Halo: Reach

Pure alpha footage dissected.

Exciting times. Footage of Halo: Reach released alongside Microsoft's X10 event gives us our first look at the game actually running in real-time. No CG, no engine-sourced cinematics, it's all run-time, and it's clearly a hugely significant upgrade over the old Halo 3 engine, last seen in 2009's ODST.

There's just over a minute of pure gameplay footage within Bungie's curiously titled "ViDoc", interspersed with the game creators talking about the key innovations in the new Halo engine. You'll hear about the new AI engine that can handle your squad, eight other team-mates and over 30 Covenant opponents simultaneously. You'll learn how the new tech renders around four times as many polygons as the Halo 3 tech. You'll see the development environment in which the new game is being shaped, as well as Bungie's new motion capture suite. It's all extremely cool stuff.

But for us, the chance to check out the game running natively on Xbox 360 hardware, away from super-sampled screenshots and cinematics, is the main reason to watch. Here's where we get our first real experience of the visual make-up of the gameplay, along with a chance to see how this in-development alpha code actually performs. It's our first chance to see the actual game.

First up, here's a compilation of gameplay and cut-scene elements from the video, with our customary performance graphs. We prefer to measure the complete 60Hz output of the console, but in common with most internet video, Bungie's footage is encoded at 30FPS. However, some clips appear to be blending 60 frames down to 30, and even where this occurs, it still seems to be confirming that Reach runs at 30FPS. No real surprises there.

Halo: Reach gameplay footage compilation, with performance analysis.

What can we take from this? Overall performance is extremely smooth during gameplay. Not only do we see a remarkably solid 30FPS in most clips, it's clear that Bungie has added a great deal more in the way of post-processing work to the new engine. While Reach overall seems to run at the same frame-rate as Halo 3, it looks and probably feels smoother owing to a decent camera motion blur effect.

Only two clips - one cut-scene, one gameplay - show a consistent drop down to 20FPS. During the assassination scene (around 00:16), we do see torn frames though. It may well be the case that some clips have v-sync engaged, others don't. We have to remember that this is alpha footage, and presumably there's still a hell of a lot of optimisation to be done; however, it's likely that the fundamental elements of the engine are now solid and the performance overall looks promising.

While overall capture quality of the clips is low even in Bungie's own HD version, there are plenty of edges to measure and all of them seem to point towards a native resolution of 1152x720 for the new engine - a significant upgrade over Halo 3's 1152x640. Anti-aliasing doesn't appear to be employed, but the improvements in post-processing effects and resolution should make this far less noticeable than it was in Halo 3.

Hopefully we'll get to see more of Reach at GDC. There are plenty of teasers in this tiny sampling of footage that leave us hungry for more - the particle shower at 01:10 for example suggests that the new Halo engine still has plenty more surprises in store for us. PhysX look out...

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