Microsoft kicked off its E3 2018 media briefing in epic style, revealing a work-in-progress technology demonstration of its next Master Chief series entry, Halo Infinite, accompanied by an honest, revealing blog giving us a little more background on the ideas behind the game, the aim to recapture the style of the Bungie era for modern hardware, and an admission that almost three years on from the release of Halo 5, Infinite is still very early on in production. Naturally, as the current generation draws to a close, the question must be asked whether this is our first tentative look at a game destined for the next Xbox.
343 Industries' blog doesn't rule this out, but the current generation hardware is explicitly name-checked with mention of 'taking advantage of the full power of the Xbox One family', yet the freshly minted Slipspace Engine is clearly delivering an extreme visual feature set that would certainly sit more easily on whatever hardware Microsoft is cooking up next. A game targeting a cross-gen release, perhaps? The scale and scope of this Infinite teaser combined with 343's current-gen confirmation certainly suggests so, and what's clear is that in this two-minute teaser, the studio bombards us with rendering techniques that offer a vast increase in fidelity over anything seen from the series before.
Going in to E3 2018, we were hoping for a Halo 2 moment - a reveal of epic theatre that would be remembered for years to come. Of course, the problem with that classic E3 2003 demo was that although running in real-time on OG Xbox hardware, Bungie's ideas were too ambitious to roll out into the final game. And for its part, the main concern with the Slipspace engine as revealed on Sunday is the question of whether 343 may be over-promising. Unlike the Bungie demo, there wasn't a real-time component here - this was an engine demo, meaning it could be run on any hardware 343 might have available, and it needn't be operating in real-time either. In short,'in-engine' can cook up extreme visuals impossible on consumer-level hardware for years or even decades to come. However, we suspect that 343 has a point to prove and for its part, the studio tells us that 'the engine demo is a clear indication of the direction we are heading with our next game and a great snapshot of where our tech is right now.'
We're also told about art director Nicolas Bouvier's new art style 'that draws significant inspiration from the most iconic and historic parts of the Halo franchise' and in this respect, the demo hits a home run, giving the feeling of cutting-edge technology that taps in deeply to the spirit, if not the style of the earlier games. The fleeting glimpse we get of the Master Chief armour here looks closer to a Bungie design, while the tracking shot we have of the Warthog brings evokes memories of the original Halo: Combat Evolved and its Anniversary counterpart. The epic score that kicks in alongside the new Infinite logo? That hails from Halo 3 - the last series entry from Bungie.
But as much as the demo pays tribute to the past, there are also suggestions that 343 may be revamping some of the fundamentals, most notably in terms of Halo's environments. The existing engine has always been capable of delivering vast, expansive play areas - necessary for the game's sense of exploration and discovery, and also in containing wide-open vehicular combat. However, the Infinite demo shows us wildlife - and lots of it too, hinting at a boost to entity count in the Slipspace engine that may also end up with larger, wider battlefields with more participants. There's a sense that Bungie's original vision for Halo - as seen in this vintage 2000 demo - was more open world-like in nature, and it'll be interesting to see whether this is the approach 343 is taking, and the extent to which a more open world-type setting may change the nature of combat, the most crucial element of the Halo experience.
While also emphasising the vast scale of the worlds it can now create, a lot of the Halo Infinite demo concentrates on extreme detail at closer quarters. Texture quality and detail is off the charts, with stone, wood, sand and vegetation beautifully rendered and integrated with the lighting technology in a manner reminiscent of the photogrammetry technique seen in many current-gen games. There's also a superb virtual camera effect, with the engine beautifully interpreting how the world is filtered through the virtual lens - with natural, shifting focus, depth of field and film grain. Lighting overall is simply sensational, with a huge focus on volumetrics, used liberally used to spectacular effect throughout the demo.
It wouldn't be a Halo game without a water rendering showcase and the trailer doesn't disappoint here either, from the small-scale puddles in mud divots (which still manage to reflect the environment) through to a full-on ocean simulation, which breaks beautifully onto the shore, complete with extreme detail sand. And there's a twist too - an underwater sub of some description is visible beneath the waves, seemingly highlighting a submerged entrance. Maybe Halo Infinite's scale has expanded to encompass full underwater missions now?
With this new demo, 343 Industries has walked the technological tightrope in massively expanding the kind of Halo experience it can deliver, while at the same time giving it a comforting feeling of familiarity for series veterans. The studio says that the new game follows on from the events of Halo 5, but the stratospheric leap in the technology here almost feels like a reboot of sorts. It's seriously exciting stuff, but again, it's so far out there that we do have to wonder to what extent this vision can be delivered on Xbox One hardware. In line with Halo 5, the demo renders flawlessly at 60 frames per second, with a rendering resolution at 4K or higher. If there's a concern that 343 is pushing out this demo super-sampled from an extreme pixel count, the presence of some edge shimmering, pixel pop and occasional specular aliasing gives an almost reassuring sense of authenticity. We're cautiously optimistic that this is the real deal.
Obviously, we'll be following this one really closely - and we're particularly fascinated to see the Slipspace engine's eventual debut running on actual consumer-level hardware, whether it's today's Xbox One devices or their eventual successors. It's difficult to see beyond 343's blog as anything other than full confirmation that Halo Infinite will run across the entire family of Xbox machines - it's there in black and white. Whatever next-gen brings, Xbox One X's six teraflop GPU should keep it in contention on the graphics side, but whether the CPU will be potent enough to fully realise the extreme detail world teased here remains to be seen - a 30fps/60fps divide between the generations perhaps? But what about Xbox One S? This demo pushes to the extremes with the kind of effects that the standard Xbox has traditionally struggled with. Even with the existing Halo 5 - a game designed specifically with the base console in mind - the divide between S and X is simply vast. And yet, 343's promise of support for the Xbox One family does seem to confirm that what looks very much like a next-gen engine will be running on Microsoft's vintage 2013 hardware - and that makes an already highly ambitious project look even more challenging.
Will you support the Digital Foundry team?
Digital Foundry specialises in technical analysis of gaming hardware and software, using state-of-the-art capture systems and bespoke software to show you how well games and hardware run, visualising precisely what they're capable of. In order to show you what 4K gaming actually looks like we needed to build our own platform to supply high quality 4K video for offline viewing. So we did.
Our videos are multi-gigabyte files and we've chosen a high quality provider to ensure fast downloads. However, that bandwidth isn't free and so we charge a small monthly subscription fee of $5. We think it's a small price to pay for unlimited access to top-tier quality encodes of our content. Thank you.Support Digital Foundry