Variable Rate Refresh has been one of the most requested features on PlayStation 5 since its release almost two years ago. Sony has now resolved that, finally implementing VRR on PS5 consoles, allowing gamers with a compatible TV or monitor to turn on the feature in potentially any PS5 game. There’s a short list of games getting a patch enabling VRR support in the coming weeks, but you can also turn it on for unsupported games; just know that those without official support might not achieve perfect results.
What is VRR and how does it work?
VRR is a relatively new technology (2013) that changes a longstanding limitation of PC and console display methods. Before VRR (also known as Free-Sync/G-Sync), your TV or monitor set the rate at which games could update their images each frame, based on the rate at which the screen could update its display to draw a new image. . The most popular TVs used to be 60Hz, which is why 60fps has been the goal of gaming performance for so long. This means that the fastest a PC or console could send a new image would be every 16 ms, which after 1 second gives us 60 new frames.
The next rate below this is 30fps or 33ms, which breaks down to 60fps evenly. This meant that game engines had to lock all of their features, loops, and inputs to this fixed rhythm dictated by the screen, called V-sync, and means that meanwhile both the console and the TV line up at the same 16 o’clock point. 33 ms in time, we get a new frame each time. The problem here, or at least one of the few, is that this can take a huge toll on performance and affects both console and PC. This is why turning off V-sync can sometimes improve performance, as it allows the system to ignore this fixed display timeout period.
The downside of disabling V-sync is that it can result in a ripped image, where the screen has only part of the new frame in the bottom section, which is still being rendered by PC/console, and part of the old. on top. Until now, this has been the dilemma: choose cleaner image quality at the cost of performance margin, or better performance at the cost of visual issues.
Enter VRR. This technology allows the console or PC to “beat the drum” for you, allowing you to tell the screen when to update for a new frame (within a defined range) when it’s ready. This means that we can almost get the best of both worlds: the frame time can change by frame and the TV will adjust its cycle within that defined window. The net result is that the system can fluctuate between the 8ms ceiling of 120fps and drop as low as 20.9ms or 48fps. In other words, the removal of that 30 or 60fps cap while also removing screen tearing. At first glance this sounds perfect, but a few caveats go into the solution offered here.
VRR on PS5
Insomniac has jumped feet first into the VRR ring with not one but three updates adding VRR to the current 3 modes, helped greatly by the single engine that powers them all.
Starting with Spider-Man Remastered, the game has been updated with a 120Hz mode, similar to what we received last year in Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, which bumps up the 4K Fidelity mode to increase from 30fps to 40fps due to the fact that it’s a divisible rate of the 8ms frame time that requires 120Hz. With VRR enabled, this can be extended beyond that, effectively unlocking the frame rate to potentially hit that 120fps ceiling. In 4K Fidelity mode, activating VRR results in performance gains of 12-13%, and up to 25% in some cases, over the old 40fps limit. Those gains are respectable, but Loyalty mode is actually the least impressive here, compounded by the fact that it’s mostly outside of the useful VRR range here. Insomniac appears to be using a low frame rate offset, similar to a 2:3 pulldown used in 24fps cinema modes on TVs. That is, when it drops to 40, it doubles the frame 3x with the 8ms update. This helps reduce vibration when it falls outside the active VRR range.
The other two modes see much larger jumps, and this is true of all three games (Spider-Man, Miles Morales, and Rift Apart). Performance Ray Tracing mode’s old 60fps limit is now doubled in best case scenarios, though I only saw such a dramatic improvement briefly, when swinging around town. Across a variety of sections tested, performance increased by over 50%, meaning frame times are cut in half and input responsiveness is increased, one of the biggest benefits of 120fps or faster frame rates . The jump is significant and really highlights the extra work the team has done here to maximize the motor and capitalize on the gains that are possible when V-sync is no longer set to such a (relatively) low rate. Additionally, all three games now have higher resolution targets in all modes, meaning dynamic scaling levels have been increased. This is a great look under the hood at the leeway available in these fixed console games that, unlike on PC, we rarely see.
