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Horizon Zero Dawn's PC port is deeply disappointing

A stunning game marred by a range of technical problems.

By Alex Battaglia. 6/08/2020

Horizon Zero Dawn has its own particular place of honour in a phenomenal line-up of PlayStation 4 first-party exclusives - an open world delivered with some of the best technology in the business, combined with the gameplay finesse and polish of a more linear experience, humanised with some of the most impressive character rendering of the generation. When Hideo Kojima went shopping for a game engine to deliver his vision for Death Stranding, it was Guerrilla Games' Decima technology he settled upon - and can there be any higher praise than that? In the wake of Kojima Productions' generally excellent Death Stranding PC port, expectations were sky-high for Horizon's PC conversion. With that in mind, it's both baffling and extremely disappointing to see the port fall so far short of expectations.

Make no mistake, the core game is all there. It is indeed the Complete Edition. It's still a unique experience for PC users, simply because multi-platform projects and even the odd PC exclusive aren't built quite like this. Horizon Zero Dawn looks and feels a class apart in many ways - and yes, you can increase graphics settings and improve resolutions and frame-rate compared to the PlayStation 4 and PS4 Pro originals. However, where the game falls short is in its many technical failings.

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When a game is content-complete but requires polish and bug-testing, it's considered beta code - and that's the impression we got from this conversion when we tested it, to the point where much of the reviewing process has been a case of testing and re-testing the game on multiple pieces of hardware to answer a simple question - is there something wrong with our kit or is the game at fault? It's a little bit of one and a lot of the other, but the bottom line is that there are many technical issues that need addressing to the point where not all of them can be included in this article. A 35GB day one patch arrived on the same day as the embargo lift - hence the delay in publishing our review - but the many and varied problems are still in effect in the code that makes its way to players.

It starts with the initial 'optimisation' phase on boot. Like a number of DX12 and Vulkan titles, shaders are compiled and stored the first time you play the game - as opposed to generating them during play, potentially inducing stutter. It's an extended process to say the least, it adds to the storage footprint, and if your drive fills up during this procedure, the game crashes to desktop - sometimes with an ominous 'fatal error'. While testing and re-testing across systems, the process could often stall and lock-up even when required storage was available. Beyond that, when I booted the game on my 4K screen in full-screen mode, something didn't look right. It turned out that Horizon was rendering at 4K, downscaling to 1080p, then upscaling to 4K again. Switching to the borderless display option fixes this (albeit introducing other issues), as does swapping back to full-screen mode from borderless. Bizarre.

Once past these issues, things do look up. Horizon Zero Dawn offers a large amount of options to tweak, scaling graphical elements both higher and lower than the default PlayStation 4 presentation. Better still, the inclusion of an 'original' graphics preset is a great touch - and it's similar to the 'default' option on Death Stranding, where the settings are essentially a match for the PS4 version. You can define the console experience as the baseline and scale up - or down - from there. However, similar to Death Stranding's PC port, while the settings are there to push to higher quality levels, the actual improvements to visuals are thin on the ground.

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So, for example, the reflections setting improves the quality of screen-space reflections - and the high preset is indeed of a higher quality than console-standard medium. However, the practical difference is minimal and the main disadvantages of SSR are not mitigated. A game based mostly in nature has very little in the way of reflective surfaces meaning that where there is a gain, it's not really significant. Similarly, the only real difference in shadow quality at the highest setting comes in the first cascade right in front of Aloy. It helps a touch with self-shadowing but not to any great degree. It doesn't change the range of shadow cascades or the distances at which they 'pop'. Even the texture setting is a little strange. Pushing the setting up increases texture quality further into the distance. There's the perception of increased detail, but it can also produce aliasing issues - leaving it on console quality medium is just fine. Speaking of texture quality, the anisotropic filtering setting simply does not work. My advice? Set it manually to 16x in your GPU control panel for an actual quality boost.

Various anti-aliasing options are available but of all of them, only TAA really does a good job - and thankfully it has a minimal performance hit. Two settings I do recommend boosting from console quality are model detail and volumetric clouds. The former increases the distance at which certain patches of grass or objects render further away from Aloy, reducing the pop-in effect - and it also increases the distance at which the higher quality versions of a model are rendered. So trees into the distance will look less cardboard and '2D-like' and show off more individual branches and leaves. Guerrilla's cloud rendering system is brilliant but computationally expensive. The default medium setting has some artefacting, but there are obvious improvements shifting to high and ultra. High delivers the best balance of bang vs buck.

The change from checkerboard resolution to standard 16:9 resolutions changes the appearance of the game's post-processing effects, including depth of field.

Ultimate Settings
PS4 Pro
Original Settings

The 'original' graphics preset is closest to PlayStation 4 Pro's presentation - excluding the way ground is rendered, as well as anisotropic filtering.

Ultimate Settings
PS4 Pro
Original Settings
Low Settings

The ultra setting for clouds has a nice increase in quality at a large cost. The high setting will work just fine.

