Horizon Zero Dawn Still Shines on PC Despite a Port That Trails Behind Death Stranding

Horizon Zero Dawn Still Shines on PC Despite a Port That Trails Behind Death Stranding

Horizon Zero Dawn is on PC, good. The port isn't as tight as it could be, bad.

What an odd moment in history this is. Sony Interactive Entertainment, a company well-known for its love of platform exclusives, is openly releasing one of its first-party games on PC. Horizon Zero Dawn was designed from the ground up for PlayStation 4. This PC release is an errant beat in Sony Interactive Entertainment's overall plans, something that was never supposed to happen.

Death Stranding's PC port was the likely harbinger for Horizon Zero Dawn making its transition to PC. The former title was built in the Decima Engine, which Guerilla Games developed for Horizon. Death Stranding was excellent on PC, featuring a proper suite of tweakable options. The inclusion of Nvidia's deep learning super sampling (DLSS 2.0) technology also allowed for vastly improved performance while still being visually stunning.

Death Stranding pulled off the PC transition so well that I assumed Horizon Zero Dawn would too. But while having HZD on PC is a win, it's not entirely a perfect port.

Horizon Zero Dawn is still a looker on PC. | Mike Williams/USG, Sony Interactive Entertainment

Seeking Strong Visuals

Horizon Zero Dawn gains on PC are a set of options for resolution, textures, shadows, vsync, and more. Not only do you get the standard 16:9 resolutions (1920×1080, 3840×2160, etc.), there's also ultrawide monitor support. The latter adds to the scope of the game if you have a monitor that supports it, but for the average player, it's a moot point. More important is the ability to change the field of view, which allows Horizon Zero Dawn to feel a bit more open and thus less claustrophobic. Especially when you're sitting close to a monitor, being able to change the FOV is a necessity.

On the anti-aliasing side of things, I'm surprised to say Horizon Zero Dawn does not utilize DLSS 2.0. This proprietary Nvidia tech utilizes AI and Nvidia's RTX tensor cores to upscale a lower-resolution image. It's an illusion faking a higher-resolution image, but the illusion is a convincing one, and it doesn't compromise performance. It was a revelation when I replayed Death Stranding on PC, and it's simply not available here. That's a shame, and I admit I was a little deflated.

Instead, you have various standard anti-aliasing options: Fast approximate anti-aliasing (FXAA), Subpixel morphological anti-aliasing (SMAA), and Temporal anti-aliasing (TAA). I didn't find a huge performance change in any of them, so it's largely down to preference. The default is TAA, which looks sharp, so I left it there.

Horizon has four different graphics presets separate from the resolution settings: Low, Original, High, and Ultra. These are combinations of settings, including textures, model quality, shadows, reflections, anti-aliasing, and filtering. Original mimics Horizon Zero Dawn's PlayStation 4 Pro presentation, so of course, I kicked things up to Ultra at 4K resolution. Guerilla Games also included a benchmark tool that doesn't exactly mirror gameplay, but is great for testing different settings.

Horizon Zero Dawn is a beefy game and will require horsepower to make it run at its best. | Mike Williams/USG, Sony Interactive Entertainment

While my desktop (AMD Ryzen 3600X, Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060, 32 GB DDR4, with the game running from a Samsung EVO 840 500GB SSD) isn't a 4K beast,I can usually get there with a few tweaks. At 1920×1080, I settled into a strong 60fps on Ultra with little problem; it was running with some dips, but turning off Vsync and lowering shadows fixed that. At 4K resolution, though, regardless of graphics settings, I was unable to get Horizon Zero Dawn to run above 40fps. Even on the Low preset, there was just this rough ceiling I couldn't break. It's baffling, and that's the reason I wanted for a patch Sony promised that dropped earlier this morning. This patch didn't fix the problem.

There are ways to get around this, but they all mess with the clarity of 4K resolution. There's a render scaling option that improves frame rate, but you lose image quality. Horizon Zero Dawn on PC also offers an adaptive performance option, which lets you set a target frame rate, and allows the game to dynamically change the resolution to hit that frame rate. This is the norm on consoles and it works here, but again, you're losing that clarity of image.

I also found other small problems here and there. There's a frame rate limiter, but for some reason it defaults to just below whatever frame rate you set. So setting it at 60 fps actually limits the frame rate to 59 fps, which is just odd. I also noticed that the game would chug and take a moment to get back up to speed when it changed locations. I assume that's a side effect of the engine itself loading in the environment, but who knows?

Taking Control of This Machine

Moving away the knobs and dials of PC tweaking, how does Horizon Zero Dawn play on PC? I admit, I started playing on my Xbox controller almost immediately. It oddly didn't even occur to me to try mouse and keyboard. Following an hour of play, I realized I should probably try out the standard controls for most PC players.

The problem I generally have with third-person action games on PC rears its ugly head here: an analog stick is better for movement. Instead of tapping WASD on the keyboard to sneak around, it's much easier to feather and push the stick. The problem I had during my playtime was usually related to platforming; I'd run and want to leap onto a thin platform, but Aloy would go sailing off to the left or right. With an analog stick, you'd nudge her a bit to land the jump, but that's a bigger issue on keyboard. There's really no way around this problem, it's just inherent to the control method and you have to get used to it.

What you gain is the vastly more accurate aiming of a mouse. A core part of Horizon Zero Dawn is the ability to knock bits off the machines you're fighting to weaken them and net you more resources. A part of the fight was dragging that analog stick to where you needed it to be, and micro-correcting your aim. With mouse aiming, I wouldn't say this becomes trivial, but it's definitely much easier. Combine that with a wider FOV and a smooth 60 fps, and Aloy is a monster in Horizon Zero Dawn on PC. I was able to pull off pinpoint bow snapshots in tighter windows, which is an advantage in several fights. Dropping tripwires in the middle of a firefight is a snap, especially since weapon changing is bound to the number keys. It takes a moment to get used to it, but yeah, I prefer hunting with Aloy on PC.

You can also fully remap the keyboard controls, which is good because I did not so much vibe with Heavy Attack being Shift + Mouse Button 1. Instead, I bound that to Mouse Button 5, which was right there at my thumb. Regardless, Horizon Zero Dawn is flexible and open, like a good PC port should be.

The world building and use of color was only recently surpassed by Ghost of Tsushima. | Mike Williams/USG, Sony Interactive Entertainment

Is Horizon Zero Dawn worth revisiting again if you played the PlayStation 4 version? If you played it on a base PS4, the jump in visual quality might be enough. On PlayStation 4 Pro, I'm a bit fuzzier on it, especially since I couldn't hit 4K 60fps. I think with DLSS 2.0, that would've been possible, making this port much better overall. As it is, there are enough quality of life changes and options to make it a firm "Maybe".

It's also worth noting that you're going to want a beefy PC for Horizon Zero Dawn. As you get closer to minimum specifications, I think you're better off sticking with the PS4 version. I enjoyed my revisit—well, in terms of gameplay, as the facial animations and characters need a bit of work—and this is an okay port. It's clear though that it was secondary to Sony and Guerilla pursuing new games for PlayStation 5. I think if this came before Death Stranding on PC, I'd feel more enthusiastic in my recommendation, but after it… DLSS 2.0 is just too big a technology shift to ignore.

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Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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