Halo: Infinite's graphics have caused lots of controversy and didn't really show off the Xbox Series X's raw power. But that will change from now until release, Microsoft promises.
Halo: Infinite was supposed to be the Xbox Series X's killer game, the system-selling launch title that mimicked Combat Evolved's legacy decades ago. Instead the latest gameplay demo has fans divided (but need I remind you Microsoft doesn't care if you don't buy an Xbox Series X?). The graphics aren't the wow-ing spectacle we expected from an explosive next-gen hit. 343i and Microsoft have since gone into damage control mode in an effort to ameliorate the negative buzz.
"We're in the middle of a global pandemic. It's July, we're far from [Halo Infinite's release in] holiday, you're seeing a work-in-progress game," Xbox executive Aaron Greenberg said in an interview with Inside Gaming.
"Also you probably watched the stream in 1080p maybe, so we have put up a 4K 60FPS on-demand stream. If you want, go back and look at the game at 4K60. We did that deliberately. It's very hard to show the full power and graphics fidelity in what Xbox Series X can deliver for you over a stream. Go back and look at it in 4K60.
"The other thing I'll say is that it's a work in progress. What you're seeing today...I can tell you because we see build check-ins every week and they make progress week after week...between now and holiday it's just going to get better and better.
"Trust us, when you play it this holiday it's going to be a visual showcase for Xbox Series X. The team at 343 Industries, with what they've done with the Slipspace Engine, there should be no worries about that."
Shadows will take lots of definition out of textures because Infinite doesn't use diffuse textures that come pre-made with lighting effects built in.
Microsoft has spent months hyping up the Xbox Series X's capabilities, talking about the new powerful 12TFLOP GPU and flexible Velocity Architecture, DirectX 12 APIs, and new SSD tech that can revolutionize console gaming. But Halo: Infinite's debut wasn't all that revolutionary.
So why does Halo: Infinite's gameplay look so...strange? Why does it look like a last-gen game?
Infinite's textures and models are actually highly detailed, but they lose lots of visual quality when out of direct lighting. Ray tracing will fix this by adding in a new light sources to complement the dynamic lighting system.
It all has to do with the game's new dynamic lighting system. Halo: Infinite is open-world, and it has a fluctuating lighting system that blankets the entire world. There's no tightly-designed linear levels any more, meaning the lighting system isn't fine-tuned, but more spread across a bigger area.
The trade off with dynamic lighting is less development time, but at the cost of detail. When models are in shadows, their textures look undefined and unfinished. A lot of the gameplay demo took place in shadow so the environment, characters, and even gun textures looked rather bland. As a result, the game looked kind of wonky and something that belongs on the Xbox One era.
343 Industries can fix this by adding in hardware- or software-based global illumination via ray tracing. Ray-traced illumination would add another light source to the textures and make them pop out with more definition.
But that will take a significant bite out of performance. Halo: Infinite is billed as a 4K 60FPS game on Series X and PC, and adding in ray tracing will make things look better while also lowering resolution perf. With ray tracing we could see Halo: Infinite hit 1080p-1440p variable resolution at 60FPS instead of the advertised huge 4K pixel count.
It's hard to say whether or not the game will look better at launch. The dynamic lighting system is a restriction in a number of ways, but folds perfectly with the new open-world, fluctuating scope of Infinite. Remember, Infinite is basically a Halo FPS-RPG that's actually a platform instead of a game. 343i plans to use Infinite as the springboard for the next 10 years of Halo experiences, and they confirmed it's the last numbered game in the entire franchise.
343i's promises that Halo will be a "special citizen" on Xbox Series X with 4K 60FPS resolution and in-game perf hold a lot less weight given the new gameplay footage. There's only four months before the game ships and 343i will need to do lots of polishing before Halo: Infinite is a must-have spectacle on the new console hardware.
Halo: Infinite releases November 2020 alongside the Xbox Series X. 343i promises major optimizations including 4K 60FPS, and the game is launching on Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Windows 10 PC.