Horizon Zero Dawn on PC: Not the optimized port we were hoping for


Enlarge / In still-image form, Horizon Zero Dawn sure is a looker on PC. But it’s a video game, not a slideshow, and that brings us to some bad news.

Sony Interactive Entertainment

Horizon Zero Dawn was an easy Ars pick for one of 2017’s top five video games, but a certain subset of our readers disagreed. This was due almost entirely to the game’s PS4 exclusivity. Never mind that its developer, Guerrilla Games, is a wholly owned Sony subsidiary; we want it on PC, our readers declared.

Historically, Sony Interactive Entertainment (not to be confused with other Sony publishing arms) has been cagey about letting its PlayStation exclusives land elsewhere, but the past couple of years has seen that stance shift, with games like Heavy Rain and Death Stranding making their PC debuts. Death Stranding stands out as a particularly impressive example of a console game’s PC port gone right.

I remarked at the time that DS‘ PC version was good news for HZD, mostly because they share the same underlying tech, Guerrilla’s Decima Engine. But today, two days before HZD‘s “complete” edition lands on Steam for $50, I’m here to report that their shared tech hasn’t been paid forward with identical PC-version results.

An alarming list

HZD‘s preview version went live for members of the press on July 31, and sometimes, these early peeks include specific notes about errors and last-minute tweaks we should expect. But we received nothing of the sort, and it wasn’t until we sent SIE and Guerrilla a bullet-point list of pre-release errors that we were told to expect a patch. That patch has since arrived, but sadly, it doesn’t appear to fix everything we reported.

Since this appears to be the “day-one patch” Sony has told us about, we’re left wondering how many of the following issues will be resolved for retail customers ahead of Friday’s Steam launch:

Serious performance woes on my high-end rig. My best testing PC sports an i7-8700K CPU (overclocked to 4.8GHz), an Nvidia RTX 2080 Ti GPU Founder’s Edition (overclocked using EVGA X1 software), 32GB DDR4-3000 RAM, and an NVME solid-state hard drive. This rig has a lot of headroom to spare in order to get most 3D games to hit a mostly steady 60fps refresh at resolutions nearing 4K (2160p).

Indeed, the pre-release build of HZD hits 60fps on my best machine… but this requires a considerable downgrade to somewhere around 60 percent of 4K, which can be toggled in an in-game menu. The game includes an automatic resolution-scaling system, which drops the pixel count in order to lock to your preferred frame rate of choice. When I leave the game at “high” settings (not maxed-out, graphically, but close to it), this automatic 60fps slider bumps the pixel count down to roughly 60 percent, as well. That result lines up with other resolution tests on the same system; 1440p, or roughly 44 percent of 4K, runs at 68fps on average with the same “high” settings preset.

Since the PC port’s resolution-scaling system doesn’t borrow from the much ballyhooed “checkerboard rendering” found on PS4 Pro games, the results at this scaling level look pretty blurry—and arguably worse than a $300 console (which, admittedly, maxes at 30fps).

Serious performance woes on my medium-spec laptop: In testing the game on a 2018 HP Omen 15, with an i7-8750H CPU and an Nvidia GTX 1070 Max-Q, getting the game to stick to a 60fps refresh with all graphics settings turned down to “original” (meaning, roughly “medium”) is also difficult to achieve.

The issue isn’t just that our average frame rate on this rig at 1080p hovers at around 48fps. There’s also something seemingly broken about CPU optimization, which leads to some serious frame time spikes and audio stuttering, whether because a cut scene is playing out, a wave of NPCs in a town appear, or—worst of all—you’re doing standard HZD stuff, like attacking enemies with your spear. (This kind of frame time spiking happened on my high-end rig as well if the automatic frame rate setting wasn’t enabled.)

Even dropping all settings to “low” doesn’t currently help stabilize the frame rate enough to make this a smooth 60fps battling experience—though we wouldn’t recommend doing so, since this reduces some polygonal models to seriously low fidelity. An adaptive frame rate toggle doesn’t secure a 60fps lock on this lower-spec machine, either; even with a significant resolution drop, this laptop still suffers more stuttering bumps by default.

Cannot cap to 30fps: Depending on the PC in question, you might not hit 60fps even if the game were better optimized. In that case, you’d want to enable the 30fps lock in the options menu; in theory, combining that with the game’s solid per-object motion blur system could at least look and perform as well as its PlayStation 4 sibling. Unfortunately, as of press time, the 30fps toggle is broken and sees the game’s frames update at a rate closer to 28fps—meaning, it throws up multiple, garish frame time spikes every second and is far less playable than the original console version.

Anisotropic filtering issues: In our first tests with the game, anisotropic filtering (which improves the fidelity of textures as they blur together, especially in the distance) didn’t appear to be enabled. That has since been added back in, but should you toy around with AF settings mid-game, it can actually just wipe AF altogether, requiring a reboot to get turned back on.

Maybe it will get better? Someday?

In good news, the game’s PC version lets players bump graphics settings like view distances, model detail, texture fidelity, the quality of distant shadows, and cloud detail beyond what we saw in the console version—and these all offer a performance tradeoff, should you want to disable anything for smoother gameplay. (The fluffier clouds are a lovely option, but you can safely cross these off as your first step to smoother performance.) Exactly how these options scale, however, will likely vary more as the PC port receives more patches.

You also get PC-exclusive toggles like an FOV slider and higher frame rate options, but in the latter case, not everything unlocks beyond the game’s original 30fps cap. In particular, facial animations and eye blinks will sometimes lock to 30fps, even though other motions and tics operate in whatever preferred frame rate you’ve chosen. SIE has confirmed that this is an issue, and an SIE representative tells Ars, “We are exploring how we can improve this with a future update.” (That is not the same as confirming it will be changed.)

And if you’ve got an HDR-capable monitor or TV, HZD‘s PC port includes full support for the feature, along with a useful HDR-specific page to adjust settings like a “paper white” level. As we previously reported, HDR in HZD is a stunner.

I’m a big fan of HZD, and on my most powerful PC, I can currently play a tolerable-if-blurry 4K version at a nearly locked 60fps (or a native 1440p version at around 68fps on a variable refresh rate monitor). And it’s a great action game at 60fps and above, especially when you juggle hero Aloy’s selection of weapons and traps to fake like a real robo-safari hunter. There’s no modern action game quite like it.

There’s a chance your specific combination of CPU and GPU will play nicely enough with the game at launch, as well, and if so, the HZD fanboy in me would suggest you take the plunge sooner than later. But from the look of things, a day-two, day-three, and even day-four patch may be in order before I can safely recommend that a majority of PC owners pick this over the PS4 version.



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