Two vivid memories popped into my head watching Mark Cerny demonstrate the PlayStation 4 Pro in front of me. One was my first experience playing The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD, switching the game from its native 1080p down to 720p to accommodate a live stream. Wiping sweat and grime off a pair of sunglasses has a similar quietly revelatory quality; the difference between those resolutions was clear in a demonstrable way that I never had during years of PS3, PC and Xbox 360 games. Watching Horizon Zero Dawn run on a PS4 Pro through the 4K televisions flanking Cerny on stage felt the same way. I can see it. It’s there and it is impressive.
But then comes the other memory and it’s not even mine. I remember Waylon Smithers jumping up and down frantically on The Simpsons, surrounded by squalling little girls, all of them wanting to buy the latest Malibu Stacy doll with her new hat. Lisa Simpson explained to the mob that this is literally the same doll it already had. “BUT SHE’S GOT A NEW HAT!” screamed Smithers, and the fans rush the pile gobbling up the new hat like it’s changed their entire world, not just adding a noticeable but not dramatic accoutrement to something they already love. Watching PS4 Pro demos was a lot like that. And man, do I get it. I love a new hat. I purchased a New Nintendo 3DS even though the vast majority of 3DS games don’t take advantage of its improved processor just because I liked the new form factor. I bought an just so my SNES and Sega Saturn games would look and play pixel perfect on an HD set.
For the gaming perfectionist, the player who wants their games to look and play as good as they possibly can, the PS4 Pro is very appealing. For anyone that hasn’t purchased one of the current crop of consoles, I’d say it’s essential, the absolute best option this fall. If a console is defined by its developer support, online ecosystem, and its exclusives, then the PS4 Pro is an easy recommendation. Gravity Rush 2, The Last Guardian, Uncharted 4; these are the things I come to video games for. Exclusives on the horizon like, well, Horizon amongst others like Spider-man, Persona 5, Yakuza 0 and God of War are even more incentive.
But for most of the enormous swath of people who already own a PlayStation 4, all 40 million of them, PS4 Pro is not essential in any way. Here’s the thing: every single one of those games is still going to run on the stock PlayStation 4 that’s been sitting under your television since 2013. For the PS4 player that loves video games but doesn’t have disposable income, who can’t afford to build the best PC or to own every console under the sun, the improvements touted by Sony simply aren’t as significant as the marketing would have you believe. Watching Aloy clamber up the freaky mechanical quadrupeds in Horizon at the Sony event yesterday, I was deeply impressed by the fidelity of the game, the rich color palette and the smooth inhuman animation of its science fiction world. But I was already impressed by the exact same demo at E3 2016 when it was running in 1080p on a regular old PlayStation 4. The same was true of Ubisoft’s For Honor and Call of Duty Infinite Warfare, not to mention games already out in the wild like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.
The PlayStation 4 Pro doesn’t have the sort of fundamental upgrades that would make it a must buy for existing PlayStation 4 owners. It might enhance the framerate in classics like Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, but it doesn’t eliminate load times. The PS4 Pro doesn’t suddenly provide backwards compatibility with the last 20 years of PlayStation hardware. It doesn’t do the impossible and make the PS4 a completely new experience. What it does is make PS4 games look really pretty, painfully pretty on the right television, and in some cases run smoother. These are upgrades for high spending perfectionists and early adopters. (That’s a group Sony was already asking a lot of with the high price of PS VR this fall.) And given the absence of multiple PS4 exclusives in Sony’s presentation, I’m even given pause as the kind of player that jumps on this sort of upgrade. Improved frame rate and visual fidelity is exciting, but when your most exhilarating games of the fall like The Last Guardian and Gravity Rush 2 aren’t included in your presentation and aren’t confirmed to take advantage of the new tech, it’s hard to recommend the PS4 Pro at launch.
Of all the demonstrations at Sony’s PlayStation Meeting, the one that grabbed me the most wasn’t even playable. A bank of 4K televisions with PS4 Pros running Naughty Dog’s games was lined up against one wall. On one screen stood Nathan Drake on a sandy beach in Uncharted 4 and on the other Joel from The Last of Us stared out on the mushroom zombie-infested ruins of Salt Lake City. The scene would wipe back and forth between 1080p and the HDR, 4K enhanced Pro presentation. Back and forth, back and forth; one moment Nate is standing on a gorgeously rendered beach, the next that same beach would brighten, each little ridge of sand highlighted in extreme detail. I could see it. It was there and it was impressive. But the original 1080p image was already impressive, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in gaming, and $400 for clearer sand ridges is just a bit too steep a price right now.
If you’ve never played a PlayStation 4 before, skip the PS4 Slim and grab the Pro. If you’re like me and Smithers and you long for perfection in your favorite medium, you’ve already made your decision. But if you already have a PS4, save your money for the great games coming out this fall; wait for the next new hat.