It’s no secret that the best games tend to come right at the end of a console’s life. After years of getting used to the hardware, developers can push the limits of what consoles can do and create better running, playing, and looking games than we saw just years earlier on the same machines. While many of these improvements are less noticeable to the average person or player, no one can deny that graphics have hit almost unreal levels of fidelity and detail on the PlayStation 4.
Now that the PlayStation 5 is out we are seeing a few games push realistic graphics to a new level. But there are some late — and even early — PS4 titles that set the bar so high, it might be a while before developers can overcome them even with the more powerful hardware. There’s always an argument to be made between stylized and realistic graphics, but when you really want to show off how far games have come, these are the games on the PS4 with graphics so good they might fool you into thinking they’re real.
The Last of Us Part 2
A trend you’ll notice right away is that most of the best-looking games on the PS4 come from first-party studios. Naughty Dog has been PlayStation’s premier studio ever since the Uncharted series exploded in popularity, and then cemented themselves as technical wizards with The Last of Us Part 2. Just like the first game in the series, this game came in the final year of its respective console’s life and man does it show how much the team was able to learn about the system in that time. It isn’t just impressive in terms of gorgeously detailed environments, which they are, but in the amount of detail they pack in. Faces and expressions leap over the uncanny valley thanks to hand-done animations, the lighting is dynamic and deep, and everything reacts to the player.
A standout example comes early on in the game during a snowy sequence. Not only does the snow realistically deform as you trudge through it and bodies fall, but blood will pool out, get absorbed, and melt sections of snow just like it would in real life. If that sounds like a minor detail to add, consider the fact that lights will shine through thin materials on a character, such as their hair and ears. There is a ton to praise about The Last of Us 2, and plenty to critique, but the graphics are without a doubt stunning.
Read our full Last of Us Part 2 review
Horizon Zero Dawn
Guerilla Games, another highly talented PlayStation studio, previously made a name for themselves with the Killzone series, and even had a great-looking game ready for the PS4’s launch. When they announced that they were moving away from their FPS roots, many were concerned they would be able to pull it off, but from the first images we saw of what they had planned, we could at least rest easy knowing it would be a visual treat. Thankfully the entire game turned out to be amazing, but the fact that the game looks so good really helps sell the entire experience. Set in a post-apocalypse world where giant machines roam the land alongside human tribes, the contrast between nature and machine has never looked so good.
The main human characters are by no means bad, but the real standouts in this game are the environments and massive, dinosaur-inspired machines you will face down. The vistas and horizons, no pun intended, on display in this game are worth stopping to just soak in. Whether you’re in the snowy mountains, desert plains, or overgrown remnants of a city, there’s never a dull sight. In terms of the robots, just take the Thunderjaw as an example. This one creature was created using a staggering 550,000 polygons. If that number doesn’t mean anything to you, the game’s director compared it to Killzone 3 which never had more than 250,000 polygons total for everything on screen combined. And that’s just one of the robots you’ll face.
Read our full Horizon Zero Dawn review
It’s rather appropriate that Death Stranding follows Horizon Zero Dawn considering the former was built on the same engine as the latter. But, with some modifications and support, Death Stranding can push the graphics even further, at least on the landscape front. This is a game all about making deliveries across majestic and dangerous terrain, so failing to make the places you’re traveling through appealing would be disastrous. The lonely atmosphere and supernatural elements wouldn’t be as believable if they didn’t look so … believable.
Even the motion capture on display puts this title on another level. Unlike The Last of Us Part 2, facial capture was used here and, honestly, comes very close to looking just as good. And since big-name actors, celebrities, and other real people show up in this game we would notice if they appeared off in any way. Some even claim that the performances by some characters are beyond ones given in big-budget films, and we’re keen to agree. Love or hate his writing and directing style, but Hideo Kojima’s first independent game is nothing short of a masterpiece in graphics.
Read our full Death Stranding review
Detroit: Become Human
Quantic Dream games have always been on the cutting edge of graphics. Their heavy focus on narrative and character, and attempt to make interactive experiences that are on par with cinema, depends on the player being able to empathize with the characters. In Detroit: Become Human you control androids that are learning to break out of their programming and become, as they say, human. The intricate performances of the main cast, each of whom goes through their own unique journey and process of developing and showing emotions, are expertly displayed thanks to character models that blur the line between CG and reality.
The team was so confident in their graphical ability that the main menu is a closeup of a character’s face that looks almost too real. With such a focus on character models and facial tech, you might expect the other areas of the game to suffer some, but Quantic Dream knew its limitations. Areas you explore are compact so that they can maintain that same level of detail in the environment as the characters inhabiting them. Being able to look over a crime scene with enough detail to accurately determine what happened is something we hardly see in games.
Read our full Detroit: Become Human review
God of War
The God of War games have always looked great, but were never quite on the cutting edge. It was mostly their spectacle, scale, and visceral detail that impressed on a technical front. When God of War came out, ditching the fixed camera and giving the game a semi-open world structure, somehow the developers were also able to make the game look better than the older titles did at the time up in the small and massive scales. You still see all the disgusting, gory details when Kratos carves a chunk out of his foes with his ax, while basking in the terrifying glory of the massive world serpent’s gaze. Because the entire game has no cuts, no corners could be cut either, leaving a beautiful experience from start to finish.
