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Should I buy a PlayStation 4 Pro for my PlayStation VR?

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We talk to developers and check out the improved visuals

PlayStation VR sitting on top of a PlayStation 4 Pro
The PlayStation 4 Pro and PlayStation VR
Vox Studios

The PlayStation 4 Pro is a system with many improvements and a few baffling omissions, and owners of 4K televisions are likely going to flock to the hardware to take advantage of the higher resolutions and upgraded visual effects.

One of the bigger questions about the hardware is how much improvement it brings to virtual reality games. If you have a PlayStation VR, is it worth it to upgrade to the PlayStation 4 Pro?

What developers are doing with the power

Battlezone is one of the PlayStation VR games that has already been patched to take advantage of the PlayStation 4 Pro. I reached out to Rebellion to find out what that meant.

“We had to make a number of compromises about how lighting worked in the cockpit because frankly, with all the missiles exploding around you, we didn’t have the raw GPU power to accurately render all those light sources,” Jeb Mayers, the game’s engine programmer, told Polygon during a phone interview.

That’s the largest change with the PlayStation 4 Pro version of the game. If your tank is hit by a rocket from the right, you’ll see the light from the explosion interact with your cockpit from the right. What’s going on with the world outside of the tank now feels a bit more connected with what’s going on inside it.

“Secondly, we have a bump in resolution,” he continued. This aspect of the PlayStation 4 Pro and PlayStation VR will require a bit of explanation.

The PlayStation 4 version of Battlezone is rendered at 1512p, while the PlayStation 4 Pro update renders the game at 1890p. The resolution of the PlayStation VR hardware is 1080p, although the single screen is split between your two eyes, giving the player effective resolution of 960 by 1080 for each eye. The PlayStation VR’s resolution doesn’t change, no matter how the system renders the image, so why bother?

“It gives you that extra rendering fidelity so you get a lot more antialiasing, and it actually brings the visuals a lot more inline with what you’d see on the Vive and Oculus.,” Mayers explained. “It’s that kind of leap in rendering fidelity.” The change also makes the smaller text in the game easier to read; small details will look crisper on the PlayStation 4 Pro.

This technique is called supersampling, and it’s one of the primary ways that PlayStation VR games will look better on the PlayStation 4 Pro.

Thumper is another game that will look better on the PlayStation VR when you have a PlayStation 4 Pro.

“The lenses in the VR [headset], those distort the image,” Drool’s Marc Flury told Polygon. “So what you have to do is render your texture distorted in the opposite way the lenses distort, so when your eyes see it, it looks normal,” he explained.

This means that, unlike a standard screen, the middle of the image is somewhat stretched out while the edges are, as Flury puts it “all bunched together.” The image is distorted in the opposite direction when it hits the lenses on the PlayStation VR and other virtual reality headsets, and thus looks normal by the time it hits your eye.

“You render the texture bigger than it’s going to be displayed, it’s called supersampling, you render it so there’s more information in the center of the image so that quality doesn’t look as bad when it gets the distortion applied to it,” Flury continued. The PlayStation Pro allowed them to increase the size of the textures even further, while maintaining their goal of 90fps.

“It’s pretty subtle, but I certainly notice it and I think it looks better,” Flury said. “It feels a little more immersive because the image is clearer and you don’t notice pixelation as much.”

A recent post on the official PlayStation Blog detailed the same sort of improvement on the PlayStation 4 Pro version of Rez Infinite when played in VR.

“Those of you who have PS VR hooked up to your PS4 Pro might notice Area X looking a little different than you’re used to — that’s because the image being passed along to each of your eyes is being rendered at a higher resolution (1920 x 1080, instead of 1440 x 810 on a standard PS4), before being passed to the PS VR headset,” Tetsuya Mizuguchi, president and CEO of Enhance Games, wrote. “Even though the final resolution it’s displayed at on the headset in the same either way, the extra rendering from the PS4 Pro makes a difference: each particle looks a little more clear, a little more solid, adding up to objects and enemies that look more distinct and ‘real,’ whether close-up or at a distance.”

It’s a hard effect to describe, and it can be subtle in practice. After playing Battlezone with the patch I definitely noticed that the image looked a bit sharper and more there. It’s easier to forget you’re looking at a screen and not at real objects.

This is only the beginning

The PlayStation 4 Pro updates to most PlayStation VR games that are out now will likely be of this nature. Developers had to deal with the fact that the PlayStation VR and PlayStation 4 Pro launched near each other, and there are only so many resources you can devote to graphical improvements for the Pro when you’re trying to finish your game.

“We’ve tended to be quite conservative in what we’ve done, so we’ve taken some simple choices about how to enhance the base experience,” Rebellion’s Jeb Mayer’s said. “Really, I’d say, it didn’t take that much effort.”

Flury said similar things.

“We did something pretty modest, to be honest. We had a lot of stuff to do and I’m the only programmer,” he explained. “All I did was I made the texture that we render into bigger, so it was really just changing a couple of numbers, and then I bumped up the quality of the anti-aliasing.”

PlayStation 4 stack (PS4, PS4 Slim, PS4 Pro) Scott Nelson/Vox Studios

Flury also noted that he’s looking forward to digging into the other graphical features the Pro allows in virtual reality. “The Pro lets you do some pretty cool stuff that I may do in a future update ... it gives you a lot of cool stuff that I haven’t really fully explored,” he said.

I’ve been told similar things by other developers: The second wave of PlayStation VR games that are developed with both the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Pro in mind will likely see more dramatic improvements than the first series of titles.

We’re particularly looking forward to Farpoint, which launches in 2017 and is being published by Sony, to see what the PlayStation 4 Pro hardware can do for VR with a bit more time.

So what does this all mean?

I’m looking forward to more PlayStation VR games getting their PlayStation 4 Pro updates and patches, but it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a large improvement in graphics in the first batch of games.

It’s also frustrating to write about these differences due to the fact that I can’t show them to you. Trying to give you a sense for how the graphical update improves the experience in virtual reality using a video on your computer monitor is fruitless.

The good news for both developers and players is that supporting the additional power of the PlayStation 4 Pro doesn’t seem to require a much larger investment in time or budget, depending on the project and studio.

“It brings it more into line with PC-style development,” said Rich May, Battlezone’s lead programmer. “Which is something we do anyway day in and day out. It’s not a sea change for us. We’ll just have two levels of technology to work with, two levels of performance, instead of on the PC where there’s kind of an infinite level of variation. We’re seeing more of the PC graphical settings kind of leaking into our PlayStation side of things.”

He also noted that having only two targets to work on, rather than the large number of hardware variations between CPUs and GPUs on the PC, will allow them to dig in much deeper in terms of optimization. “Having those two targeted hardware bands, if you’d like, will let us do a lot more than we would do on PC.”

The visual difference between games on the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Pro when using the PlayStation VR is sure to widen as developers have more time to dig into the extra power and graphical tricks the higher-end console provides, but for now it’s not that important, nor immediately impressive, to upgrade into the newer system if your primary interest is virtual reality.

Your PlayStation 4 is already a pretty great virtual reality machine. The PlayStation 4 Pro just makes it a bit better.