On HDTV, or, why VF5 finally justifies years of SDTV

This is not a review of Sega’s Virtua Fighter 5, which was released this week for Sony’s overpriced, not-doing-so-hot PlayStation 3. And it is not an attempt to convince you to buy a high-definition television set if you have not already done so. It is, however, my effort to put into words some feelings I’ve been having since Wednesday, when I purchased VF5 and began putting it through its paces on one of the HDTVs here.

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As someone who has had a high-def set way back in 2001 – long before there were Blu-Ray Discs or HD-DVDs full of high-definition video content – I have to say that I haven’t been entirely thrilled with that purchase, or that of a second HDTV around a year ago. The sets have been fine, but unless you’re a football fan who just has to watch games in high-definition, or a movie fan who really, really needs to see the dimples in your favorite actresses’ cellulite, there hasn’t been a really compelling need for the extra resolution. I bought my HD sets mostly for video games, and while the games have surely looked better than on typical TVs, there’s definitely been something missing: the resolution’s been there, making details look crisper, but in my view, the textures and shapes of the 3-D characters and backgrounds haven’t been up to snuff. Until now.


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What you’re seeing above is Virtua Fighter 5, an arcade game developed by Sega, perfectly translated to the PS3 and playing on a 720P-ready television this afternoon. The picture immediately above is a crop of the photo above it, showing how this character’s fingers have more polygon and texture detail than most past fighting games used for their characters’ entire bodies. I’d call this hyper-realistic except for the fact that it’s quite exactly what people have been hoping for from HDTVs – compelling realism in every frame, easily distinguishable from what old-fashioned standard definition TVs were capable of providing. Clearly, Sega has accomplished something special here; ever since this game was released, I’ve seen more evidence of people taking photos of their home TVs than any other title I can recall, along with accompanying “unbelievable” and “amazing” comments that are typically reserved for vacation photography rather than something on a television set.


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Truth be told, it’s not so much the TV, but the 3-D graphics hardware and superb programming that made this possible. Again, I’ve had the two HDTVs here for a while, and they’ve never put anything this spectacular on the screen before – even the same PlayStation 3 console with another generally well-made game (Tekken 5 Dark Resurrection) doesn’t come close to this. You can’t see it from these shots, but in addition to the detail, the game’s 60 frame per second animation is unbelievably fluid and uninterrupted – there’s no slowdown, and it all looks like real martial artists duking it out in 3-D, plus more.


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Those waterfalls in the background? They flow like real waterfalls. The palm trees sway gently in the wind. Shadows cast by the players and other objects change with the position of the light, the camera, and the characters. The pictures don’t do it all justice.


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Because of its subtlety, the stage above is the one that’s impressed me the most. Gritty urban backgrounds have been done a million times before in fighting games. But this one – ragged tracks above, people and cars moving behind, and rain falling inside the cage – it just feels real, or something a bit more exciting than real. It’s the puddles on the ground you can’t totally see here, and the occasional splashes of rain on surfaces of the cage, that help make the scene’s small details capture the eye.


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Bear in mind that it’s taken literally more than five years since the introduction of HDTV to get to the point where a piece of software has been so thoroughly capable of using every pixel, every frame, and every screen as convincingly as this one – and unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of other titles coming down the pike with this kind of software development pedigree. This is Sega’s triple-A team – perhaps the industry’s strongest – working at its absolute best, on a powerful development platform that isn’t easy to program for. Most developers have been willing to compromise on frame rates and/or polygon counts to create visuals with comparable apparent details, and only the best developers (such as Epic, with Gears of War) have been able to come close. In other words, up until only recently, I could have lived with standard-definition TVs, and unless lots of other content developers really work to maximize content for HDTVs, there won’t be a need for the masses to switch this year, either.


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For that reason, it’s going to be exceptionally interesting to watch how Apple approaches high-definition content with Apple TV. To this point, I personally have not wanted to buy Blu-Ray Disc movies for the PlayStation 3, as my feeling is that they’re not delivering enough additional visual or other content benefit to justify any price premium over standard DVD discs, and the collection of warmed-over titles pretty much sucks right now. My gut feeling is that mainstream customers are even less interested in high-definition movies right now than I am, and that with only a 40GB drive inside today’s Apple TV, Apple’s also betting that standard-definition films are going to continue to dominate for at least another year. For a company that sells movies only via download, high-definition movies require bigger storage devices, more downloading bandwidth, and better home wireless networks – say nothing of demand – pieces of the puzzle that aren’t quite in place yet.

But at the right price, I think people will gladly get into the HD movie market. What do you think? Are you already a HDTV owner? Do you have a HD game console or disc player? Holding out for a while? In any case, tell us why and what your plans are – we’re interested.