The game also embraces the new Norse setting by branching out into other realms for variety. The majority of the game does take place in the typical snowy environments you would associate with Norse mythology, and they certainly put a lot of time into making those frosty areas look immaculate, but then there are the other realms as well. When combined, the game is a steady stream of new, large-scale, and visually disarming vistas that you won’t be able to take your eyes off of.
Read our full God of War review
Red Dead Redemption 2
If there was only going to be one game on this list that wasn’t a PlayStation 4 exclusive, it had to be Rockstar’s love letter to the entire western genre. Red Dead Redemption 2 was, and still is, a game that many people didn’t think would be possible to run on last-gen hardware. The sheer graphical beauty is one thing, but there are many games that look good, but only in stills. Red Dead Redemption 2 somehow looks better the more you play it. The character models are fantastic, but fall in the mud and watch their clothes get dirty, or how bullet wounds will appear and bleed in the correct places.
The open-world features all the staple environment types, of course showing off snow, forests, deserts, and plains that all look amazing no matter the time of day or weather conditions. Even the animals are given arguably too much attention, with no better example than the infamous horse testicle feature where they will shrink in cold environments. What really does it for this game is the animations, though. Carving up a killed animal, cleaning and repairing your gun, and everything in between is so satisfying to watch in such high quality.
Read our full Red Dead Redemption 2 review
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Leave it to Naughty Dog to get not just one game on this list, but two. Even though it was released in 2016, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is still a masterclass in graphics. Unlike the more subdued and melancholy tone and gameplay of The Last of Us Part 2, the Uncharted games have always been more bombastic and lighthearted with their exciting set pieces and endearing characters. Now on the PS4, both of these aspects were taken to new heights thanks to the cutting edge visuals they were able to hit.
Almost more than any other game on this list, Uncharted 4 almost doesn’t seem to care if you notice just how good it looks when it cranks up the action. To be fair, when you’re hanging on a rope for dear life while being dragged by a truck and shot at, you probably won’t notice how the mud is deforming around Nate’s legs. Then there are the smaller things, easily missable, but perhaps even more impressive such as how if you disturb some rocks on a slope by shooting them, you can watch a dynamic little rockslide that looks exactly like it would in real life.
Read our full Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End review
Gran Turismo Sport
Racing games from the start have been the genre that always wants to be in first when it comes to graphics. The latest in the Gran Turismo series is, as expected, nearly photorealistic. However, just because we expect the graphics to be great doesn’t make them any less impressive. Sure, some of the background elements of the track aren’t as perfectly modeled as the cars or track itself, but when you’re zipping by at 100 miles per hour, it looks, and feels, plenty real.
With over 150 cars in the game it would be hard to imagine them all being as detailed and well crafted as the others, and yet that’s exactly what you get here. If the team wasn’t so justifiably confident in how perfect their cars look they wouldn’t have included the “Scapes” mode where you can set up a scene, car, and location, just to screenshot and marvel at the beauty of it. Photo modes are more common now, but this one was an early example of allowing you to really set up the perfect shot.
Read our full Gran Turismo Sport review
The Order: 1886
If you weren’t familiar with this game then, just based on the visuals, you probably wouldn’t have guessed it was one of the first games ever shown off for the PS4 before release. Sony couldn’t have picked a better game to show off how good games could look on their upcoming console. It would be years before other titles were able to match the fidelity The Order: 1886 managed to achieve so early in the console’s life. There were clear corners that had to be cut to achieve this, including a criminally short run time and serviceable but not all that gripping gameplay, but boy did it look good while it lasted.
Before photo modes were a thing, The Order: 1886 flexed its graphical muscles by letting players inspect their weapons up close and in full detail. You could see every grain in the wood stocks, scratch on the metalwork, and even the wrinkles in your character’s leather gloves change as he rotates it around. Every environment, from the wet streets and glowing gas lamps, to the cloud-covered sky and city decorations all look far better than they have any right to for such an old game.
Read our full The Order: 1886 review
Shadow of the Colossus Remake
BluePoint has been remastering games, including Shadow of the Colossus for PS3, for years but this full-on remake of the PS2 classic shows off their abilities in a whole new way. The original game was clearly pushing the PS2 to its absolute limits. As good as it looked for the time, there were still washed-out textures, very inconsistent frame rates, and hazy draw distances to just get the game running. This remake feels like what that game wanted to be. It doesn’t sacrifice any of the tone or sense of atmosphere the original was going for, but enhances it with graphics that do that world justice.
Aside from the world, it is the titular 16 colossi that define Shadow of the Colossus Remake. Every one of these creatures, mostly massive but some smaller, have such distinct and palpable personalities. Maintaining that is vital to the game’s themes, and it would be easy to lose in a remake, but the extra detail only makes your quest to hunt them down even more conflicted and tragic. Scaling a beast who is only trying to defend itself, climbing up its fur and watching the black blood spew out, or hanging on for dear life to one’s wing as it flies, is a heart-pounding sight. But it is also the quiet moments roaming through the forbidden land on horseback that can take your breath away.
Read our full Shadow of the Colossus Remake review