The So-Called “HD” Consoles

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I couldn’t find the quote, but I remember hearing shortly after Gears of War 3 came out lead designer Cliff Blezinski disagreeing with fans who said the game looked amazing, saying it “looked like shit.” This was more or less a pitch for Unreal Engine 4 and next generation console gaming, but after getting this new TV I’m honestly starting to agree with him.

If you go to forums or hang out around places like Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry, you might encounter some videophile PC-elitist going on about how all console games these days have terrible image quality and how current generation consoles are just too old. Getting a 46” Samsung LED display is all it took to convince me that the problem is real.

Up until now I’ve been playing all my current generation console games on one of two setups: A 2004 32” Samsung CRT that could display 720p or 1080i but had a native resolution somewhere in-between, and a 55” Sony XBR set up in a room where I was forced to sit 12 feet away from it. As I’ve just discovered, playing on a low resolution TV or sitting far away from any TV does a lot to hide the visual flaws in console games (even standard definition Wii games look good from 12 feet away).

When I first played Gears 3 on both of these setups I was blown away by what Epic had achieved on the aging Xbox 360 hardware. When I fired the game up on my new display this week I was horrified at the total lack of anti-aliasing and the low resolution textures, not to mention the game’s base resolution being blown up onto a 1080p screen.

See, back in 2005 J. Allard sold the Xbox 360 as the start of the HD console era, but we’re not really there yet. Most big console games right now run in 720p, if even that, and simply rely on either the TV or the Xbox to upscale them to 1080p, throwing IQ to the wind in favor of squeezing more and more graphical effects out of seven-year-old hardware.

A lot of these games still have really nice underlying graphics. Gears 3 still has impressive lighting and shadow effects as well as nice art direction. Uncharted 2 still has beautifully complex environments and shaders going on. God of War III still manages to throw all those things together in ways not seen in any other 60 frame-per-second console game. After trying out all those games on my new TV however, they no longer look as mind-blowing as they did when I didn’t see them as clearly (I should note that I’m sitting about five feet away from the 46” Samsung).

Their status now reminds me of how I felt playing late PS2-genreation games like Yakuza and God of War II in 2006 and 2007 over component cables. They still look pretty good — aesthetically acceptable, but not as impressive as when the hardware was brand new. From my view this even puts a damper on the cinematic “wow” factor that games like Uncharted 2 once had.

Some of you might say I should’ve bought a Plasma which may upscale better, or I have my TV set up wrong. I’ve looked at all those options and the simple fact is that we are playing 720p games on 1080p displays. They may look okay, even good, but they never bring out the screen’s full potential as long as they’re stuck at that resolution.

It’s really no different from connecting older consoles to newer TVs, which is usually advised against. I have no choice in the matter, and now have all kinds of standard definition crap on this TV. I didn’t think I’d run into this problem with Xbox 360 and PS3 games though. Y’know how you might reach a point during a console generation when the previous generation’s graphics no longer please you? I feel like I’ve reached that point with today’s consoles without there actually being any new ones.

Well, I have been playing a lot of PC games recently which is probably part of the issue. I guess owning a gaming rig has spoiled me to being able to play games at my monitor’s native resolution in a way similar to being spoiled by a new console’s graphics.

Last year for a little bit I tried to hook up my PC to the 55”, and playing games on it felt earth-shattering. Looking at the PC versions of Crysis 2 and RAGE on a 1080p TV made me realize that I’d never seen a AAA console shooter running natively at that resolution before. The leap in image quality alone made me feel like I’d hooked up a new console. I thought to myself that this was the “HD generation” that Allard had promised us.

But why don’t most gamers, and really games journalists, bring up the image quality problem? I think it’s because 720p (barely) and 30 frames per second have become the standard on today’s consoles and relatively few people are exposed to games running any better than that. Virtually the only console games that run in 1080p right now are download-only games or classic collections that at-best have the graphics of a PS2 game. For me, those have been the real shining stars of what I’ve tested on my new TV so far.

I played some of the XBLA Perfect Dark (y’know, the N64 game) which runs in 1080p at 60fps, and despite its N64 graphics still looked cleaner than Gears 3.  The HD versions of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus in particular looked clearer than almost any console game I’ve seen, maintaining the cinematic splendor they had all those years ago. It felt like watching Criterion Collection classics on Blu-Ray. The closest I can get to “current generation graphics” in 1080p is Wipeout HD (and Gran Turismo 5 but I don’t have that game right now).

Some larger retail games however do a good job navigating the weaknesses of the aging hardware. Final Fantasy XIII in my opinion has some of the best IQ on the PS3, as Square Enix somehow figured out how to properly upscale the game to 1080p better than any other 720p game I’ve seen on the system.  Assassin’s Creed III has very impressive anti-aliasing and probably some of the best console image quality around right now, though at the cost of its frame rate. A lot of these late generation games are making big compromises to keep visually impressing players, whether it’s in IQ, framerate, or shadows.

I probably sound like some kind of videophile myself by now. Let me put this into perspective by saying that none of this prevents any of the aforementioned games from being fun. I still love horde mode in Gears 3. While I may be disappointed at the flaws my new TV revealed in Uncharted 2, I still had to tear myself away from the game while testing it. Heck, the first thing I did with this TV was play Super Mario Bros. on an NES over an RF switch and it was still fun as ever.

But still, all this has made me hope that developers (or Sony and Microsoft) at least institute 1080p as the standard resolution for games on next generation consoles. We all have these HDTVs now, let’s at least put all those pixels to good use.

BULLETS:

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One thought on “The So-Called “HD” Consoles

  1. […] In January I did a post that was basically about how much it sucked looking at 720p console games on modern TVs. That was however the personal preference of myself and probably a lot of hardcore gamers. It’s probably why I’m gonna try to stick with PC for a wihle. I don’t actually think the differing resolutions between versions of a game are gonna make a big difference in sales. The more powerful console has never sold the most units. […]

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