Next up is Spider-Man: Miles Morales, which has the same upgrades and similar results as seen above, but Performance mode offers even better results. Ray Tracing is no longer active, but resolution scaling can be increased further, as can frame rate. This often means an additional 17% improvement over Performance RT mode, with frame rates up to 90 and even 100 fps levels in cinematic, combat, and traversal segments. These boosts are significant for such an early and beautiful cross-gen game, and they do a great job of selling the best that VRR has to offer.
Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart is the next big thing and we again see substantial performance increases across all modes. Now Performance RT mode shines even brighter with frame rates often above 80fps and beyond, and drops to 60 still feel silky smooth due to being well within the VRR sweet spot. It must be said that Insomniac continues to impress, with its three great games that really show off the potential of the PS5 and Variable Rate Refresh.
Another example is Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. In 120fps mode, turning VRR on results in nearly identical performance, but the tearing when VRR is off and ripples in the 8ms time frame are now cleaned up to deliver those fast, fluid controls the series is known for. is known and at the same time achieve a stable image quality.
Other games get benefits too, like Dirt 5 and its 120fps racing mode that now eliminates screen tearing while maintaining the same fast and fluid input times.
What about games without official VRR support?
As mentioned above, the PS5 VRR update allows you to activate the feature even for games that have not received an official VRR patch yet. Dying Light 2, which we covered earlier this year when it launched, has an adaptive V-sync feature, which means it could get a little torn when it went slightly over budget in more GPU-limited sections, like the foliage opening segment. heavy. in performance mode. The game has yet to receive a VRR patch from the developer side, but it still benefits from enabling the technology, albeit to a lesser degree. Enabling VRR at the PS5 system level removes the aforementioned screen tearing, but the game is still capped at 60fps in Performance mode (unlike the Series X version which can run up to 90). I suspect that Techland will release an update soon to allow the PS5 to break free of that artificial limit as well.
Cyberpunk 2077 is another one that benefits from VRR without developer involvement. It’s only a 60fps game, which means the window that VRR has to work in is the smallest yet, but the PS5 version tends to stay above the 48fps minimum most of the time, which which means that the small drops that can still occur are harder to notice, while the reduction in vibration and the elimination of screen tearing when activating VRR is much more significant.
A main limitation of variable rate refresh is that 30fps games fall outside the range required for VRR enhancement. In the demanding Matrix demo powered by Unreal Engine 5, the game recognizes that VRR is active, even without any patches. Frame time can now switch to 8ms, but it still runs at the same limited levels of 24fps or 30fps depending on the segment and can still traverse the screen at times with frame drops. This proves that even though the engine knows VRR is available, Epic would need to release a patch for this to benefit. As such, the choice of operating system to be able to turn VRR on or off is welcome, as some games, like this one, may not work at all.
Also, backwards compatibility games, even enhanced ones, do not recognize VRR. Testing Bloodborne, a game that would benefit greatly from higher frame times and smoother frame delivery, we see that nothing has changed. The same inconsistent frame delivery issues still occur and the same 30fps cap remains. This shows the limits that VRR has, namely that it can’t do anything for 30fps titles as it’s outside of its operating window. VRR cannot increase frame rates above its target, which means that unless a developer updates the game, a frame rate cap of 30, 60, or some other target will remain, no matter what. A backup to this is Batman: Arkham Knight, which is capped at 30fps and would have some tearing on PS4. This hasn’t changed since the update, as the display doesn’t activate VRR and the game has no change to its output rate or input latency.
Overall, Variable Refresh Rate is a welcome addition to PlayStation 5, even though it came a bit later than expected, especially considering Xbox had VRR up and running even before the Series X and S consoles launched. it’s a welcome boost to the console’s toolset, offering options for developers and gamers alike. The fact that an OS option is enabled to force games to use it whenever possible is great, although, as noted, not all games will be able to take advantage of it. As a solution to ripping and improving both throughput and input latency, VRR is a win, but don’t expect it to be a silver bullet for performance issues across the board. Either way, I look forward to seeing what the future holds as more and more developers implement patches to expand VRR support in their games.