Regardless of which side of the Halo obsession you sit on, there’s no denying that Halo 5: Guardians represented both the biggest opportunity for 343 Industries and its biggest risk. For the first time, the developer was creating a Halo title from the ground-up for the Xbox One. In a way, there wasn’t too much doubt that the developer could harness the power of the console like never before – Halo 4 debuted at the end of the Xbox 360’s life cycle and was easily one of its biggest highlights. Sure, there was a ton of criticism surrounding the game by hardcore fans, whether it be regarding the Spartan abilities or the new story which was not the least bit bad but not all that memorable either. However, when one considers the age of the Xbox 360 at that point and the level of visuals that 343 Industries managed to deliver, it was impressive all the same.
Unfortunately, the studio then bit off way more than it could chew with Halo: The Master Chief Collection. During the initial E3 2014 announcement, it was hard to believe that such a feat could be possible. Then again, no die-hard fan could possibly ignore four Halo titles spanning across two generations with combined playlists and seamless movement from one era to the next. There was also the appeal of experiencing Halo 2 in remastered glory, especially since the initial release heralded the dawn of Halo multiplayer for millions and millions of fans. The dream quickly turned into a nightmare when the game went live as it was apparent that match-making was outright broken and the entire product as a whole was riddled with glitches. Some publications like Forbes even stated that it may just be “one of the worst game releases in this decade”. Even now, nearly a year later, the Master Chief Collection can’t be considered “fixed” and this is despite extensive patchwork from 343 Industries on the same.
It was a shame overall because 343 Industries (along with Certain Affinity and Saber Interactive) put in so much work especially when it came to remastering Halo 2 and its cinematics. With Halo 5: Guardians being touted around that time and its multiplayer beta arriving shortly after Master Chief Collection’s launch, the onus was on the developer to make good.
It’s not as if Halo 5: Guardians would be doomed with the same problems. Being built on a single engine as opposed to managing several different ones – especially when it came to key features that were simply unable to make the jump to Xbox One – made the development process easier. Dedicated servers were propped up for multiplayer and there were very few complaints in the beta with regards to matchmaking times and latency. Even when comparing it to Halo 4’s single player campaign, 343 Industries has taken to making much greater strides in both map size, campaign scope and the overall scale of the narrative.
For its part, 343 Industries didn’t make any illusions about what it wanted to achieve with frame rate. The goal was to deliver a 60 FPS experience and while it may be a fantastic marketing term, first person shooters like Halo thrive on the same. The 60 FPS frame rate was also key because 343 Industries would eventually side with a progressive resolution in order to keep it locked, even during action packed sequences and scenarios. We’ve seen this dynamic resolution shifting in the past with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare on the Xbox One, how does Halo 5: Guardians handle it? Unlike those two games, does it manage to maintain its 60 FPS frame rate all throughout?
Franchise development director Frank O’Connor spoke quite a bit about improvements were made following Halo 4. Though it evolved on first Halo engine, there was a significant revamp with the technology. As O’Connor stated, “Some core principles of the gameplay and some familiar pieces of code are still going to be buried in there because, ultimately, Halo has a soul that you want to respect and retain. But technologically, this is a whole new ball game and we’re incredibly excited about it.” It actually got to the point where the visuals were pushed so hard on the Xbox 360 that 343 Industries managed to create a brand new engine for Halo 5: Guardians.
For Halo 5: Guardians, 343 Industries has gone the extra mile for its levels. The maps are much bigger than in Halo 4 and the superb rendering engine brings forth several interesting colour variations based on the “seven distinct art palettes” pattern. Of course, the levels don’t just look good – they feel realistic and alive thanks to the overhauled lighting system that now depends on both the intensity of light sources and the nature of the materials the light is effecting. Physical based rendering creates both realistic looking objects and characters and the engine also ably connects this to the meshes and advanced skin shaders on display.
