Horizon Zero Dawn for PC is a great idea that needs some work

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Horizon Zero Dawn came out on PC a few days ago, which would have seemed like an unlikely thing to say this time last year. This is one of the most acclaimed games available on the PlayStation 4, and Sony is not known for releasing its exclusive titles elsewhere — they’re one of the biggest reasons to buy a PS4 in the first place.

In Horizon Zero Dawn’s case, though, the PC release makes obvious sense. The PS4 is on its way out, with Ghost of Tsushima last month marking the final major first-party release from Sony before the PS5’s arrival later this year. And one of the biggest games announced for the PS5 is next year’s Zero Dawn sequel, Horizon Forbidden West.

Rereleasing Zero Dawn and its Frozen Wilds expansion on PC, then, is smart marketing for the PS5. Sony loses nothing by making the game available to a new audience at this point in the PS4’s life cycle, and maybe some PC players will be sufficiently hooked to take an interest in the PS5 sequel when they otherwise wouldn’t have. (I would not expect Forbidden West to make it to PC for several years, if ever.)

The thinking is sound, but it’ll only work if PC players actually have a good experience with Horizon Zero Dawn. And while the game’s overall quality isn’t in doubt, the porting job appears not to have received a similar level of attention to detail. Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the PS4’s most technically ambitious games, but it was designed for hardware far less advanced than most gaming PCs today, and it seems a lot of people aren’t getting the experience they’d expect.

I’ve been playing Horizon Zero Dawn on my PC (GTX 1080 / i5 6600K / 16GB of RAM) with the day-one patch and the latest Nvidia driver installed, and the results have been decent if not spectacular. I can get it to run on high settings at 1440p while hovering around 50 frames per second, which appears smooth enough on a G-Sync monitor. I do sometimes see halts and stutters when entering a new area, which I thought might have something to do with the game loading from a spinning hard disk. Then again, that’s how it ran on PS4, too, and I don’t remember any stuttering there.

The port does come with options to help stabilize performance, but in my experience, they don’t work great. Locking the game to a supposedly stable 30fps doesn’t do anything to fix the hitches. If anything, it just drives you down to even lower frame rates when they do happen. The same is true of the dynamic resolution mode, which is supposed to keep you at a solid frame rate but does nothing of the sort. It only kicks in when things are really chugging, and it seems to do so by going down to the next full-resolution step rather than smoothly reducing the pixel count. But with the “original” graphics preset, which, as far as I can tell, looks identical to the PS4 version, the frame rate mostly stays above 60, and the stuttering is largely reduced.

One of the better reasons to play Horizon Zero Dawn on PC is its support for various resolutions and aspect ratios, including ultrawide monitors. After all, this game’s very title evokes sweeping vistas and long draw distances. It looks as good as expected, but there’s a catch: the cutscenes still run at original resolution, with a weird blurring effect on the side of the screen instead of letterboxes. I appreciate the effort to make use of the screen space, but I think most people would prefer the option to just display the 16:9 cutscenes in their original format if they’re not going to be reworked for 21:9.

Compared to the mostly great PC port of Death Stranding, which shares the same Decima engine, Horizon Zero Dawn is far more taxing on hardware. Its graphics do scale higher than Death Stranding, which more or less looked the same as the PS4 game in terms of visual assets, but it’s harder to get playable results. Even without the hitching, there are some weird quirks — like certain animations remaining stuck at 30fps and anisotropic filtering not working at all — that make Horizon Zero Dawn feel like it wasn’t designed to leave the PS4. Death Stranding was a competent PC game from the start.

For more in-depth coverage across a variety of machines, which I don’t have the capacity to produce by myself, I recommend reading and watching Digital Foundry’s excellent work on Horizon Zero Dawn’s “deeply disappointing” PC port. Between this, other reports, and Guerrilla’s own statement, it’s clear that the port hasn’t been well-optimized for the PC. Unfortunately, you just can’t expect Horizon Zero Dawn to run as well as other PC games that are also on the PS4.

I do want to reiterate that Horizon Zero Dawn has mostly been okay on my PC. It’s worse than Death Stranding, but nowhere near as bad as Red Dead Redemption 2 (which did eventually get fixed) at launch. I can play at higher graphics settings and frame rates than the PS4 version, and with ultrawide support, so ultimately, this is the best version for me despite its issues. But the reports of poor performance elsewhere are so widespread and disparate across a variety of hardware that I can’t really recommend it until there’s definitive evidence of comprehensive fixes.

I hope that happens and that the game ends up performing well because it would be great if Sony would put more of its games out on PC. But I also hope that any future ports get a little more time in the oven.

Horizon Zero Dawn is out now on Steam, GOG, and the Epic Games Store.

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