My Five Favorite 4K HDR Games

One piece at a time, I upgraded the components of my console gaming setup to support true 4K and HDR, and found myself revisiting a lot of games to see how much better they looked, or didn’t. Some games that seemed like contenders for exceptional graphics at the high end lose a lot of their luster in actual gameplay due to UI or effect choices, and others seem to apply the ultra HD textures inconsistently at best. However, there are some games that really do shine in 4K next to their 1080p versions. Here are my five favorite.

Forza 7

It is no accident you might find this as the running demo at your electronics store for the most expensive televisions, as this flagship of eye candy by Turn Ten is laps ahead in terms of extreme graphics performance.  Forza 7 and its playful openworld peer Horizon 3 are as well tuned as the real world cars they depict, and are a must play for any racing enthusiast. The cars, environment and weather effects are pure bliss on the eyes, and play as well too.

Sea of Thieves

This unique and immersive open seas pirate adventure by Rare Ltd is one of the most dramatic examples of a game that looks completely different on 1080p next to a proper 4K HDR display running on the same hardware. Its cartoonish style is deceptively nuanced, and features some of the most jaw dropping lighting and dynamic weather. The animation is also exemplary, maintaining its looks even in combat while keeping an ear to ear grin. Hats off to the art direction team for making one of the best looking games of this generation.

Assassin’s Creed: Origins

Where this game does suffer a bit from losing polish in chaotic combat sequences, it more than makes up for it in its breathtaking presentation of historical settings and grand sense of scale. The included free camera photo mode makes these moments all the more enjoyable, giving the player opportunities to capture truly spectacular screen shots. From shots of Senu against a sky of kites over the Nile at sunset, Bayek atop monuments, wind sailing, free diving or sneaking through glittering hoards of treasure lit by torchlight, Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Origin is visually quite stunning.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

I include this game although it was never upgraded on consoles to proper 4K like PC, it does support HDR and is nothing short of a masterpiece of visceral, well animated graphics that seem to get better (instead of worse) the more serious the action gets. Everything from the environments, UI, vehicles, weapons and armor are showcase examples of top shelf, built for 4K graphics. The Bioware title had a mostly undeserved initial reception for odd issues that included character faces, some silly animations and such but I felt they had near zero impact on actual gameplay where it mattered. At the heart of the game was a genuine breakthrough in combat mechanics that still look and play a generation ahead of most other games. Take issue with the facial appearances of some characters if you will, or a departure from deeper RPG elements of Mass Effect 2 and 3, but this game still shines on its merits.

Destiny 2

Bungie’s grand space opera shooter is another prime example of a game that looks generations different on a 4K HDR display next to a 1080p one. The lighting and effects aren’t even close. I do believe some compromises are made in the fastest of the game modes like PvP (similar to the degradation one might notice in For Honor), but in nearly every other case it remains faithful under fire, made all the better by some of the best monster and environment designers in the business.

Notes on the future of 4K gaming

Looking ahead, it isn’t a guarantee that the coming generation of games will automatically look better. In fact, the burden is on them to match and maintain (let alone surpass) the standard given accelerated release schedules and a shift in what is considered to be innovative in games. Upcoming megahits like Anthem look pretty on the E3 big screen, but will it play as well as Destiny 2 or Mass Effect: Andromeda? Contender with good credentials Cyberpunk 2077 melted faces in a closed-door gameplay demo but is already getting side-eye for not sharing this footage due to it (presumably, maybe) changing before release. Battlefield V looks promising, but may also get sucked into the propeller of Battle Royale resource prioritization. Fallout 76 is too early to tell. Shadow of the Tomb Raider *should* be born to win, given how good Rise of the Tomb Raider already looks but the E3 trailer was kind of modest in comparison.

Are high end graphics the most important feature of a game? Arguably not, but this coming year or so should really show if we can have both.

