Maybe Consoles Should Just Embrace PC-Like Graphics Settings

'Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart' has three different graphics settings. Is it time to just let players mess around with everything?

Jun 11 2021, 1:18pm

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart arrives this week, and inside, you'll see graphical options that adjust how the game looks: fidelity, performance RT, and performance. That's three more options than the Ratchet & Clank game in 2016, which had exactly zero graphical options. 

One of the great accidents of this new generation of consoles has been "quality" and "performance" modes. The short version, if you're unfamiliar: "quality" tends to be at 4K resolution with the fanciest bells and whistles at 30 frames per second (FPS), "performance" is at a lower resolution with fewer bells and whistles—but at a buttery 60 frames per second.

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Rift Apart has a new wrinkle—a third option—though it's not the first game to do so. The difference between "performance" and "performance RT" is kinda fuzzy. The game says performance RT has ray tracing, a new rendering technique that simulates how light bounces and reflects in an environment, but at "a lower-resolution picture with adjusted lighting, VFX, and scene density." Just performance, however, removes ray tracing entirely "in favor of increased picture resolution." What's that mean? I'm no expert, but the basic takeaway is each progressively moves frame rate up in importance.

Less than a year into the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, these have felt like natural and necessary concessions to the horsepower required to display modern big budget games at the highest of resolutions, knowing A) decent amounts of the audience may not even own a 4K display and B) many of these games were really developed with older consoles in mind.

In essence, power is left on the table, so you might as well use it. Whatever the reason, it's fulfilled a long held dream by many people: console video games at a constant 60 FPS.

I've been playing and covering video games for decades and witnessed the industry and audience's collective move from generation to the next. And I patiently wait for someone to pop up and ask: "Is this the generation with enough power for games to run at 60 FPS?" 

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The answer has typically been no. On consoles, at least, many developers in the 3D era have prioritized making games look as nice as possible, at the expense of frame rate. The question I've been wondering is different: "How long will developers even offer this option?"

"I suspect we'll continue to see it for a while—specifically after what's happened with backwards compatibility this generation," said John Linneman, a staff writer at Digital Foundry, the gold standard for understanding the technology of games. "It makes sense to have a high-performance mode as an option as it can add extra value to older games."

30 FPS has been the baseline on consoles. If you want 60 FPS, you need to buy a PC, where frame rates vary wildly depending on a PC's particular combination of components. Optimizing performance is important, but in some cases players  bruteforce their way to better frame rate with hardware that costs thousands of dollars. That's also the joy of buying a new card, because you can load up an older game and watch it hum at frame rates and resolutions developers never dreamed of.

"I'm not convinced we'll see the same 30 FPS standard going forward," said Linneman. "It'll probably become MORE common but, if you look at the games available currently, nearly everything now offers 60 frames per second, which we have not seen for a long time."

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Instead, Linneman predicted, the new and rare technological goal post will become the ultrafast 120hz/120fps, which is only supported by a handful of games at the moment.  

I've prided myself on not caring that much about frame rates in the past, having mostly been a person who played on console and suffered under the burden of aging technology being pushed way too hard. It didn't bother me that other people found it more important, but as I wrote last year, "philosophically, I wish the medium was less obsessed with such technical details, even if I acknowledge it's vitally important to some genre." But that became harder to square when I was presented with the opportunity to play a "better" looking game or a "faster" looking game and, over and over, I found myself preferring the higher frame rate, to the point that I found it legitimately hard to play or even watch games at the lower frame rate.

It made playing Rift Apart a fascinating experiment, because the early version provided to reviewers came with a big red warning: do not touch the performance modes, they weren't done. As a result, I started the game in "quality" at 4K, maximum effects, and 30 FPS. The game's opening scene, a wild and chaotic trip through the game's big city, Megapolis, was on paper a visual feast—but I also knew the horrible truth and could see the lost frames. 

It was a relief, then, after an hour of playing, realizing I'd adjusted and no longer noticed the lack of 60 FPS. The game was the game. My brain hadn't completely broken. But when I eventually saw the performance mode? You guessed it: brain right back to being broken.

The other secret weapon handed to PC players, however, are graphics options. In the past, maybe you're lucky enough to mess with the field of view. Maybe. But otherwise, what is presented on the screen is what you're stuck with. If the developer did a good job optimizing performance for the console version, you're great. If they didn't, there's no alternative. You can't just go in and mess with the advanced graphics settings and discover that moving the shadow quality from high to medium somehow results in frame rate accidentally doubling.

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Performance and quality modes, however they came about, are fancy versions of exactly that. It's asking the player to make a determination of how they'd like the game to look, trusting they can make that choice for themselves. But outside of a rare game like 2017's Star Ocean: The Last Hope remaster, which surprisingly lets players fiddle with technical details like anti-aliasing and character display distance, you can't do much tweaking. 

"I don't see it becoming the norm," said Linneman, who also didn't expect much evolution beyond the current resolution vs. frame rate dynamic that's driving the current options.

The one difference, Linneman noted, were options to adjust details like motion blur and chromatic aberration, which have more to do with individual "taste" than performance.

The additional options are good. Guerilla Games has already said Horizon Forbidden West, which will be released on both PlayStation 4 and PS5, will have a 60 FPS option. Eventually, though, some games won't, and it's going to be curious if players decide to push back. For a long time, 60 FPS was a dream. Once you've had a taste of it, it'll be harder to go back.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561)

Tagged:

Playstation 5, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

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