Horizon Zero Dawn was an easy Ars pick for one of the top five video games of 2017, but a certain subset of our readers disagreed. This was almost entirely due to the game’s exclusivity on PS4. Never mind that the developer, Guerrilla Games, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Sony; we want it on PC, our readers declared.
Historically, Sony Interactive Entertainment (not to be confused with other Sony publishers) has been reluctant to land its PlayStation exclusives elsewhere, but in recent years that attitude has changed, with games like Heavy rain and Death Stranding make their PC debut. Death Stranding stands out as a particularly impressive example of the proper PC port of a console game.
I then noticed that DSPC version was good news for HZD, mainly because they share the same underlying technology, Guerrilla’s Decima Engine. But today, two days earlier HZDthe “complete” edition of steam lands on steam for $50, I’m here to report that their shared technology is not prepaid with identical PC version results.
An alarming list
HZDThe preview version went live to members of the press on July 31, and sometimes these early previews contain specific notes about bugs and last-minute tweaks that we should expect. But we didn’t receive anything like that, and it wasn’t until we sent SIE and Guerrilla a bulleted list of pre-release bugs that we were told to expect a patch. That patch has since arrived, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to fix everything we reported.
Since this appears to be the “day-one patch” Sony has told us about, we wonder how many of the following issues will be fixed for retail customers ahead of Friday’s Steam launch:
Serious performance issues on my high end rig† My best-tested PC has an i7-8700K CPU (overclocked to 4.8GHz), an Nvidia RTX 2080 Ti GPU Founder’s Edition (overclocked with EVGA X1 software), 32GB DDR4-3000 RAM, and an NVME solid-state hard drive . This rig has plenty of headroom to allow most 3D games to hit a near stable 60fps refresh at resolutions approaching 4K (2160p).
Indeed, the pre-release build of HZD hits 60 fps on my best machine… but this requires a significant 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 lowers the number of pixels to lock at your desired frame rate. When I leave the game on “high” settings (not maxed out, graphically, but close to it), this automatic 60 fps slider also increases the pixel count to about 60 percent. That result is consistent with other resolution tests on the same system; 1440p, or about 44 percent of 4K, runs at 68 fps on average with the same “high” presets.
Since the PC port’s resolution scaling system doesn’t borrow from the acclaimed “checkerboard display” found on PS4 Pro games, the results at this scaling level look pretty fuzzy — and arguably worse than a $300 console (which, admittedly , max. 30 fps).
Serious performance issues on my medium-spec laptop: While testing the game on a 2018 HP Omen 15 with an i7-8750H CPU and an Nvidia GTX 1070 Max-Q, the game stuck with a 60fps refresh with all graphics settings down to “original” (which is about “average”) is also hard to achieve.
The problem isn’t just that our average frame rate on this setup at 1080p hovers around 48 fps. There’s also something seemingly broken about CPU optimization, leading to some real frametime spikes and stuttering audio, whether it’s because a cutscene is playing, a wave of NPCs appearing in a city, or – worst of all – you default to HZD things like attacking enemies with your spear. (This kind of frame-time spiking also happened on my high-end rig if the automatic frame-rate setting wasn’t enabled.)
Even setting all settings to “low” currently doesn’t help stabilize the frame rate enough to make this a smooth 60fps fighting experience, although we don’t recommend this as it reduces some polygonal models to seriously low-fidelity. An adaptive framerate switch doesn’t provide a 60fps lock on this lower-spec machine either; even with a significant drop in resolution, this laptop still has more stuttering punches by default.
Cannot limit to 30 fps: Depending on the PC in question, you might not get 60 fps even if the game were better optimized. In that case, you might want to enable the 30fps lock in the options menu; in theory, the combination of that with the solid object-by-object motion blur system could look and perform at least as good as its PlayStation 4 sibling. Unfortunately, the 30 fps switch has been broken from the time of pressing and the game’s frames are updated at a rate closer to 28 fps, meaning it causes multiple, fierce frame-time spikes every second and is much less playable than the original. console version.
[Update, August 6: I’ve gone back to test forcing a 30fps cap via Nvidia Control Panel on my Nvidia machines after getting a specific recommendation from a reader about how to apply this. This is the closest to a working 30fps cap I’ve been able to pull off in the pre-release, but forcing this via the NCP breaks the game’s ability to smooth frames together with the convincing per-object motion blur found in the game’s PS4 version.]
Problems with anisotropic filtering: In our first tests with the game, anisotropic filtering (which improves the fidelity of textures as they fade together, especially in the distance) didn’t seem enabled. That has since been added back, but if you play with AF settings halfway through the game, it can clear AF completely, requiring a reboot to turn back on.
Maybe it will get better? Ever?
Good news: The PC version of the game allows players to set graphical settings such as viewing distances, model detail, texture fidelity, the quality of distant shadows, and cloud detail higher than what we saw in the console version – and all of these offer a performance trade-off, should you want everything. turn off for smoother gameplay. (The fluffier clouds are a nice option, but you can safely cross these out as your first step toward smoother performance.) Exactly how these options scale will likely vary more as the PC port receives more patches.
You also get PC-exclusive toggles like a FOV slider and higher frame rate options, but the latter won’t unlock everything beyond the game’s original 30fps limit. In particular, facial animations and eye blinks sometimes lock up to 30 fps, even though other movements and tics work at your chosen frame rate. SIE has confirmed this to be an issue, and a SIE representative tells Ars, “We’re looking into improving this with a future update.” (That’s not the same as confirming it’s being changed.)
And if you have an HDR-compatible monitor or TV, HZD‘s PC port offers full support for the feature, along with a handy HDR-specific page to adjust settings, such as a “paper white” level. As we reported earlier, HDR is in HZD is a blast.
I am a big fan of HZD, and on my most powerful PC I can currently play an acceptable-if-blurry 4K version at a near-locked 60fps (or a native 1440p version at about 68fps on a variable refresh rate monitor). And it’s a great action game with 60 fps and above, especially if you juggle the selection of weapons and traps of hero Aloy to fake like a real robo safari fighter. There is no modern action game like this one.
There’s a chance that your particular CPU and GPU combination will also play well enough with the game at launch, and if it does, the HZD fanboy in me would suggest you take the plunge sooner rather than later. But as it stands, a day two, day three, and even day four patch could be in order before I can safely recommend that a majority of PC owners prefer this over the PS4 version.