High Dynamic Range, the hottest thing in video, has now made the leap to gaming. If the experience of HDR video is anything to go by, this should mean that HDR games will be able to use wider brightness and colour ranges to create more intense, immersive and believable worlds than we’ve ever experienced before.
Just as with HDR video, getting hold of HDR games isn’t as simple as you might think. It’s still not clear whether HDR will make as much difference in the already relatively stark and intense realm of game graphics as it does with video. We’ve rounded up all you need to know about HDR gaming – what it is, what you’ll need to get it, and whether it’s worth the effort.
THE GAMING KIT
The single biggest barrier to entry for HDR gaming is the amount of wallet-draining kit you’ll need to make it happen.
First up, you’ll need an HDR-capable console. The first console to deliver support for HDR gaming was the Xbox One S. The original Xbox One isn’t compatible with HDR, and Microsoft has so far said nothing to suggest that it ever will.
In a surprising (but very welcome) move, Sony recently issued a firmware update for the original PS4 console that introduced HDR support. HDR also plays nice with the PS4 Slim, and will be a key feature of the upcoming PS4 Pro.
Xbox One S
None of the older generation of consoles offer any HDR support, and there’s no information yet as to whether Nintendo’s upcoming NX console will be HDR-compatible. If rumours that the NX is slightly more powerful than a PS4 prove true, there’s at least a chance that HDR will be there.
If you’re a PC gamer, Nvidia’s Maxwell and Pascal families of graphics cards support HDR, as do AMD/ATI’s Polaris and Radeon R9 300 boards – but only the Polaris boards support full 4K resolution and 60Hz frame rates with HDR.
PCs have actually been claiming to deliver HDR gaming for the best part of 12 years. But this was only emulated HDR, not the true HDR we’re seeing today that delivers genuinely expanded brightness and colour performance.
Sony PlayStation 4 Pro
THE DISPLAY KIT
It’s not enough for your gaming device to support HDR – your display has to be able to show it too. And here we get into a whole new world of financial pain and potential confusion.
The first thing to clear up is that the first HDR TVs only appeared in 2015. If your current TV or monitor is older than that, or it’s not a high-end 2015 model, you’re going to have to look at buying a new one.
That brings me to the next problem: HDR TVs are very much unequal. This is to be expected to some extent – different TVs perform differently with standard dynamic range images too, with price often a key factor to performance differences. The extreme demands that HDR places on a TV’s specifications means the performance gap between different HDR displays is unprecedentedly vast.
There’s currently no industry-wide set of requirements for what a TV needs to deliver with its specifications to produce a true HDR experience. All a TV needs to do is identify HDR “flags” from HDR sources and implement that data to the best of the panel’s abilities. The problem is that current HDR sources are mastered to provide much wider brightness and colour ranges than most TVs can currently deliver.
The only significant attempt to define what a display should achieve to provide a “true” HDR experience is called Ultra HD Premium. Developed by the Ultra HD Alliance, a working group involving most of the AV world’s biggest brands, the UHD Premium guidelines lay out a number of key specifications for an HDR TV to hit.
All you need to know here is that displays sporting the Ultra HD Premium badge do generally deliver a more spectacular HDR performance than those that don’t. So it’s a shame that the majority of so-called HDR TVs don’t even get close to hitting the fairly extreme Ultra HD Premium recommendations. Also, the majority of screens that do hit Ultra HD Premium’s targets are eye-wateringly expensive.
Fortunately, it is possible to still get an enjoyably well-rounded HDR experience with some relatively affordable TVs and monitors. The recently tested Philips 65PUS7601 and Hisense H65M7000 are a good examples of how a gentler approach to HDR can still deliver a genuine HDR “lift” without having to cost the earth.
Aside from that, the only general rule of HDR display buying that I can offer is that you shouldn’t ignore brightness, as this is a huge part of unlocking HDR’s potential. A low-brightness TV that claims to be able to handle HDR can end up producing HDR pictures that actually look worse than standard dynamic range ones.
THE INPUT LAG ISSUE
Input lag – the time a display takes to render image data received at its inputs – is hugely important to the gaming experience. It’s a shame some HDR TV manufacturers don’t currently allow you to switch to a low-input-lag Game mode when showing HDR content. When gaming in HDR, you can suffer as much as double the amount of input lag you get on the same TV in SDR mode.
