Guerrilla Games set itself up with an unusual challenge when developing Horizon Forbidden West, which comes out on Friday, February 18th. According to the game’s director and technical director, Guerrilla was well aware of the PS5 and much of its capabilities when it started working on Forbidden West in 2018. But, the company also planned to make the game work on the PS4, a console that turns nine years old this fall.
It’s not unusual for games to be released on both consoles, but Forbidden West is notable for being a particularly massive and detailed game, perhaps the most advanced title yet to come out on the PS5. In a conversation with Engadget, game director Mathijs de Jonge and technical director Michiel van der Leeuw discussed Guerrilla’s process for making sure that the game worked for the PS4 while simultaneously showing off everything the PS5 is capable of.
“We knew it was going to be tricky making something that would make the PlayStation 5 shine, but also be really rewarding for people who have PlayStation 4,” said van der Leeuw. “So we're very happy that we knew about the PS5’s capabilities very early on, because that meant we could plan for how we're going to make this distinction.”
The most immediately obvious difference between the two versions is visual fidelity, with the PS5 targeting 4K resolution (reduced to a checkerboard-upscaled 1800p when running in 60 fps “performance” mode). “From the start, we targeted having higher-fidelity characters, high-fidelity environments, higher-fidelity vegetation, everything, just for the PS5,” van der Leeuw said. “So you'll just see different models for the PS4 version, but with the same sort of atmosphere throughout the game.”
The realities of play-testing during a worldwide pandemic actually provided Guerrilla plenty of opportunities to get feedback on the PS4 experience. “It was really difficult for us, the pandemic just hit us while we're in peak production,” van der Leeuw added. But Guerrilla was able to use Sony’s PlayStation Now game streaming technology to send early builds of the game to PS4 play testers. “Because of the pandemic, we had to switch to remote play testing,” said de Jonge. Sony would have done that with the PS5, but it wasn’t possible to have people into their offices during the pandemic.
The upshot of this was that Guerrilla had to make sure the PS4 version was getting plenty of attention throughout the development process. “It was a big advantage, in a way, that we did have the PlayStation 4,” de Jonge said, “because that meant we really had to get the build in a good state rather than just focusing on the PS5 version.”
While the team was conscious of making things work for the PS4 throughout the game’s development, they also were painstaking about having the PS5 version stand out visually. “We’d look at screenshots for every single thing on-screen, whether it was the grass, the sky, the leaves, the cloth, the hair – everything should have something where if you look at the screenshots, you'd feel like this is definitely the PS5 version,” van der Leeuw said.
While improved fidelity and frame rate were obvious things to expect in the PS5 version, Guerrilla put a lot of thought into how the PS5’s controller could be a differentiator – but it was somewhat of a balancing act getting the experience right. “In our early prototypes, I remember that we set the [adaptive trigger] values relatively high,” de Jonge said, “and I remember that after a few minutes we already felt some fatigue with the triggers. And then we started adding the haptic feedback. And then you have to balance how much haptic you have versus how much pressure you put on the triggers.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the team working on haptics is separate from the team working on the adaptive triggers. “Haptics are handled in our studio by the audio design designers, but the adaptive triggers are handled by our game designers,” de Jonge said. Obviously, no part of game design happens in a vacuum, but he specifically cites the collaboration between those teams as something he was proud of in the development process.
The end result is something that doesn’t scream out to you as a huge update, but a skillfully executed component that helps Horizon Forbidden West shine on the PS5. “I think it was great to see also how we could [use haptics and adaptive triggers] make the different weapons stand out, sort of give them their own character,” de Jonge said. “So it really feels different when you use a slingshot versus when you fire an arrow using a bow.”
Like most games specifically built for the PS5, Horizon Forbidden West loads quickly, thanks to the console’s built-in SSD. With such a massive map to explore, near-instantaneous loading (like when you fast travel) is a huge quality of life improvement. But van de Leeuw said these optimizations are more than just having a fast drive. “You don’t realize how easily games are bottlenecked,” he said. “If you run a PC game on a very fast SSD, it doesn't automatically load in like seven seconds. There's so much work we had to do.”
The end result is a game so quick that the development team had to revamp the tips that appear on loading screens. “In Horizon Zero Dawn, we called it fast travel, but it could take maybe a minute to actually load,” de Jonge said. “With the PS5, it’s maybe four or five seconds, it loads so quickly that players can’t even read the hints.” But from testing, Guerrilla knew that players came to rely on these hints, so they decided to slow things down just a bit. “We had to add a very simple feature where it hangs on the loading screen for enough time so you can actually read at least one hint while it loads.” Of course, people who want to speed through things can just mash X or turn off the pause in settings so that the game loads up as fast as possible.
While Engadget hasn’t tested Horizon Forbidden West on the PS4 yet, early reports indicate that Guerrilla stuck the landing, building a game that doesn’t feel compromised on the PS4 that still shows off the power of the PS5. “I'm quite happy how it turned out,” said van der Leeuw. “I'm very proud of the PS5 version. But the PS4 version has the same sort of atmosphere, same sort of feel. Of course, it's a generation older, but it holds up, I think, quite well.”