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Horizon Zero Dawn review: This is how it runs on PC

Classic case of a great game with a bad port

Horizon Zero Dawn: This is how it runs on PC
(Image: © Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Our Verdict

Horizon Zero Dawn is a phenomenal game with an awful PC port. After a handful of crashes, stuttering on some hardware, and an awful optimization process, it’s hard to imagine what makes this package worth $49.99.

For

  • Fluid combat system
  • Horrifying open world
  • Gorgeous art direction
  • Compelling world building
  • Satisfying RPG mechanics

Against

  • Tedious optimization process
  • Frequent crashes
  • Stuttering on certain hardware
  • Poorly optimized
  • Too expensive

Horizon Zero Dawn on PC is an excellent disaster. It boasts one of the most obnoxious PC ports I’ve had the experience of testing. This game is a perfect storm of hurdles, with half a dozen crashes, frequent stuttering on certain hardware, an awful optimization process that I experienced three times, and a day-one patch that only made things worse.

Despite all of that, Horizon is still a phenomenal game. If you missed Guerilla’s critically acclaimed RPG back in 2017 and have strong enough hardware to handle the poorly optimized mess that is this PC port, I would still recommend picking it up on a very deep sale. Charging $49.99 for a port with this many issues is ridiculous, especially since the original Complete Edition is available on PS4 for $19.99. 

If you’re rocking mid-tier hardware like a GTX 970 or 1660, there is absolutely no reason to purchase this game on PC rather than PS4. Trust me, you’ll find the experience to be unbearable.

Mysteries of the Earth 

Horizon Zero Dawn begins as a simple story about our protagonist attempting to find the truth behind her birth and how this connects with the mysteries of the Earth. The game opens with Aloy, the protagonist, undergoing a blessing ritual after being adopted by Rost, who continues to take care of her until she’s older. Both live within borders occupied by Nora, a tribe that believes Aloy not having a mother makes her an outcast. 

As we see the two grow older, Aloy becomes obsessed with something called The Proving, which is a test that even an outcast can take to demonstrate their worth. She hopes that this test can help her gain the tools she needs to unravel the mystery behind her parents. As the story progresses, we learn more and more about the history of the game’s world and who Aloy actually is. 

Horizon isn’t particularly subtle in its exposition or world-building, as many of the game’s sentiments and themes are communicated plainly. However, each character possesses a distinct personality and the ways in which Aloy responds to their different quirks and mannerisms are undeniably entertaining. It’s also great that the player can make moral decisions relating to fierceness, compassion and wisdom when in more important conversations.

Although many of the game’s cinematic moments are quite effective, Horizon isn’t attempting to be some sort of narrative masterpiece that gloats themes questioning character morality. To put it simply, Aloy is a complete and utter badass. And even though both she and many other characters are well written, the game feels more like a very solid blockbuster rather than a heart-wrenching journey akin to The Last of Us

Brutal execution 

Horizon Zero Dawn drops the player in a large open world to scavenge materials, hunt beasts both robotic and organic, and craft an arsenal of elemental weapons and armor. The game’s already dangerous lands became even more threatening as I played on Ultra Hard, which often forced me to sneak through environments to avoid its lengthy catalog of fierce machines. Because many enemies had the potential to devastate me in a single hit and set me back by up to 10 minutes of progress, I found most encounters to be deeply horrifying. 

Horizon Zero Dawn review: This is how it runs on PC

(Image credit: Sony)

While this constant sense of terror may sound stressful (it is), it’s also incredibly satisfying when successfully tackling a titan. This is heightened by the game’s incredible combat system, which involves well-timed spear strikes, bow shots and dodge rolls. Additionally, many battles often require thoughtful preparation, like deciding where to place your tripwires within a combat arena.

The ways enemies track you are also incredibly smart, as they typically predict movement patterns and determine where to strike based on which direction you’re going. I often have a bad habit of spamming the dodge roll in a single direction. In Horizon, enemies knew exactly where I’d be after the second roll and they’d swipe directly at me.

