Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the shining beacons of what Sony’s first-party studios created this past generation. A new IP from Guerrilla Games that saw them stepping away from the first-person shooter series Killzone to create something that felt utterly new and distinctive. Robotic animals roam the Earth as humanity has reverted to tribalistic forms of living; it’s a fantastical setting, and one with a deeply engaging hard sci-fi lore that’s just begging to be uncovered.
The twinned stories of Horizon Zero Dawn see Aloy stepping out into this world and the tale of how this version of the Earth came to be, driving you forward just as much as the robot-hunting action RPG gameplay. Scouting out a herd of robots, quietly taking out their Watchers and then taking down the beasts for the resources you need is one thing, but battling the larger and much more fearsome beasts, using all manner of tech-infused rustic weaponry is another. It remains a fantastic combination and is sure to be a game that PC players will enjoy discovering for the first time.
However, revisiting the game in 2020 highlights the step forward that Guerrilla Games can take with Horizon Forbidden West. The opening tutorial areas plod along to a certain extent, not helped by the game’s insistence that you “Follow!” Rost and stick to his shifting waypoint – can we make the way Ghost of Tsushima’s NPCs match your speed an industry standard now, please? – and if I found the dialogue animations wooden in 2017, then the same is true here. I genuinely find it a bit creepy how Aloy just locks eyes and never lets go throughout her intensely earnest questioning of other people. As compelling as the main story is, the sidequests and interactions with other quest givers is much more formulaic.
It plays well on mouse and keyboard – I’d definitely recommend pulling the FOV all the way out to 100º, compared to the default 70º – the precision of a mouse helping with those precise bow and arrow shots to the weak points of the robots. Of course, you can always plug in a gamepad, and even pretend like you’re playing on Xbox One.
The disappointment really comes from Horizon Zero Dawn’s level of optimisation on PC, in particular, because it follows in the wake of Death Stranding coming to PC, which saw Kojima Productions adopt Guerrilla Games’ Decima Engine for their creation.
Guerrilla Games have kitted the game out with plenty of display and graphics options to customise the game to suit your set up. There’s full ultra-widescreen support, you can adjust the FOV to pull the camera further away from Aloy, and a mixture of V-Sync, frame rate limits, frame rate targeting, and render scaling.
Coming from the semi-fixed quality targets of the game on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Pro, there’s not quite as much leeway to improve the graphics than can be found in games designed with PC in mind from the off. You have an “Original” preset, which sets all of the settings to Medium, but can preview what each of the settings means as you flick through from Low to Ultra. In some cases these affect the level of detail settings and how close to the camera detail is culled to preserve performance, though Guerrilla has added a number of improved lighting, reflection and other effects over the PS4.
It’s interesting to note that, while Death Stranding embraced Nvidia’s DLSS 2.0 to use machine learning image reconstruction for increased detail at lower resolutions, and also had AMD’s FidelityFX CAS for less nuanced image sharpening, neither of those technologies is present in Horizon Zero Dawn on PC. The irony, of course, being that the game used checkerboarding on PS4 Pro in order to upscale from 1800p to 2160p. You can try and enable these techniques via your GPU drivers, but it’s not a part of the game.
The original game was locked to a 30fps target, even if you turned on the PS4 Pro’s “favour performance” mode which knocked the game resolution down to 1080p but only shored up the frame rate at that 30fps level. PCs can quite easily smash that performance target… but not quite as well as I had expected.
With an AMD Ryzen 5 3600 and Vega56 combo, my gaming PC is still fairly high-end and easily outstrips what is found in the PS4 Pro. In the vast majority of games, I can simply set the graphics to the highest preset and enjoy a locked 60FPS at 1080p. In fact, with Death Stranding, I can savour the game’s gorgeous landscapes with a frame rate around 90FPS with the graphics at maximum. The same cannot be said of Horizon Zero Dawn.
The benchmarking tool gives a rosy picture, with 1080p60 looking a cakewalk and even a solid 4K30 possible with its swooping fly-through of Meridian city, but it’s misleading. When actually playing the game the story is quite different. Repeating a run through a stretch near Mother’s Heart, I could only muster a frame rate in the high 40s at original graphics and 1080p. Step that up to Ultimate at 1080p, and it was the low 30s, while 4K is consistently in the high teens. It improves when heading into later biomes, like the desert and frozen north, but it’s never meeting that 60fps target for me.
We can rule out driver and pre-release builds for this – this was with the day one patch installed and the Radeon 20.8.1 drivers, both intended to shore up performance and released this morning. We also briefly tested the game on the same system we reviewed Death Stranding on – an AMD Ryzen 5 1600 and Nvidia GTX 1060 – to similarly mediocre results. Running through the same stretches of the world and performance is not close to what we expect from a PC meeting the Recommended specifications, which can take Death Stranding in its stride.
So what’s the reason for this? It’s easy to point fingers and cry about poor optimisation, but there are also significant stylistic differences. The rough Icelandic style terrain of Death Stranding is gorgeous, but Horizon Zero Dawn has much, much denser foliage and more trees that cast more complex shadows, both of which are frame-rate sapping challenges. I am quite certain that Guerrilla Games could continue to work and optimise their game further, and hope they do, because it feels below par on our hardware.
While performance is a disappointment, the game is more than playable and can still be much more fluid than the console version. You will just have to accept that you won’t be seeing 60FPS on anything but an ultra-high-end PC.
Horizon Zero Dawn Complete Edition brings Guerrilla Games’ fantastic sci-fi adventure to a whole new audience, but PC players used to ultra-high frame rates will have to accept a step down in performance as they enjoy Aloy’s journey.