Fortunately, the TV makers are waking up to this situation. Samsung has issued a firmware update for its 2016 TVs, so you can now choose the Game mode while playing in HDR. Sony’s second round of TVs for 2016 – specifically the ZD9, XD83, SD80, XD80, XD75 and XD70 series – have also introduced a Game HDR option. All of Panasonic and Philips’ 2016 HDR TVs let you activate a low-lag gaming mode during HDR play too.
Sadly LG doesn’t currently let you activate a Game mode with HDR playback. This results in input lag increasing to more than 50ms for HDR gaming versus less than 30ms in SDR mode.
Forza Horizon 3
THE HDR GAMES
Although there are TVs out there that carry modes designed to convert standard dynamic range sources into HDR-looking ones, a true HDR experience depends on the games themselves having HDR support built into their graphics engines. That’s unfortunate, as HDR’s relatively recent arrival on the gaming scene means true HDR games are currently extremely thin on the ground.
On the Xbox One S you’ve got Forza Horizon 3, NBA 2K17 and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Looking ahead, the following Xbox One games are confirmed as offering HDR support for Xbox One S owners: Gears Of War 4 launching on October 11, Scalebound launching in 2017, and Resident Evil 7 launching on January 24.
On PS4 and PS4 Pro the first and currently only title to offer HDR support following its very recent firmware update is Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. But Resident Evil 7 has also confirmed PS4 HDR support, and the makers of NBA 2K17 have suggested that HDR will be added to the PS4 version via a future firmware update.
Sony has stated, too, that Horizon Zero Dawn, Days Gone, Detroit and Spider-Man will support HDR, while the makers of The Witness have revealed that an HDR update is in development.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
The HDR PC game situation is even harder to pin down at the moment. Obduction from Myst-creator Cyan is supposed to support HDR via Nvidia’s Ansel system, but I’ve yet to hear a report from anyone who’s played it in HDR.
US tech site WCCFtech has reported that Nvidia is working on bringing HDR support to six other titles: The Witness, Lawbreakers, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Paragon, The Talos Principle and Shadow Warrior 2.
It all seems pretty vague at the moment, and perhaps tellingly the recent Deus Ex update for consoles wasn’t accompanied by an HDR update for the PC version. Also, the makers of Gears of War 4 have said the PC version won’t support HDR at launch, and it will only potentially be added if HDR PC monitors start to shift in high enough numbers.
Forza Horizon 3
SO HOW DOES IT LOOK?
With so many hurdles to overcome before you can experience true HDR gaming, you’ll likely be wondering if the results actually justify the effort. The short answer is that, unfortunately for your bank balance, they most certainly do. (Editor’s note: the comparison shots are for illustration purposes only – it’s near impossible to show off the HDR difference with standard photos displayed on a standard monitor).
Focusing on Forza Horizon 3 played via Xbox One S on a Samsung UE65KS9500 TV, the impact HDR has is astounding. Toggling the Xbox’s HDR mode on and off reveals two key areas of difference.
Colour performance, in particular, is in a different league. This is partly through the gorgeous saturation of your beloved car collection, but also in the subtle shading of the landscape. Bright skies, in particular, exhibit a far wider spectrum of colours that make them look both more realistic and more beautiful.
The HDR version of Forza Horizon 3 also enjoys a significantly better sense of contrast than the SDR version, as punchier brightness highlights share screen space with deeper shadows and silhouettes.
Put these colour and contrast benefits together and you’ve got a visual experience far better than you’d imagine possible from a technology which, at the content-creation level at least, appears to be relatively straightforward to implement.
The impact of HDR was reduced when I tried the same FH3 HDR toggling test on two less bright, less colour-rich and less contrasty HDR TVs: the LG 55UH770 and a Hisense 75M7900.
The LG didn’t add as much brightness and colour volume in its peaks and looked much greyer in dark areas, though there were still clear HDR advantages overall. With the Hisense – which only delivers around 400 nits of brightness – HDR Forza actually looked worse than the SDR version. Colours looked peaky, details were lost in dark areas, and the overall image tone looked darker than it did in SDR. As I stated earlier, you need to pick your screen with care if you don’t want your HDR gaming experience to fall flat.
IS IT WORTH IT?
It’s pretty clear even from this early on that HDR gaming isn’t just another graphics gimmick. But it’s also clear that if you really want to make the most of this stunning new development, you’re likely going to have to do invest heavily in some pretty swanky new kit.
If you haven’t put the Black Friday sales in your calendars yet, I suggest you do so right now.