One of the most most lauded features of the 4K revolution, HDR (or High Dynamic Range), has hit Gears of War 4 this week, joining Forza Horizon 3, NBA 2K17, and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.
Whilst typically associated with UHD Blu-ray titles, HDR enables your TV to go beyond conventional 8-bit processing into 10-bit. Those conventional 8-bit images we’ve been enjoying up to now can deliver 256 values across each of the channels in the RGB spectrum—that’s around 16 million colours. So what do those two extra bits give you? Well, a whopping 64-times more colours, hitting just over a billion. It’s kind of a big deal, on paper at least.
In practice, this means more gradations of colours, more details in bright and dark scenes, and more lifelike, realistic image reproduction. Scenes featuring complex, wide-ranging, diverse images can show off HDR in a particularly striking way.
Players of Gears of War 4 will of course be familiar with its beautiful visual effects, crazy weather, and bombastic action. As games go, there’s perhaps nothing better to show off HDR than this.
The following is a series of Gears of War 4 images captured offscreen in both standard and HDR mode on Xbox One S. Bear in mind however, you’re reading this on an 8-bit display. Due to the nature of HDR and its increased ability to deliver localised luminosity, these images should be interpreted as a typical approximation.
As you can see here, the standard image suffers quite badly from bloom originating from the sun behind the mountains. As a result, the entire image is overly illuminated in an unrealistic way. With HDR, the display is able to reproduce both the peak brightness of the sun, along with the more subtle, realistic darker details of the wall. Light sources fall across the environment more realistically too, with the facing wall remaining dark whilst retaining detail.
Even more noticeable here, the sun completely blows out the standard image. On HDR, the brightness and luminosity is retained but localised, with the sun bleeding through the clouds without sacrificing detail elsewhere in the image.
Multiplayer effects are unsurprisingly more subtle, perhaps a nod by the developers to level the playing field a bit. Environmental details and surfaces continue to deal with light sources in a more realistic way, creating a more natural and striking image.
Here, HDR gives us a furious sky with blinding brights and moody blacks, as surfaces like the bricks on the left and the metal cog on the right react to light sources more realistically. Notice the shadows under the brown-bricked building’s ledge and the architecture of the building to its right—depth is far more noticeable.
All in all, it’s clear HDR can add tremendous value to a game’s immersion and its ability to reproduce what the artists intended more truthfully. There are some caveats, however. Due to the increased range of colour and luminosity produced by the source, the resulting effect is an image that often appears to be slightly dimmer than its 8-bit equivalent, in order for your television to display the wider range it receives. Whilst this isn’t a problem for gamers in dark rooms, those playing in bright conditions may find HDR to be relatively redundant.
HDR is a new technology for consumers and it’s unsurprisingly riddled with complications. As is often the case with newer standards, there are several formats to choose from—and many of the most popular televisions can only reproduce HDR in certain conditions, with some only supporting the technology on one HDMI port. A bigger red flag for gamers though, is that some televisions don’t support HDR in Game Mode, ultimately sacrificing input latency for 10-bit images. The Samsung we tested HDR gaming on had no problems delivering HDR with Game Mode. Whilst we noticed an extremely minimal increase in input latency through a high-speed camera, it’s completely unnoticeable during gameplay.
In the consumer space, HDR is in its infancy. Just like any other case of early adopter syndrome, it feels like developers, platform makers, and players are all maturing with it together—and with 4K gaming just around the corner, it certainly feels like we’re about to embark on the next big generational leap. Colour me excited.