Horizon Zero Dawn’s Aloy has returned for a follow-up adventure that aims to squeeze the last watts of power out of the now-aging PlayStation 4, while simultaneously letting the PlayStation 5 flex its shiny new muscles. You can check out IGN’s Horizon Forbidden West review to find out how this sequel stacks up gameplay-wise, but here we will focus on technological improvements – as well the balance and sacrifices made to deliver a PS4 version and how much better the PS5 version is. But no matter where you play, Forbidden West’s visuals and performance more than manage to impress.

First thing’s first: the numbers game. Forbidden West’s resolution on the PS4 tops out at 1920×1080, but that’s not the whole story as it appears to use checkerboarding or other reconstruction techniques to hit even that level. This results in some half pixel width counts, i.e. 960 and even a reduced 900p height at times – although this may be a drawback of any reconstruction technique similar to checkboarding as well, which are almost impossible to decipher from the outside in. The reduction in pixel shading is the big performance saving this provides, but I will talk about image quality shortly.

Forbidden West on PS4 Pro looks like a more refined version of the PS4 version, pretty much as expected, offering the sharper and cleaner image quality as it now renders at an increased 3200×1800. While better, that’s notably still a reduction from the 3840×2160 checkerboard resolution of Zero Dawn, and it likely relies on that checkerboard method to achieve its sharp and clean final output. Regardless, the Pro’s improvement is substantial and resolves many of the issues that crop up in the PS4 output.

f you want 60fps, the performance mode has you covered.

But before we get to that, there’s the big boy to cover. The PS5 uses its phenomenal power hike to offer two options: the first is native 4K via its 30fps resolution mode, which is clearly the sharpest and most visually impressive of all the options and resolves any image quality issues with a sharp and stable picture that generally blurs the lines between offline (pre-rendered) and real-time rendering. If you want 60fps, as many Horizon fans might now be used to after the Zero Dawn backwards compatibility patch last year, then the performance mode has you covered. The cost of that increased frame rate is that Forbidden West reverts to a checkerboard output like the Pro, still at 3200x1800p but now resolved via this temporally accumulated method. Moving in the larger open world it also appears to be using a dynamic solution, with a low of 2880×1620 noted in dense views. The drop in pixel clarity is very minor but can be seen in areas of the screen with lots of movement, especially within certain textures, thin foliage, reflective surfaces, and post-processing effects such as screen space reflections. That said, the doubling of the framerate more than makes up for this loss, and within a minute or so the resolution difference becomes less noticeable.

That’s largely helped by Forbidden West’s use of a minimal Temporal Anti-Aliasing (TAA) solution that reconstructs a single previous frame back at a higher output. It is not egregious with its coverage either, with no ghosting trail or image blur that is usually the Achilles heel of such AA methods. The solution is similar to Zero Dawn, which uses FXAA + TAA, and that does mean it can leave a shimmering and unstable image on PS4 in areas with dense foliage and thin, specular edges. Because Forbidden West has a lower base resolution than Zero Dawn on PS4 and a larger amount of small screen elements, it’s ultimately a visually striking but unstable image quality on the last-gen console, even on a 1080p screen.

Sacrifices to image quality are minor compared to the additions.

That said, the sacrifices to image quality are minor compared to the additions. Volumetrics are much better (including its gorgeous cloud system) and more stable, and they now receive projected shadows from characters. Post effects are more abundant with much higher quality screen space reflections, although these seem to be mixed with dynamic projected cube-maps in outdoor sections to balance the GPU load. Possibly the biggest improvement is the sheer increase in flora and fauna density. The previous entry was already dense, but here developer Guerrilla Games have filled the world with a vast amount more.

Even on PS4 the interaction levels have been increased, with the team clearly working on shortcomings myself and others highlighted in the first game. Long reeds of grass still collide and sway as you walk through, but almost all other bushes and even grassy areas now push aside and move when Aloy runs, rolls, or crawls into them. This brings Forbidden West more inline with the high settings of Zero Dawn on the PC, and is testament to both the benefit of that GPU resource reallocation and the sheer technical ingenuity of Guerrilla.

The PS4 Pro resolves most of the image-quality crimes you may have on PS4.

The PS4 Pro resolves most of the image-quality crimes you may have on PS4 whilst enhancing the rich, vibrant, and almost dreamlike world that has been crafted here. The low sun blooms out into the distance, lens flares trail across the searching LED gaze of its machines, a soft peripheral blur focuses Aloy and the areas of concern nicely. That last part was a particularly great look in the original, and here the subtle improvements can leave sections looking like you’re playing with toy figures or watching stop motion rather than polygonally constructed characters and levels, even on the base PS4. I am sure this also helps performance with the foveated elements of your eye mirrored on the screen, helping to reduce pixel shading load at the extremities.

What We Said About Horizon Forbidden West

A triumphant combination of enthralling combat, top-tier creature and character design, and a captivating open world, Horizon Forbidden West is an absolute blast and fantastic showcase for the power of the PS5. Although the return of a couple of familiar series trappings and a noticeable lack of freeform climbing never threatens to derail the enjoyment, it does leave it falling frustratingly short of something revolutionary. Major evolutionary steps have firmly been placed in the right direction, however, and there’s no doubting the many, many hours of fun to have with Aloy, who stakes her claim further to be one of this generation of gaming’s greatest characters. Guerrilla has outdone itself yet again with Forbidden West, and at this trajectory, neither the horizon nor the sky’s the limit for what could come next. – Simon Cardy, February 14, 2022

Score: 9

Read the full Horizon Forbidden West review

The PS5 just ramps all of this up across the visual menu, with sharper and more detailed textures, cleaner image quality, faster frame rates, even denser fauna, more effects, and higher detail with polygon objects. With a further increased level of detail, it can be almost impossible to notice any pop in and interactions within the world are made even more dynamic –that’s something I always hope for and am optimistic is an improvement we’ll see even more of this generation. Forbidden West on PS5 is already giving us a peek into that future, something Guerrilla is notorious for.