Horizon also has a deep progression system that involves level-ups, skill trees, modifications, special equipment and a crafting system. This makes a handful of battles even more rewarding, as acquiring the components to craft special pieces of gear, gain additional currency, or continue to stock up on the materials needed for ammunition provided consistent gratification.

I was quite impressed by the game’s dedication to a couple of less forgiving mechanics. For example, players can only heal if they’re stocked up on herbs, and on Ultra Hard, I often found myself with none and experienced much of the game with little health available. Furthermore, checkpoints are activated by saving at a campfire and the game rarely saves automatically, which means if you haven’t visited a campfire in a while, you could be risking quite a bit of progress. Reloading after a death with no recent save often means losing all the experience and materials you gained since then.

A ravaged planet 

In Horizon Zero Dawn, players explore a devastated world full of ruthless machines, cultists and bandits. Trudging through the game’s city ruins, snowy mountain peaks and dense forests is both frightening and beautiful thanks to a jarring contrast where environments teeming with life are inhabited by monsters seeking to destroy your own. Although the game is technically post-apocalyptic, it’s not as muted or needlessly drab as other titles in the genre. Instead, it presents its ravaged planet with a phenomenal utilization of color, foliage and fauna. 

Horizon Zero Dawn review: This is how it runs on PC

(Image credit: Sony)

This design philosophy emphasizes how unexpectedly gorgeous the end of the world can be. Stories revolving around a planet void of life are plenty compelling for sure, but Horizon Zero Dawn perfectly understands how to best illustrate what will actually happen once nature reclaims the Earth.

The game also does a great job of handling the “stranger in a strange land” premise. By exclusively exposing the player to Aloy’s narrow tribal world full of superstition and religion, the many mysteries of the Earth become secrets that both the player and protagonist want to unravel.

When we hear mutterings of The Meridian, a city where buildings are as tall as mountains with as many bridges as the Nora have roads, we are directly sharing Aloy’s sense of wonder and excitement. Describing mysterious, far off lands allows the player to fantasize about what they might look like, and it had me giddy with excitement for what secrets the game had yet to reveal.

Horizon Zero Dawn: PC performance 

Sony  completely dropped the ball on Horizon Zero Dawn’s PC port. I’ve experienced a total of six crashes, poor sound quality when characters are speaking, glitches causing the game’s audio to pop, assets frequently loading in and out of existence, slow-mo mode not activating when I aim down my bow sights, and a ton of poor optimization resulting in frame drops and stuttering. 

Horizon Zero Dawn review: This is how it runs on PC

(Image credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Let’s start at the beginning; this port opens up with an optimization process meant to adapt to your hardware and provide the best experience possible. This glorified loading screen took me 22 excruciating minutes (I timed it) to complete, and the game does not ask for your consent or approval before trapping you within this drawn-out hell. And once it’s done, players are immediately thrown into the game’s opening cutscene without being given the ability to edit any settings.

This opening cinematic was unwatchable for me. Not only was it running at a consistent 10 frames per second, but it kept freezing for a few seconds at a time. After realizing this would be essentially unplayable, I quit the game and relaunched it, hoping that a restart was all I needed for Horizon Zero Dawn to work properly.

Shockingly, this was indeed the case. The Horizon Zero Dawn PC port has a bizarre issue wherein, once it finishes its optimization process, the player needs to restart the game in order for these changes to properly come into effect. It would be nice if there was a message that informed the player of this before they’re immediately thrown into the game’s opening cutscene, as it’s easy to assume that their hardware is busted or the port is far worse than it actually is.

Once I started playing, I turned the graphical settings down to Medium and managed a relatively consistent 30 frames per second on an Nvidia GTX 970 GPU with 4GB of VRAM and an Intel i7-6700K CPU. However, I wasn’t happy staying on Medium as I constantly felt underwhelmed by the look of the foliage and model quality, so I decided to quit the game and update the drivers on my GPU. 

Horizon Zero Dawn review: This is how it runs on PC

(Image credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment)

After I finished this process and relaunched the game, Horizon Zero Dawn threw me back into its ridiculously long optimization screen. This took 25 minutes (I timed it again) and at this point, I was feeling a bit frustrated. It’s hard to imagine what this unnecessarily long optimization process is actually doing, as I’ve never seen it implemented in a PC port before.

