Guerrilla Games faced an unusual challenge in developing Forbidden West Horizon, which comes out on Friday, February 18th. According to the game’s director and technical director, Guerrilla was well aware of the PS5 and many of its capabilities when it started working on the game. Forbidden West in 2018. But the company also planned to make the game work on the PS4, which turns nine this fall.
It’s not uncommon 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 be released on the PS5. In a conversation with Ploonge, game director Mathijs de Jonge and technical director Michiel van der Leeuw discussed Guerrilla’s process for ensuring the game worked for the PS4 while simultaneously showing everything the PS5 is capable of.
“We knew it would be tricky to do something that would make the PlayStation 5 shine, but it would also be very rewarding for people who own the PlayStation 4,” said van der Leeuw. “We are very happy to have known about the PS5’s features early on, because it meant we could plan how we make that distinction.”
The most obvious difference between the two versions is visual fidelity, with the PS5 aiming for 4K resolution (reduced to 1800p with upscaled checkerboard when running in 60fps “performance” mode). “From the beginning, our goal was to have high-fidelity characters, high-fidelity environments, high-fidelity vegetation, everything, just for the PS5,” said van der Leeuw. “So you will see different models for the PS4 version, but with the same kind of atmosphere throughout the game.”
The realities of playtesting during a worldwide pandemic have actually provided Guerrilla with plenty of opportunity to get feedback on the PS4 experience. “It was very difficult for us, the pandemic hit us while we were at peak production,” added van der Leeuw. But Guerrilla was able to use Sony’s PlayStation Now game streaming technology to send early versions of the game to PS4 game testers. “Because of the pandemic, we had to switch to remote testing,” said de Jonge. Sony would have done it with the PS5, but it wasn’t possible to have people in its offices during the pandemic.
The result of this was that Guerrilla had to ensure that the PS4 version was getting a lot of attention throughout the development process. “It was a big advantage, in a way, that we had the PlayStation 4,” Jonge said, “because it meant we really needed to get the build in good shape, 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 were also meticulous in making the PS5 version stand out visually. “We would look at screenshots of every single thing on the screen, whether it was the grass, the sky, the leaves, the fabric, the hair – everything should have something where if you look at the screenshots you would feel like this is definitely the version PS5,” van der Leeuw said.
While improved fidelity and framerate were obvious things to expect in the PS5 version, Guerrilla put a lot of thought into how the PS5 controller could be a differentiator – but it was a balancing act to get the experience right. “In our first prototypes, I remember that we defined the [adaptive trigger] relatively high values”, said de Jonge, “and I remember that after a few minutes we felt a little tired with the triggers. AND then we started adding haptic feedback. And then you have to balance how much haptic you have versus how much pressure you put on the triggers.”
Surprisingly, the team working on haptics is separate from the team working on adaptive triggers. “Haptic is handled in our studio by our audio designers, but adaptive triggers are handled by our game designers,” said Jonge. Of course, no part of the game’s design happens in a vacuum, but he specifically cites the collaboration between these teams as something he was proud of in the development process.
The end result is something that doesn’t look like a major upgrade, but a deftly executed component that helps Forbidden West Horizon shine on PS5. “I also think it’s great to see how we could [use haptics and adaptive triggers] make the different weapons stand out, kind of give them their own character,” said de Jonge. “So it’s really different when you use a slingshot versus when you shoot an arrow using a bow.”
Like most games created specifically for the PS5, Forbidden West Horizon charges quickly thanks to the console’s built-in SSD. With such a large map to explore, near-instant loading (like when you travel fast) is a huge quality-of-life improvement. But van de Leeuw said these optimizations are about more than just having a fast drive. “You don’t realize how easily games are bottled up,” he said. “If you run a PC game on a very fast SSD, it doesn’t automatically load in seven seconds. There is a lot of work we had to do.”
The end result is a game so fast that the development team had to rework the tips that appear on the loading screens. “Inside Horizon Zero Dawn, we call it fast travel, but it can take maybe a minute to actually charge,” Jonge said. “With the PS5, it’s maybe four or five seconds, it loads so fast that players can’t even read the hints.” But from testing, Guerrilla knew that players came to trust these tips, so they decided to slow things down a bit. “We had to add a very simple feature where it hangs on the loading screen long enough that you can read at least one tip while it loads.” Of course, people who want to speed things up can just do an X mash or disable pause in the settings so the game loads as quickly as possible.
Although Ploonge has not tested Forbidden West Horizon on PS4 yet, initial reports indicate that guerrilla arrested the landing, building a game that doesn’t feel compromised on the PS4 that still shows the power of the PS5. “I’m very happy with the result,” said van der Leeuw. “I am very proud of the PS5 version. But the PS4 version has the same kind of atmosphere, the same kind of feel. Sure, it’s an older generation, but it holds up, I think, very well.”
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