The PS5 just ramps all of this up.

It does not stop at the world and its lush and vibrant colors, motion, and density either as characters are also ramped up across the visual spectrum. There are higher polycounts across all versions (already sky high in the previous entry), and animations are a mixture of refined old routines and new ones that expand Aloy’s repertoire with a greater level of versatility, grace, and confidence. These range from the extra dynamic attacks that carry her weight and momentum, to the detailed and dynamic contextual animations that kick in from takedowns to power moves. Her movement not only looks impressive, enhancing the significantly improved combat system further, but it also feels satisfying, giving you an even better look at just how detailed these new models are.

Animations are really a key factor across all of Forbidden West, with each action now having far more nuance and physics included. Hair sways as you swing, clothes and trinkets bob as you run, and parts fall off and explode more impressively when you attack. As with all aspects here, the PS5 ramps all this up, from higher hair strand counts and better physics on movement to vastly improved underwater effects including currents that push and pull.

The PS5 generally presents the models in their best light (literally).

Facial animation is probably one thing most people will notice, with faces now having a far higher bone-rigging density to enable better emotion and word construction. It often resembles motion captured quality, even when it is not. This is present within the real-time cinematics and gameplay, another significant improvement over the last game. These changes bring far more life and personality to characters within moment-to-moment action, blurring the lines between cinematics to gameplay with the PS5 version generally looking the same in both.

This is also helped by the PS5-exclusive use of improved hero lighting that is normally reserved for controlled cutscenes, but can be run during gameplay too on its new-gen tech. That better lighting really stands out and is used to improve the quality of material shaders, shadows, and just generally present the models in their best light (literally). The performance cost of this is high, which is why it’s normally only activated in cutscenes, but it adds a great deal to the PS5’s visual strengths and obvious improvements over both the PS4 and Pro.

Performance matters

When it comes to performance specifically, the PS4 version of Forbidden West (as of patch 1.03) runs equally as well if not better than Zero Dawn. Some minor skips and dips during the opening three hours show it can have mild issues here and there, but they truly are very minor. A game this large with so many dynamic areas is bound to perform worse in certain areas, and there is one spot that does suffer a bit, but I am avoiding going into precise details here to avoid spoilers. Even with those hiccups, I was more than impressed by both the quality and fidelity of the PS4 version.

I doubt many will look back in anger or remorse on the sharper 30fps resolution mode.

The PS4 Pro is largely the same: it can have some minor stutters and then skips across 16, 33, and even 66ms frame times. But these are very brief and imperceptible to almost all players in the sections I tested, with them being caused by dense overdraw and/or bandwidth related limitations. Again, most of the time Forbidden West is smooth and consistent – the only exception being within cutscenes that hold for an extra frame or two between cuts, which can cause mild pauses between shots, but this is true on all versions.

PS5 resolution mode is very similar to the Pro, with a largely flat 33ms line across the opening few hours, just beating out the Pro as the most stable version, though neither performed poorly based on a good selection of playtests. The performance mode takes point by doubling frame time and being equally as stable for the majority of play, staying at a locked 60fps after all the pre-release patches are applied. That means the PS5 performance mode quickly became the best compromise of image quality and performance across cutscenes, battle, and exploration. In some heavier battles it can suffer a little more, with brief framerate dips as low as the high 40s, but moments like that were rare. Combat was generally smooth and responsive. The roughly 40% reduction in pixel count performance mode causes quickly fades away when the return is a smooth 60fps presentation at 1800p, and I doubt many will look back in anger or remorse on the sharper 30fps resolution mode.

One area that was a little disappointing was loading, which is roughly twice as fast on PS5 at 12 seconds compared to the PS4 Pro’s 26 Seconds. However, the sheer amount being loaded into RAM and the scale of the world mean that CPU speed does appear to play a factor, with the PS4 being double the Pro. Load times never get frustratingly bad, but do expect a few seconds for respawns when you die, and even longer on last-gen machines. Ultimately though, once loaded into the world, everything else is seamless on the PS5 (with cutscenes also being skippable if you so wish).

Summary

Horizon Forbidden West had a huge weight of expectation laid upon it, yet the results manage to exceed all expectations. Its visuals, even on a base PS4, are cutting edge with a dense and dynamic world, vibrant colors, impeccable performance, and interactions that will leave you aghast at times thanks to the quality achieved. The PS4 Pro is even more impressive, with a higher level of detail, resolution, and overall quality. It already feels and performs like the premium package that all Pro owners will be ecstatic with from beginning to end. Achieving closer quality with the PS5 in performance mode.

Of course, the PS5 manages to straddle that line between refined and enhanced perfectly. The 4K 30fps mode secures pixel perfection with a pin sharp and CGI-like delivery that displays the very best Guerrilla Games has to offer (as yet anyway). Meanwhile, the Performance mode enhances the already glorious PS4 Pro version with enhancements to its level of detail, post-processing effect improvements, and twice the performance. That still makes the PS5 the clear choice if you happen to own one of these elusive consoles. That said, the PS4 and PS4 Pro offer up an incredible package all the same, and it’s awe inspiring they pulled off such a technical feat at the end of the generation.

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