With my updated drivers, I bumped my graphical settings up to Ultra and managed 20-30 frames per second. While this isn’t necessarily good, I was okay with losing some occasional frames to highlight the game’s gorgeous world. 

I played this way for a couple of days until the release of a day one patch meant to remedy a handful of issues. Instead, it made things worse, causing constant stuttering and freezing when exploring more detailed locations. 

Horizon Zero Dawn review: This is how it runs on PC

(Image credit: Sony)

I had to drop back down to Medium graphical settings because my game was constantly freezing. And even then, I still only managed 20-25 frames per second. There was a point where I was exploring a town and couldn’t take a step without the game stuttering. That’s when I quit out of frustration and gave up on using that rig for Horizon Zero Dawn.

I quickly unplugged my monitor, placed it aside and pulled out my Asus ROG Zephyrus M GU502 with an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 Max-Q GPU with 8GB of VRAM, an Intel i7-10750H CPU and a 1TB SSD. I downloaded Horizon Zero Dawn, launched it, and was once again greeted by the infamous optimization screen. I picked up my phone, began my timer and waited patiently. Thankfully, the process took only 11 minutes this time, which is around twice the speed compared to my other attempts. 

I bumped up the graphical settings to Ultra and managed 40-50 frames per second with no freezing and no stuttering. This was incredibly relieving, but I was still quite shocked that I couldn’t even manage to hit 60 frames per second on this absolute beast of a laptop.

Horizon Zero Dawn: PC settings 

Horizon Zero Dawn has sliders for brightness, field of view, fps limit, render scale and adaptive performance fps. Display modes can be switched to full screen, borderless and windowed. V-Sync, HDR rendering, HDR brightness and whitepoint are also available.

In audio settings, the game has a slider for music, speech and sound effects. You can also decide your output device, whether or not to display subtitles, and the language of text and speech.

Horizon Zero Dawn review: This is how it runs on PC

(Image credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Within the game’s graphics settings, you can go from low to ultra for textures, model quality, anisotropic filter, shadows, clouds and ambient occlusion. However, reflections can only go from low to high. Motion blur is available and anti-aliasing can be off, camera based, FXAA, SMAA or TAA. 

Horizon Zero Dawn: PC requirements 

I initially tested Horizon Zero Dawn on my desktop, which is equipped with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 GPU with 4GB of VRAM and i7-6700K. With updated drivers, I managed 20-30 frames per second on Ultra graphical settings before the game’s day one patch. After this patch, I was stuck at around 20 frames per second on Medium with constant stuttering. At this point, the game was unplayable for me.

I then tested the game on a laptop equipped with an RTX 2070 Max-Q GPU and an Intel i7-10750H CPU. I managed 40-50 frames per second on Ultra graphical settings with no stuttering or freezes.

Horizon Zero Dawn: This is how it runs on PC

(Image credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment)

The minimum requirements to run Horizon Zero Dawn include Windows 10, an Intel Core i5-2500K or AMD FX 6300, 8GB of RAM, a Nvidia GTX 780 (3 GB) or AMD Radeon R9 290 (4GB) and 100GB of available space.

The recommended requirements include Windows 10, Intel i7-4770K or Ryzen 5 1500X, 16GB of RAM, Nvidia GTX 1060 (6GB) or AMD Radeon RX 580 (8GB) and 100GB of available space.

Bottom Line 

It’s unfortunate that Horizon Zero Dawn was treated to such a poor PC port, as it’s an incredible experience ripe with many highs and very few lows. In fact, outside of its terrible optimization, it gets nearly everything right. Intense combat encounters, a gorgeous open world, deep progression systems and well-written characters all contribute to Horizon being an all-around great game.

If your rig is already powerful, this PC port should be manageable. However, if you’re running on mid-tier hardware, I would highly recommend waiting for Sony and Guerilla Games to remedy some of these awful issues.