Red Dead Redemption 2 may have had the biggest opening weekend in the history of entertainment but its HDR output is not actually HDR; it is upconverted SDR. However, switching to SDR mode is not optimal either.
Over the last few years, we have witnessed some amazing implementations of HDR (High Dynamic Range) in console games. HDR provides a wider color gamut and luminance range – if your TV has capable hardware. Games such as Horizon Zero Dawn and Uncharted: A Thief’s End spring to mind.
Many have been eagerly awaiting Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 to such a degree that it has achieved the “biggest opening weekend in the history of entertainment” with $725 million in sales. Of course, that was before most people had a chance to try it.
Shortly after the launch, reports (1, 2) of “fake HDR” began surfacing. FlatpanelsHD have returned from vacation and after having spent some time with RDR2, we can only reiterate what has already been said (and confirm that it is happening on PS4 Pro, too). The game’s “HDR” is not actually HDR but simply upconverted SDR (Standard Dynamic Range) that does not expand the dynamic range markedly. It even makes pictures flatter than supposed to, which is counterintuitive.
We did some analysis and comparison between the “HDR” and SDR modes in RDR2. The photos below are taken with a smartphone camera and do not fully and accurately capture what we are seeing (SDR mode actually looks even more vibrant) so don’t put much thought into them. However, they should give you an idea of how the “HDR” mode actually makes the picture less dynamic. In other words, the problem is not simply that the game fails to benefit from HDR’s wider color and luminance range (because of SDR upconverting) but also that it cannot actually reproduce the intended SDR picture inside the HDR container.
Initially, we thought that it was an artistic choice to give the game a muted western-style look but other scenes reveal problems with colors and luminance. This particular scene is a good example, whereas it may be less obvious during some of the scenes in the snow.
SDR mode not optimal either
Others have suggested that you switch to the game’s SDR mode and while we agree that this gives the picture more vitality, we are seeing very bad crushed near-black details when the sun sets and some other dynamic lighting issues. Shadows in broad daylight are too dark, too.
In SDR mode, we are also seeing a weird hard-to-describe color cast towards green in some scenes (TV is obviously calibrated). Some colors appear too saturated, and the detailed and vibrant game world that Rockstar has created clearly shows the limitations of the SDR standard but something else is also amiss. Playing in SDR mode is not an optimal solution either, if you ask us. It looks wrong, too – a different kind of wrong.
Rockstar has not responded to the controversy, which is gaining steam by the day. The game studio should obviously fix the mess but given that it takes a lot of work to remodel a game engine and pipeline for true HDR, we are not hopeful.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a very impressive game in many ways, and we still thoroughly enjoy the atmosphere and deep game world, but it saddens us to know that it could have looked much better. If you are still not playing your games in HDR on a proper HDR TV, you are missing out big time. Just don’t let Red Dead Redemption 2 be your first encounter.