The earth-shattering arrival of Killzone 2 earlier this year had serious ramifications for Microsoft's reputation for hosting the most technologically advanced shooters on console. Its answer: ODST, a brand new FPS set in the Halo universe but separate and apart from the super-soldier heroics of the iconic Master Chief.
ODST certainly has its work cut out. A cursory inspection of Killzone 2 reveals a beautiful-looking game that arguably wipes the floor with Halo 3 in terms of graphical prowess. It's rendered in full 720p with anti-aliasing for smoother edges, the motion blur model is one of the most advanced in the industry and its artwork, AI and animation are state-of-the-art. Guerrilla Games' epic also works so well on a technical level because the art assets are built around the limitations of both the engine and the host hardware - weaknesses become advantages in the overall presentation. Take for example the implementation of quincunx anti-aliasing: maligned by many for the blur it adds to texture detail, its peculiar visual look interfaces perfectly with the game's motion blur techniques. The Killzone makers seemingly targeted their engine development towards the final effect they desired and this focus paid dividends.
All of which leaves the two-year-old Halo 3 tech looking rather aged. Levels can look low in detail and basic in structure, bright colour schemes often show up the game's sub-HD 1152x640 resolution and in turn add to the jagginess incurred due to the lack of anti-aliasing. Enemy animations are clearly a generation behind Guerrilla's offering. And yet, analysis of the gameplay footage revealed at E3 shows that the self-same two-year-old technology with apparently only minor modifications is powering Microsoft's biggest first-person shooter of the year: ODST. Does the Halo tech have what it takes to regain the advantage in the FPS arms race?
By the end of this feature, hopefully you'll see that the utilisation of the existing engine makes perfect sense, that there's actually method behind the madness, and that Bungie's tech is still at the cutting edge in many different ways. We'll be looking at Halo 3 in more depth, commenting on its strengths and weaknesses and putting the game through performance analysis. Facts and figures about the game derived from presentations made by Bungie itself are the icing on this pretty substantial editorial confection.
But first, the money shot: a breakdown of the E3 ODST trailer, with commentary from Digital Foundry's Alex Goh and an emphasis on what's new, changed, improved or re-focused with the new game.
Overall then, despite a fresh new look, we're not seeing any massive advances in the core tech here. The sub-HD resolution and lack of anti-aliasing remain (though Bungie's software-scaling algorithm is usually very effective), while the core improvements we can pick out include the addition of a grain filter and some edge line rendering. Cinematic animations have benefited from a big upgrade, and additional footage unleashed during E3 shows that this is a global improvement, affecting in-game too. Lighting has been refined for a more dramatic impact (perhaps inducing some black crush but effective nonetheless) while self-lighting on the main view weapon is also much improved.
There's little doubt that the game sees a significant departure from the Halo 3 style: more 'war-like', more gritty. If the seismic impact of Killzone 2 has influenced anything, it's right there, even if the ultra-colourful effects that are the Halo hallmark are still present and correct. Based on what we've seen, the approach to ODST appears to be very similar to the Guerrilla Games line of thinking: concentrate on artwork and gameplay scenarios that makes the most of the engine's strengths. In this respect, it has to be said that Bungie has plenty of thoroughbred tech DNA to work with.
The focus of this video is Halo 3's rendering properties: its lighting, how it handles its materials and showcasing some of what the engine is capable of, not least of which is its implementation of high dynamic range rendering - something you don't see very often done 'properly' on Xbox 360 titles. Most games on the Microsoft console utilise bloom effects or less impressive MDR rendering, but Bungie went for the technically far more challenging approach. Strictly speaking it's not 'true' HDR (the developer itself describes it as a hybrid of MDR and HDR) the implementation in-game is the key.