Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of the most technically impressive video games ever made. Its open world encompasses snow-capped mountains and dank swamps and wide-open plains and even a soot-covered city. The game’s designers clearly drew inspiration from 19th-century landscape painters in building a gorgeously rendered version of the American South and West at the end of that century.
But over the 30-plus hours I’ve spent playing Red Dead Redemption 2 on my HDR-enabled 4K television, something’s been nagging at me about the way it looks. It feels somewhat silly to complain about the visuals in this game, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that its HDR support didn’t make much of a difference. My suspicion of a lackluster HDR implementation was only heightened by the basic calibration tool in the game’s settings.
It seems that I was right to have concerns. Since the release of Red Dead Redemption 2 on Oct. 26, reports from players, YouTubers and media outlets have indicated that the game doesn’t actually deliver HDR color. Instead, as Digital Foundry explains — courtesy of contributor Adam Fairclough, who has been analyzing HDR performance on ResetEra under the handle EvilBoris — Red Dead Redemption 2 merely delivers a standard-dynamic-range image in an “HDR container.” (This applies on both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.)
HDR performance is difficult to explain and even more challenging to demonstrate, since very few people read websites on HDR-capable displays. But Fairclough developed a technique that illustrates the luminance (brightness) levels of an image through gradations of color: Anything in gray is at a brightness of up to 100 nits — effectively in the SDR part of the luminance spectrum — while a range from yellow to red, and then purple up to white, represents HDR brightness levels from 100 to 4,000 nits. You can see it in action below:
To be clear, that’s not an actual screenshot of Red Dead Redemption 2; it’s a false-color image from Digital Foundry that’s designed to illustrate the game’s HDR performance. On Fairclough’s color scale, only the moon and the campfire — plus some elements of the user interface, since the status icons are white and the minimap is parchment-colored — show up in yellow or orange. Everything else is gray.
In other words, the vast majority of the image is being rendered in SDR, with no HDR highlights aside from sources of light. There are no gradations of HDR color in, say, parts of the snow that might be lit up by the moon; it’s a low-contrast image. It’s also worth noting that Fairclough took all of the screenshots with Red Dead Redemption 2’s built-in HDR calibration slider turned up to 500, which really just increases the maximum brightness for pure white to 500 nits.
“Expanding the peak brightness via the slider does not really expand the dynamic range at all,” said Digital Foundry’s Richard Leadbetter in a video analyzing the game’s HDR support, which you can watch above. “We’re looking at an 8-bit [SDR] image remapped into a 10-bit [HDR] space, so you’re not actually getting any extra detail here.” It’s like blowing up a 480p DVD and displaying it on a 1080p TV — you’re limited to the original data.
The analysis did point out something positive, at least: The SDR output in Red Dead Redemption 2 is very good already, with terrific tone mapping that delivers good contrast between highlights and shadows without losing much detail on either end. So it’s not like you’re missing out on a more impressive image with HDR disabled. But the confusing and disappointing part, especially for a game as technically ambitious as Red Dead Redemption 2, is that you don’t gain anything with HDR enabled.
We’ve asked Rockstar for comment on the game’s HDR implementation, and we’ll update this article with any information we receive.