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Gran Turismo Sport's high-end bonuses: HDR is incredible, but VR is not

October 18,2017 17:28

As Ars's resident car guru Jonathan Gitlin tears through the racing nuts and bolts of this week's new racing video game, Gran Turismo Sport, he has asked me to kill time by reviewing its higher-end elements. Namely, Jon owns neither a PlayStation VR ...


As Ars's resident car guru Jonathan Gitlin tears through the racing nuts and bolts of this week's new racing video game, Gran Turismo Sport, he has asked me to kill time by reviewing its higher-end elements. Namely, Jon owns neither a PlayStation VR headset nor a 4K HDR display, and both of those are specifically and uniquely supported by the latest Gran Turismo game (and first in the series for the PlayStation 4 Pro).
Basically, he wants to feel better about not buying either of those ridiculous gadgets. I have good news and bad news for him.
4K/HDR performance: A well-oiled machine
Let's start with the high-end TV stuff. This applies specifically to TVs rated for both 4K resolution (a 3840×+2160 pixel count) and HDR-10 color gamut, and you'll need a PlayStation 4 Pro to capitalize on the combination. All PlayStation 4 consoles are capable of pushing HDR-10 color, but its effects are far more dramatic with a higher pixel count, and you'll need a PS4 Pro for that.
Anybody who owns a display rated for HDR-10 content knows how hard it is to find showcase material—the kind that looks amazing to anyone, as opposed to that sort of "I swear this is a pretty scene" TV snake-oil. Complicating matters are a variety of "HDR" films and content that aren't truly mastered for the higher-gamut standard, not to mention the fact that for games to really be in HDR, they need a complete HDR-specific color and texture pass.
Forza Motorsport 7 looks quite good on my display, but as we said in that game's review, it is an example of HDR shoehorned onto a project designed specifically for standard-gamut screens. Certain details, like a blast of distant sun or a hanging light in a tunnel, can pop in Forza 7 at an HDR display's peak gamut rating, but the rest of the content, from racetrack details to car paint jobs to even the expansive blue skies above a course, can suffer from unoptimized color detail.

You'll have to use your imagination for every image in this gallery, as, again, HDR is impossible to recreate via standard screens.

Taillights and other reflective red surfaces look amazing in GTS' HDR mode.

This halo effect is dramatically reduced in HDR mode.

Even distant lights pop with a more noticeable effect in HDR.

Gran Turismo Sport, on the other hand, is absolutely built for the "I spent way too much on my TV" crowd. There's really nothing like it on the market, and that's coming from a guy who has watched Planet Earth II on a 4K HDR screen at least 37 times since reviewing it.
The primary point of differentiation comes from the lights on all of the cars. Every headlight and taillight is, literally, brilliant. As in, they're bright as all get-out, packed with pure red, yellow, and white color data. Most electric-powered lights in the game are cranked to the highest gamut rating so that they produce a natural glare effect in your eyes, instead of relying on the usual baked "light glow" effect you commonly see in any car commercial. With HDR enabled and less artificial glow in the way, you also get to see the tiny light arrays that sometimes come packed in high-end headlight arrays.
Nearby lights, from setting suns to street lamps, aren't shy about reflecting off of GTS's stupidly waxed cars, but the game also benefits from physically based lighting that bounces off of nearby environs, which the HDR color gamut pipeline reproduces in handsome fashion. Every race at dawn, dusk, and night comes bathed in an extra layer of orange, blue, or green, as based on the objects and darkness in view at any given time, and the effect is pretty dramatic on a bold red-orange sports car.
You can also take comfort in stupidly accurate color reproduction on the game's expensive real-world cars, which really pays off if you'll settle for nothing less than, say, the "rosso corsa" shade that is so distinctly Ferrari's. It's such a particular shade of red, with oh-so-subtle orange lingering beneath its surface, and GTS is the first video game to feed its specific, dramatic color to a compatible TV with incredible accuracy.
Every car here benefits from accurate reproduction of such expensive paint jobs. How good are the results? Sure, a Ferrari or Lamborghini sells the idea, but I was more impressed by a really weird car: the Toyota S-FR.
This funky 2015 roadster only comes in one color in GTS: artificial, candy-Runt banana yellow. My HDR display is able to pick up its awkward hue in a fashion that standard screens simply can't replicate, owing largely to the mix of intense yellow data and hints of color-altering blue mixed in at the top of the gamut spectrum. I was both astonished and grossed out by the result at first—like, hey Toyota, maybe don't let HDR TV owners see that.
But then I took it into the game's virtual showroom, which sees the car being driven around a massive variety of real-world scenes like city plazas, race tracks, and even the edge of a cliff. In these scenes, the car's curious shape and unique headlight arrangement could explode with realistic reflections and physically based shaders—all while the dramatic, circle-arrangement headlights explode at the upper reaches of the HDR light-intensity spectrum. By the time I watched the S-FR traipse along the cobblestone streets of an old European town, I started to get jealous of whoever might own this weird-ass car in real life.
Once you're in the actual game, as opposed to any of GTS's "car showcase" scenes, the HDR difference is still notable, but it can come and go depending on the racetrack you're on. Bright noon skies put a handsome blast of sunlight on the top of every car and a ton of nearby scenery, and nighttime races are absolutely aglow in all of the aforementioned lighting and the color effects. But a cloudy, mid-day race looks, well, just like a cloudy middle of the day. Those mild, gray-filled races simply don't pop in the same way, and you should tap your expectations' brakes accordingly.
But even these "boring" scenes still look better in HDR than on standard resolution or color. (In good news for standard PS4 owners, all versions of the game run at a crisp 60 frames-per-second refresh.) If you're only playing this game on a standard 1080p TV, you're missing out on details that move the game's visual design beyond looking like fancy model cars.
Gran Turismo VR: Not much gas in the tank
The same drool cannot be applied to the game's VR mode.

