The myth of Halo’s graphical superiority

The recent news of Halo Infinite‘s launch delay followed a raft of criticism over the upcoming game’s art style and supposed graphical shortcomings. With all the debate that’s been going on in discussion over how it should be a showcase of the Xbox Series X capabilities I don’t know if anyone stopped to consider the simple truth that people are setting expectations too high for a franchise whose track record for being at the absolute technological cutting edge was rarely from the graphical standpoint. I’m a massive fan of the franchise, own all the games (and a few books too) and as much as I like how these games have looked over the years, and how the games are capable of some awe inspiring scenes, I still have to admit that there’s been plenty of other games that have pushed the envelope more on each of the Xbox platforms.

Halo Infinite looks good to me.

Take the first Halo for example. It did a great job of creating this unique world populated by even more impressive aliens and it worked nicely with those lower polygon counts but the human characters weren’t at all the best the original Xbox could do. The skyboxes though were pretty special and are almost a Halo trademark. When Bungie made the jump across to the 360 with Halo 3 the game did take steps forward visually but the game ran at a lower than 720p resolution and was upscaled. Ironically the reasoning for their design decision (apparently to allow frame double buffering for lighting passes) is probably why the backward compatible game on Xbox One X now supports HDR. They did get close to 720p with their last franchise game (Halo: Reach) which also has significantly improved character detail too. It was an impressive step up but also Bungie’s last hurrah under the Microsoft banner and a sign of things to come in Destiny… a game where most of the talkative characters were either robots or hid under masks.

With new developer 343 Industries taking on the franchise they went in hard with Halo 4 which was by far the most visually impressive Halo game yet and hit that 720p mark which really pushed the ageing 360 to the limit but it wasn’t all positives. To get that fidelity meant some trade-offs and some areas within the game felt much less expansive than prior games… something that could best be demonstrated in the often criticized Spartan Ops co-op modes that felt like playing in a small corner of past Halo‘s larger sandboxes. From my perspective the one Halo game that really did push its console the hardest graphically was Halo 5 Guardians on the Xbox One and it was the kind of game Xbox desperately needed considering how it was faring against the technically superior PlayStation 4. Though it could hit 1080p it used a dynamic resolution scaling system that favoured speed (60fps) over resolution. I think in this case the need to innovate and produce a “showcase” game for Xbox One made them create some really great tech. Later updates to the game would even give it a 4K boost for Xbox One X. And then there’s Halo: The Master Chief Collection which has undergone a multitude of updates since it’s original release with 4K support hitting with the Xbox One X and more since the game’s arrival on PC. Making these old games look the best they can be now and in the future seems to be a continual process for the MCC team and they still surprise with what they are extracting from these old games.

Halo 2 Anniversary (from MCC) is still a pretty game.

It’s from this that I was surprised with the heat Halo Infinite received on it’s gameplay reveal at the recent Xbox event. As far as I was concerned it totally nailed the artistic side which has always been one of the series strong points but there were expectations by many that it’d also check all the graphical features of the new console too. An admission that ray tracing would come later in a patch almost seemed like the developers caving in and trying to recover from the unexpected criticism. From all this I wonder if this is just a case of poor handling of the new game. A lot was said prior that it’d be running on a new engine (Slipspace) from which some high expectations are going to be set with little understanding of what Slipspace was really good at. People are going to assume it makes everything WAY prettier so you’re really going to need to deliver on that. Add in the new console and it being a launch title and the assumptions get bigger. They were in a situation they weren’t going to win. Maybe if the game was going to arrive later without the pressure of delivering the “next gen” launch experience it might not have been as big an issue?

I don’t think Halo Infinite is going to be the last “AAA” game that’ll fail to meet technical expectations from gamers this generation (even if it is one of the first) but maybe it’ll make everyone stop for a second and FINALLY acknowledge that fancy graphics don’t make a game great… even on the biggest of them.

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