 499, the Pro is a larger, heavier (by 500 grams) sibling to the existing PS4, designed to take advantage of the new breed of TVs that feature super-sharp 4K resolution and high dynamic range (HDR) video for better contrast and colour accuracy.
When mated with one of these TVs, some games will look better on the PS4 Pro. How many games will take advantage of the PS4 Pro’s extra power isn’t quite clear – only about a dozen current and upcoming titles have been announced – and how much better they’ll look is in the eye of the beholder.
After playing or watching PS4 Pro demos of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Rise of the Tomb Raider, For Honor, Infamous: First Light, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Days Gone, Mass Effect: Andromeda and Killing Floor 2, I can definitely say games really pop in 4K HDR. In Ubisoft’s upcoming For Honor, for instance, I could make out distant soldiers that would otherwise be a smudgy blur in regular 1080p high-definition. In Uncharted 4, HDR video gave scenes such vivid light and colour that the second it was switched off, everything looked washed out in comparison. In Killing Floor 2, explosions were almost uncomfortably bright, yet didn’t obscure undead critters skulking in dark corners.
Sony says the PlayStation 4 Pro will bring some added visual oomph to games even on standard 1080p HDTVs and will offer “higher or more stable frame rates for some supported titles.” I didn’t see this in action, though, so it’s hard to judge.
And the couple of game developers I spoke to – Sucker Punch’s Jason Connell (Infamous: First Light) and Bend Studio’s Graham Aldridge (next year’s Days Gone) – said they don’t anticipate creating PS4 Pro-specific versions of their games with more detailed character models, additional world elements or even higher frame rates. Instead, they want the game experience to be the same on both the standard PS4 and the PS4 Pro, with the latter being enhanced by 4K resolution and HDR video.
I salute that sentiment – it might make the 40 million current PS4 owners out there very unhappy to know they’re getting inferior versions of games – but I also think that saying a game will run more smoothly or offer additional detail on the PS4 Pro would be a major selling point for the new console. I’m sure that will happen in due time.
And while the PS4 Pro can handle 4K streaming video via the Netflix and YouTube apps, one thing it lacks – at least for now – is 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray playback. This one’s a real headscratcher, given that Microsoft just released the Xbox One S, a lighter, thinner version of the Xbox One that includes a 4K Blu-ray player and sells for as little as $ 399. In the past, PlayStation consoles have been the easiest entry point into new optical disc formats (DVD for the PS2, Blu-ray for the PS3), so to not have that feature in this more powerful version of the PS4 is disappointing.
It’s a weird time for game consoles in general. Perhaps emboldened by the upgrade-every-year-or-two smartphone model, console makers are encouraging us to shell out for new machines that do the same stuff as the old ones, just a little bit better. Will gamers go along for the ride? Unlike those little samurais and Vikings, the future is hard to see.