 

Three Sheets to the Wind – Thoughts on the Sea of Thieves Beta

It is easy to see why there are so many poems about the ocean. “My heart lies in the sea, at anchor”, and so forth. Not many games manage capture this feeling, an intangible, deep enjoyment of sailing. Not only does Rare Ltd pull it off but spectacularly so, crafting an experience so engrossing time slips away, day turns to night as you navigate under starry water-colored skies. But this is no ordinary seafaring simulator – these waters are a veritable nest of knives; a voyage punctuated by completely unhinged PvP hijinks and peril. Sea of Thieves is a masterpiece-in-progress.

Pirates, In Progress

The beta being a slice of early gameplay features just one of the quest-giving characters at the starting island, and most of the character or ship customization has been kept under wraps for now. Your pirate is randomly generated for the beta, and you start with all of the basic equipment you’ll need and a ship appropriate to the size of your crew. If you begin alone or with just one teammate, you have a single mast, two-cannon ship that is smaller, fast and relatively easy to manage. Team up with three friends and you get an impressive warship with three masts and a mouthful of cannons, but have more to manage in terms of keeping sail length and angle ideal for wind conditions. Other tasks aboard include repairing the hull should it be damaged by rocks or cannon fire, bailing water from any number of ways it can get aboard, reloading cannons and keeping a sharp eye out for other ships. Between destinations you can get fall-down drunk, dance and play music together with your crew. Players must communicate to navigate, as the ships map and wheel cannot easily be crewed by the same person – and definitely not when the pressure is on. It is important that everyone on the crew is able to do most of the tasks required to keep the ship off the rocks and in fighting shape, as once combat starts all hell breaks loose.

Salty Dogs

Dying in PvP is worth a brief stay on a ghostly Ferry of the Damned; a short time-out before returning near your last location. Shoot, stab and outwit the opposing crew, steal any treasure they may have had and protect your own. Escape, or for the truly committed: sink their ship. More than likely, a lot of the above with perhaps a pursuit mixed in. The penalties for dying are only relative to the risk of losing the treasure chests, for which the treasure maps may have cost some gold. This dynamic fuels a nothing to lose, winner takes all spirit. As of closed beta there is no strict PvP ranking, scoring, tracking or advancement other than the standard advancement for turning in a treasure chest. As-is, this works great and keeps superfluous concepts of kill-death ratio off the table, and negates some potential for griefing or other bad behavior. That isn’t to say you wouldn’t run the chance of encountering a crew with underhanded intentions or find yourself attacked while vulnerable, but rather that the reward for attacking a smaller crew isn’t measurably better than sailing to find your own treasure, nor is the setback for failure. As the game heads to retail release I hope any system added later to augment or celebrate PvP maintains some code of honor to preserve the current zany feel of ship to ship combat.

In spirit of full disclosure, my very first treasure chest was quickly swiped by a pirate who had trailed me to the island and watched me dig it up. He however had forgot to put anchor down on his own ship. I didn’t get the chest back, but he had a long swim back to that ship, if he ever got there. I think I saw sharks. Lessons, learnt.

Scanning the horizon

Tangle with a few well-coordinated crews and you’ll develop a good habit to mind the horizon. You will also do well to keep good friends. Sailing alone, as well described right in the opening menu of the game is quite dangerous. Crewing your ship solo is difficult enough without a cannon in sight, and truly frightening when you spot the topsail of a triple mast ship… with lanterns dimmed and bow in your direction.

Beta only provides a basic glimpse at how character advancement will work, which appears to follow an intuitive “get maps and find treasure” curve. More advance maps have multiple treasure chests and may also require solving riddles or locating and defeating enemies. As you rank up better gear and more advanced objectives unlock. Presumably this will include ship and character customization in final release.

I really enjoyed every minute of beta, and am excited to see the final work at release. I recorded a few clips of solo game play from one of my return voyages, mostly just sailing, but they show a glimpse of how pretty the game is.

I hope to see you on the high seas!