When I first heard about the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X, I thought they were the dumbest things. Upgrading a console at the midpoint of a generation was unfathomable to me, and I think developers should design for whatever framerate they want rather than whatever gamers demand. But as more games come out that push the limits of what consoles can do, I have to say: Maybe upgrading isn’t the worst idea.
I’ve never cared about a game’s technical specifications, or the specific details of a piece of hardware. I am firmly of the opinion that the evolution of games should not be beholden to a broader consumer cry for “better graphics.” That’s the kind of mindset that plagued video games coverage in the late 90s and early 2000s, where magazines would break down their reviews into tiny parts. Gameplay? That’s a nine. But graphics? A six. So the game’s a seven point five. Great. Those numbers meant nothing then and mean nothing now. What matters most to me is that something is interesting to play. What a game does is more important than how it looks.
So why is it that after playing with the PlayStation 4 Pro here in Kotaku’s office, I’m seriously considering swapping my original console for its beefier brother?
It started with Monster Hunter: World and its lush environments. I love exploring the game’s various jungles and caves, splashing around in the mud and sliding down ridges to leap on an Anjanath. On my standard-issue PS4 at home, Monster Hunter: World runs at 30 frames per second, and it always felt great to me. But on the PS4 Pro, there is an option to run in “performance mode,” sacrificing some visual fidelity in exchange for a smoother experience.
In a game about fast reactions and reading monster movements, I found that improvement very useful. Monster Hunter: World is gorgeous no matter the framerate, but I found myself having a better time playing it in a boosted performance mode. I’ve never had that experience before and, for a while, didn’t really know how to reconcile it with my broader thoughts on the relative unimportance of graphic quality.
When Nier: Automata and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild show their cracks, dropping frames or loading textures in chunks, I see something beautiful. I see worlds that make themselves known to the player, digital spaces that we can pick apart and examine. When the Shadow of the Colossus remake came out, I balked at the idea of performance mode boosting the frame rate. I think that game was meant to be played at 30 FPS. I think that The Order 1886 could have worked at the film-standard 24 FPS. Games can be whatever they need to be—and yet, goddamn, Monster Hunter is really great on a Pro.
Technology moves at an incredibly rapid rate, driving new console iterations and making it difficult for all but the most powerful gaming PCs to keep up. As game development tools progress and teams get more proficient with the hardware they are designing for, games get more and more detailed. For nearly five years now, teams have been building upon once-threadbare engines and understanding how to get the most out of this generation of consoles. It feels as if we are reaching a tipping point, where new AAA titles are pushing the original PlayStation 4 and Xbox One to the limits of their capabilities.
The advantage of having an upgraded console was even more noticeable to me with God of War. Playing it at our office in Performance mode, I started to appreciate the combat more than I had before. There was a sudden fluidity to fights that helped me crack the code of how to make Kratos move and dodge around enemies. Higher resolution and high dynamic range seemed to make the world feel vibrant enough that I could almost forget how much of an arsehole Kratos was. I started to focus on the world around him, the detailed bark on trees, the swirling mountain snow. Having these details brought into further focus made it clear that I had been missing out.
And still, I hate this. Buying a PS4 Pro feels to me like buying a new car when what you have still gets you where you need to go. PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X are absurdities built by corporations eager to make more money and yet, Lord help me, I think it might be time to upgrade. If upgrading my console means being able to examine and enjoy a game’s finer details with more clarity, I think that might be worth it.