The current console generation has been labelled the “4K generation”. However, that is not entirely true. While both Xbox One X and Playstation 4 Pro are capable of delivering native 4K, it is entirely up to the developers to decide how to utilise the added horsepower of the new consoles.
In practice, not many games actually reach those high numbers when the resolution must be weighed against graphics and framerates.
Is 4K the right focus?
4K TV’s for consumers have been out for several years now and it is well proven that promises of higher resolutions help the sales of video games.
The resolution is more measurable and objective than graphics and easier to explain than framerates. Therefore, it is not hard to understand why 4K is a big deal when marketing the Playstation Pro and Xbox One X (together with their respective titles).
Going from 1080p to 4K is on paper about as big of a difference as the jump from 480p to 1080p was. It is about four times sharper than 1080p. This is a huge leap in resolution and one that that, under the right circumstances, can be truly jaw-dropping.
“The right circumstances” depends on the size of the screen and the distance from which you are viewing it from.
If you have a 40-50 inch TV, you may not notice as huge of a difference in sharpness as expected unless you are sitting very close to the screen. From a viewing distance of four to five metres, it will look sharper, but nowhere near as life-changing as going from 480p to 1080p all those years ago.
In most living rooms, it is bigger displays that benefit the most from a 4K resolution, but not everyone owns projectors or 75+ inch TV’s. Instead, it is for PC gamers, who are sitting up close to their monitors, that 4K truly shines.
Under the perfect circumstances, 4K adds a new dimension of clarity and emphasizes all details to take the experience to the next level. However, there are two other important aspects of a video game that needs to share the same console performance – graphics and framerates.
Better graphics enhance the atmosphere and immersion of a game, meanwhile, a higher framerate ensures a smooth and enjoyable experience. Bumping up the resolution takes enormous resources and is a severe hit to performance. With the hardware limitations for the consoles, it means that these resources must be spent wisely and if the resolution is prioritised, other areas will suffer.
The 1080p resolution target for Xbox One and PS4 titles were not kept; more than anything, the resolutions have kept decreasing. The same happened for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 games, as well. When it comes down to it, a large number of developers prioritise graphics and stable framerates over a high resolution. In this current generation, far from all games are rendered at a native 4K resolution, but developers have their tricks.
Checkerboard rendering is a popular way to achieve what appears to be a 4K resolution without sacrificing nearly as many resources. The results are impressive, especially in games such as Horizon: Zero Dawn and The Last of Us Part II, where a lower resolution is upscaled to 4K.
Thanks to smart techniques like these, it can be argued by some that true 4K is not necessary when more focus can be allocated to solid framerates and delivering advanced graphics instead. With that in mind, this is a technique that is likely to be used in the next generation, as well.
In the end, this 4K generation is not always what it promises, but with the limited hardware specifications, it makes sense to find alternatives that strike a balance between resolution, graphics and framerates.
There are video games that favour one of the three to best fit the vision for the game that the developers have; what is the best priority for one game is not the same for the other. Just like in previous console generations, resolution is used heavily in marketing, but when it comes to the actual game experience, it is not always prioritised…