Ultra Cloud Quality
High Cloud Quality
Medium Cloud Quality

The high reflection setting has a minimal increase in quality at a large cost. Medium reflections offer the best bang for the buck.

High Reflections
Medium Reflections
Low Reflections

If you were looking to utilise the game's dynamic resolution scaling for balancing performance, I do not recommend it at all, as it is overzealous to the extreme and coarse in its application. I observed a scene rendering at 55fps using native 4K at ultra settings on an RTX 2080 Ti, where DRS should deliver full frame-rate with a minimal resolution drop. Engaging dynamic resolution scaling did indeed get me to 60fps but pixel-counting saw that the game had switched resolution to 1080p to get the job done. To claw back a mere 5fps, the game had quartered resolution to do it. I'd recommend leaving DRS disabled.

Let's talk optimised settings - my selection for the best bang for the buck across the game's many tweakables. As things stand, console quality 'original' - with 16x anisotropic filtering forced via the control panel and TAA - will do just fine, but feel free to add ultra model quality, high shadows and high clouds. Ultra settings are nice and appreciated, but there are few meaningful visual returns. You're better off spending that performance elsewhere, which brings me onto the crucial matter at hand: I'm privileged enough to run high-end hardware and put simply, I had a hard time getting this game looking good and running well, even on a Ryzen 9 3900X paired with an RTX 2080 Ti. Meanwhile, performance on my mainstream class rig was way off pace.

Average frame-rates from the benchmark don't tell the full story. Apparently, I can run Horizon Zero Dawn at native 4K at an average of 78 frames per second on an RTX 2080 Ti. What it doesn't tell you is that the actual game experience will be a fair bit lower than that, with frequent stutters. Stutters in excess of 40ms, 70ms or over 100ms can happen as a cutscenes starts or ends, when a camera changes position in a cutscene, when a UI element updates for a quest, or when you are just walking around in the world not doing anything special in particular. This happens reproducibly across multiple graphics card and CPUs and chosen resolutions, impacting the fluidity of the game, producing an experience less consistent overall that the PlayStation 4 version, which has no such stutter.

I thought that dropping to console-level 30fps might solve the issue but the problem is that the 30fps cap within the game actually runs at 29fps, producing even more stutter. Also, if you are experiencing profound performance problems, make sure you have your mainboard properly configured for 16x PCIe bandwidth for the GPU. This one's on me but I didn't - my slot was set to 8x bandwidth and it hobbled performance, while switching up to 16x solve that particular problem. Going back to Death Stranding, PCIe bandwidth made no difference at all.

Even with the game running in what I think are optimal conditions, performance is not where it should be. Death Stranding would deliver 1080p60 on a GTX 1060 or RX 580 system. Horizon Zero Dawn - based on an older iteration of the Decima Engine - does not, far from it. The lack of a day one driver from Nvidia is also curious. Horizon certainly seems to need it as GTX 1060 performance up against RX 580 - its perennial rival - is remarkably poor. Indeed, on optimised settings, the GTX 1060 can drop beneath 1080p30 with highly erratic frame-times, meaning that it's performing worse than a PlayStation 4 with only a small visual uplift. The Steam hardware survey cites the GTX 1060 as the most popular gaming GPU around and yet it is clearly not performing as it should be, which means that a large proportion of the PC market could have issues. By extension, it comes as no surprise to see that the brilliant DLSS 2.0 support we saw in Death Stranding is not present in Horizon.

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There are other issues that need to be addressed. Cutscenes run at arbitrary frame-rates but facial animation is locked to 30 frames per second - it doesn't look right, with an almost Wallace and Gromit-like effect. Another problem in cutscenes is how they were not authored around the idea of interpolated frame-rates above 30fps, so in some cutscenes you can see characters warp around during scene cuts. Mismatches in animation refresh are evident elsewhere: Horizon's tall 'stealth grass' runs at the correct frame-rate at all times, but the new dynamic plants and foliage added to the PC version are locked at 30 frames per second refresh instead. An unlocked frame-rate needs to mean just that - picking and choosing what can meet the limits of PC hardware and what remains locked to 30Hz shouldn't be an option. What's so baffling about this is that Guerrilla Games are perfectionists - I can't help but feel that intrusive stutter and mismatched animation would never make their way into one of their PlayStation products so it's disappointing to see that happen here.

Our feedback was submitted to the developer and we understand that addressing the stutter and fixing the broken texture filtering is a priority, while essential features like full frame-rate animation are being looked into. But to see such an amazingly polished console experience transition to PC with so many issues and with depressed performance is a problem. Death Stranding set the bar with a technically solid (if not especially scalable) port and to see Horizon Zero Dawn fall so far short by comparison is such a let down. We will be waiting to see if these issues are addressed over time, but right now, while the game itself is highly recommended, we can't say the same for this PC conversion.

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