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There was some concern about the alpha effects, especially since these have been a stable for the series even when Bungie was leading. Before Halo 5’s launch, alpha effects seemed to be rendered at lower resolutions but the retail launch shows a significant leap in the same. On screen effects look great and the engine even manages to render its cut scenes and scripted sequences expertly, fully utilizing the available rendering budget to its fullest capacity. Though the cut scenes run at 30 FPS compared to the gameplay’s 60 FPS, the engine is still capable of scaling up the rendering budget available, delivering excellent animations and facial motion capture for a fully immersive cinematic experience. Couple this with HDR lighting, global illumination being fully supported, depth of field, blur, screen space reflections and hue effects, and the visuals of Halo 5: Guardians really become a sight to behold.
It’s a testament to the engine work that one has trouble at times distinguishing between the CG and real time cut scenes. However, plenty of credit must be given to Microsoft for the updates to the Xbox One’s SDK. The low level API is already pretty similar to DirectX 12’s shader library and with the unlocking of a seventh CPU core, it feels like everything works in Halo 5’s favour for the most part.
We say “for the most part” because not everything is a sight for sore eyes. Texture filtering looks a bit odd in some places and you’ll notice blurry textures and surfaces as a result. It’s interesting that this is the case for a first party Xbox One exclusive since texture filtering in general has often come across better on the console in third party games. Also, for all the work done by 343 Industries to ensure a steady 60 FPS frame rate, that dynamically changing resolution tends to jump up and down depending on available GPU resources and it certainly doesn’t help the texture filtering.
However, unlike games like Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt which used dynamic resolution for full HD native rendering of certain scenes, Halo 5’s system tends to alter its behaviour during different modes. The single-player campaign runs at full HD resolution in some places but a reduction in horizontal pixels in other places can be noticed. Image quality comes off as slightly uneven as a result and nearby objects tend to blur out when the switch occurs. The quality hit is greater in multiplayer and at the end of the day, we’re divided on the game’s overall implementation of dynamic resolution. It looks great when it works properly and when it doesn’t, the decline in visual quality can’t be denied.
There’s also the fact that shadow quality can really vary depending on distance. This means jagged edges and more dithering which doesn’t look very good. Character animations also seem to be running at a lower frame rate than the action on screen. It’s strange and, when you begin to pay more attention to it, can come off as jarring. An aggressive LOD system means loss of details in some places. Draw distance in itself seems to lack detail and the same goes for volumetric effects.
It’s also interesting to note the similarity of sacrifices that 343 Industries made with Halo 4 and now Halo 5: Guardians. Halo 4 also delivered detailed interior and exterior environments with high def lighting and bloom but also made sacrifices with its texture filtering and shadow quality. This was done to ensure that the Xbox 360 title hit 720p resolution and 30 FPS, the standard for previous gen consoles. Nonetheless, credit needs to be given to 343 Industries – as with Halo 4, so did it make a number of different compromises to maintain visual fidelity in Halo 5: Guardians while delivering on its promise for 60 frames per second. When you consider the nature of these promises and how they can usually be committed before any programming even begins, it’s extraordinary.
And thankfully, Halo 5: Guardians doesn’t slouch in performance. It runs at a solid 60 frames per second and it’s crazy how even a few hours into the game we witnessed no drops at all (and that’s taking into account the impressive amount of post processing effects that are on display).
There will always be concerns over a game’s frame rate versus resolution and it doesn’t seem likely that any single game approaches the golden standard of 1080p/60 FPS perfectly any time soon. Halo 5: Guardians goes in a different direction though, prioritizing its frame rate and treating it as one of the key attractions of the experience, even if some corners have to be cut here and there. Texture filtering, shadow quality and image quality could have been better but compromises were made to ensure a consistent 60 FPS frame rate and we can’t say we aren’t happy with it. Image dithering issues aside, 60 FPS continues to prove its worth as a game changer, especially in Halo 5: Guardians.
When Halo 5: Guardians first entered into the hands of players, it was with the multiplayer beta in January that was restricted to a native 720p resolution. The game has come a long way since then and if the Xbox One’s GPU wasn’t a limiting factor, this could have been the best looking first person shooter of this generation. Even as it is now, Halo 5: Guardians is still a great looking game. Compromises were made in order to maintain a consistent frame rate performance but the visual fidelity was still kept at a high standard. Regardless of whether it becomes the trend setter for first person shooters like Bungie’s trail-blazing iterations did remains to be seen. For now, you can be satisfied that Halo 5: Guardians looks good and feels good even with the odd imperfection here and there.