Horizon Zero Dawn PC impressions: The disappointing side of Decima

One of the biggest PS4 exclusives lands on PC with its fair share of bewildering performance issues.


Guerilla Games is known as one of the premiere developers for Sony PlayStation consoles and followed up their impressive launch title Killzone Shadow Fall with an even more ambitious open-world adventure that pushed the PS4 hardware to its limits. Horizon Zero Dawn sits as one of the crown jewels of the PS4 library and comes to PC just as the next-generation of consoles prepare to launch. What was one of the most anticipated releases of the summer arrives with uneven performance even when running on the beefiest hardware. 

Frozen Wild actually describes the port’s performance

When originally announced earlier this year, the PC port of Horizon Zero Dawn left plenty of fans excited at the prospect of experiencing the game’s acclaimed campaign with visuals and frame rates that were beyond the capability of the aging PS4. The strong debut of the PC version of Death Stranding, which shares the Decima Engine with Horizon Zero Dawn, further inspired confidence that a definitive presentation of the cyber-creature adventure was imminent. Now that the game has arrived, expectations may need some adjustment.

The PC port for Horizon Zero Dawn arrives checking off most of the boxes you would hope for, including support for arbitrary resolutions, refresh rates, aspect ratios, and enhanced visual effects. The graphics options page allows for a decent amount of tinkering, along with a preview window to give players an idea of what effect that toggling would have on the overall in-game image quality. A built-in benchmark tool also made the cut, though it appears to be more useful for testing hardware than representing how the actual game performs.

Players will be greeted with a lengthy first-start process upon opening the game. The application will begin compiling shaders, requiring a wait of around ten minutes on my test PC. This process must be repeated after every major Windows update or driver update. A similar process occurs with Microsoft’s Forza ports, though they don’t take nearly as long to endure as what is seen with Horizon Zero Dawn. While the game does properly support users with ultrawide displays, all of the in-engine cutscenes are locked to a 16x9 aspect ratio.

Speaking of these cutscenes, PC players can expect to encounter some issues that were not found in the PS4 version. Sometimes a character can warp on camera changes and these changes also introduce big dips in framerate that leave the presentation feeling off. I double-checked my PS4 Pro version and was unable to see anything other than smooth output. Character and facial animations in these scenes are also locked to 30Hz, which leads to jittery movement when playing at 60Hz or higher.

As far as playing the game itself, getting a clean-looking picture with properly frame-paced performance is tough. Despite the modest appearance of the official system requirements, Horizon Zero Dawn is tough to run at a steady 60Hz, regardless of hardware or settings selected. Guerilla has provided an “Original” graphics preset that closely mimics the PS4 presentation and it offers the best mix of image quality and performance, though players with powerful PCs will likely want to go with the higher presets and options. This port loves CPU cores, so much so that owners of 4-core systems should greatly temper their expectations of playing at 60Hz, despite years of PS4 ports running smoothly on similar hardware.

I was unable to get a “locked” 60Hz output with my Intel Core-i9 9900K and GeForce GTX 1080 Ti machine at 1440p when using the settings the game recommended for my system. The built-in frame limiter appears to be broken at both 30 and 60Hz, with the former limiting the game to a jittery 29Hz. V-Sync also offers mixed results in regards to performance and may require lots of experimentation with display modes to get right. For the best results, the use of a third party frame rate limiter such as RTSS or NVIDIA’s Control Panel (for NVIDIA card owners) is recommended. The use of exclusive fullscreen mode is also recommended as it seems to perform measurably better on my test machine.

A dynamic performance setting is included but offers disappointing results. I attempted to play the game at 4K on my system using this option and the resulting image quality was decidedly poor, offering image quality that was markedly inferior to the PS4 original. Sometimes, ground textures would look really bad and other times, as sharp as expected for 4K Ultra. I was informed during the testing process that bugs related to anisotropic filtering and 30Hz animations were known and being looked at by the development team, so perhaps a fix could be on the way in the near future. The Day 1 patch was installed on my test machine but offered no meaningful change in overall performance or image quality compared to my previous experience.

You are an outcast

I was very excited to work through Horizon Zero Dawn on the PC, but the current build of the game is too mercurial in its performance. The lack of a simple preset to get players up and running into a smoother experience that is measurably better than the PS4 is also a big let down. I’m not sure if the dream of a smooth 120Hz 1440p or 4K version of this game will ever be possible. Digital Foundry reported earlier that the game has performance issues tied directly to PCI-E bus bandwidth that may require owners of certain configurations to swap around GPUs and NVME SSDs to get performance lifts as high as 30 percent.

That being said, the port gets some things right. Mouse control for precision aiming is a welcome addition and the HDR implementation is very good. A selectable field of view option offers a less-claustrophobic take on the experience (with an additional performance hit). Players willing to spend some time tinkering and using an external frame-limiting tool will be able to get a PS4-equivalent experience on modest hardware and be able to enjoy one of the most acclaimed games of its generation away from the PlayStation ecosystem. Thankfully, most of the issues described above should be fixable via update and this release could evolve into something grand, but, for now, temper your expectations.

Contributing Tech Editor

Chris Jarrard likes playing games, crankin' tunes, and looking for fights on obscure online message boards. He understands that breakfast food is the only true food. Don't @ him.

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