The cockpit view in VR.

If the arm placement looks funny to you, don't worry: it feels funny in VR, as well. Like you're somehow crouching forward yet also simultaneously really far away from the windshield.

Rearview mirror works, at least.

A quick peek in the backseat.

Nearby details can look fine, and they can also look dumpy.

For one, PlayStation VR owners are limited to Gran Turismo Sport's "VR Arcade" mode, which isn't even as fully featured as the 2D game's Arcade mode. While you can select from any racetrack in the game for a VR race, you cannot adjust opponent difficulty... and you cannot race against more than one opponent. The number of racers is likely limited to reduce the game's rendering strain in VR, but I am at a loss to understand why the difficulty is turned down to the stupidest setting the game can possibly muster.
That's doubly awful once you consider how much GTS automatically assists drivers who dare enter the VR racing cockpit. Even though I manually disabled every assist the game has on offer, I was able to repeatedly trigger automatic slowdowns and turn assists while driving as crappily as possible in the game's VR mode. Both of those automatic VR assists are a little more subtle than when they're intentionally turned on in standard 2D driving, at least, and I have still been able to slam into walls or spin out violently.
In general, however, GTS really, really doesn't want you feeling out of control while pushing PlayStation VR to its limits. What's weird, then, is that it's not a particularly cozy VR racing game, either. Polyphony Digital has left the game's rally races enabled in VR for some reason, even though they produce the mode's most vomit-inducing lateral-drift moments. Meanwhile, for the standard, tolerable races that fill out most of VR Arcade, I saw nothing in the way of sharp grounding techniques like peripheral-blocking or cockpit-grounding to add comfort. Anybody who's entirely new to VR may want to hold off on this as their very first VR experience, as a result, but it's otherwise comfortable enough once you've gotten used to how VR works.
The game runs efficiently enough in VR, but like DriveClub VR before it, GTS's VR mode runs at a faked 120Hz refresh, which is really 60 frames per second with some interpolation automatically generated. This doesn't quite keep up with GTS's sense of speed, and while the results shouldn't make anybody sick by default, they fall short of Project Cars 2's default "low" settings for VR, which result in 90fps performance on PC—and therefore seems more fluid. That game, additionally, feels more comfortable in VR, owing to more pronounced cockpit-anchoring visual details and a clearer sense of real car movement and inertia.
Adding real insult to VR injury, none of your progress or effort in VR Arcade mode pays off with in-game currencies like experience points, miles driven, or in-game currency.
As a result, it's hard to recommend GTS's VR mode as a reason to buy this game. Sony should have included this oversimplified mode as a low-expectations freebie to current PSVR owners. Assigning any paid value to it is ridiculous.
As for the rest of the package: Keep it tuned to Ars for Jonathan's upcoming review of the full game.

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