Last night in our internal Alpha test, we played a couple of the new game types – and we had a blast. As ever, I was focused on backgrounds. The one returning “homage” favorite looks almost unrecognizable to me now. Well that’s not true. Sure, whatever that map is, it has new features, places to fight and run and drive and fly, but graphically it’s unrecognizable. One section had sunlight filtering through glass and picking up motes of dust or haze and I was checking it out when Colm ran up behind me and smashed in my brains with a vicious and ungentlemanly melee attack.
And they just implemented the new “glass shader” which is especially visible on shiny Forerunner glass. The floors of the base in Valhalla use it to great effect – and it reflects in real time whatever’s facing it, while simultaneously refracting stuff very slightly (since it’s supposed to be “perfect”). It looks fantastic, and is another hypnotic feature that ensures I get killed while staring at it. It’s not much of an excuse either; “Hey ah was starin’ at some glass.”
In campaign, the moving foliage is back in. Big rubbery leaves, little ferns, close ground cover. They all move when you walk through ‘em, and I was surprised to see the plants actually self-shadowing. I had assumed that was a lightmap, but it’s a realtime effect, as far as I can tell. It gives the plants a very compelling, realistic aspect. Especially when I’m lobbing grenades at ‘em to see them move. Or following an AI player around and watching him interact with them.
So Chris Tchou, one of our uber elite graphics technologists (guys who make the stuff that the artists use – like sweet water and shader effects) was fiddling around with ways to better visualize edges and objects during test cycles. And he came up with a nifty tool for the graphics guys to use that was designed to be purely practical – but in a happy accident, is also the coolest ass thing ever. Basically we can turn on this mode at any time, and up pops a massively simplified vector outline of the game. It’s half Battlezone, half Wind Waker, all awesome.
This mode doesn’t draw anything like the entirety of the objects, so amateur polygon-counters shouldn’t quit their day jobs, and in fact, part of why everything is so clearly outlined, is that it’s occluding a ton of geometry. Anyway, it’s a nifty little thing, and I wish you could see it in motion. But here it is in still form.
A simplistic, yet fun view of Valhalla. With a vintage tint.
The mode has little application outside of test, but it is remarkably playable. Characters on large fields are a little too easy to see – being fluorescent green on black, and some objects don’t render that way – water for example. You’re floating around in this eerie green-on black Battlefield landscape, and suddenly happen upon a photo-realistic river. It looks strange, to say the least.
And speaking of rivers, the new water system, which has been popping in and out of builds for weeks, is finally in for good. So I have been parking stuff in it. Spartans, Mongooses, Warthogs, you name it. Why? Because the water flows around the objects in a realistic fashion, and I am easily amused. One of my favorite aspects of the current water simulation is that it flows down hills, around objects and in Valhalla; it makes its way all the way from a waterfall, across a plain, down a hill, where it finally empties into a lake. The water flow is fast near the shore, but then slows, vanishes and the lake’s own wind and relative calm take over. Right now it’s set to slightly windy chop. That setting can be tuned, so who knows what it will be in the shipping game – windy turbidity or glassy calm. Only the artists can decide. The flowers and grass are blowing though, and there is a wind noise. So Valhalla at least should have a breezy quality.
In multiplayer, there have been a bunch of graphics changes as new features are added that actually affect gameplay. Take decorators, for example. In places where we have long reeds, weeds or ferns (for example) you don’t really want to put a weapon in there, because while visible, it’s not the kind of magnet you need to attract players, and more importantly, you don’t want players to run all the way over to a weed-covered area where they know a BR spawns, only to see too late that it’s not there. So weapon placements are much more clever.
Some weapons are leaning against objects (trees, walls, rocks and so on) so they are never obscured by anything. Others are found in those weapon canisters we used in Halo 2 single player. Not the same models of course – these ones have completely convincing foam insulation in ‘em. Other weapons are found in clearings, or on less obfuscated surfaces, like rock, sand or concrete. Gameplay takes precedence though, so leaning and canisters are brilliantly useful devices to keep things clear. It’s a video game after all. Not a simulation.
As I was checking out the weapon placements (you’d be surprised how much the fact that they have shadows affects their visibility too) I noticed that Steve Cotton had completely retextured the concrete and rock structures in High Ground. Gone were the very convincing, but you know, rock-like walls, to be replaced with a much more realistic and attractive type of building material. It’s hard to describe, but basically it’s a matt surface, though where it’s cracked, or chunks have fallen off, it reveals a shiner stone surface underneath. Like knocking plaster off a wall, I suppose. Anyway, long story short, I spent a good 15 minutes shooting AR fire and hurling plasma grenades in there, just to see how cool the different reflections looked on the varying surface. Lame, I know, but it gives me cheap thrills.
And Marcus, the art lead, said something about slow-moving, muddy water. I know what level that’s for, but I haven’t seen it running in the new system yet. Time to go get a new build, I guess.
The audio recording is going epically. Marty is in LA right now recording huge swathes of dialog, combat, cinematic and mission. He’s auditioned trillions of actors and narrowed down our cast to a tightly knit collection of brilliant actors – some famous, some destined to be famous. There are a couple of amazing additions to combat dialog actors that I’m personally excited about. We’ve even hidden a couple of audio Easter eggs in there to pay homage to these folks’ skillz.
And one addition to the cinematic dialog actor lineup nearly made me faint. It’s not final yet so I can’t talk about it, but if it happens, I will be ecstatic. And don’t worry, there are plenty of returning favorites.
But there’s been a bunch of other audio progress too. Sound effects, especially in multiplayer, have made a kind of quantum leap. Lots of things in Halo will sound really familiar, but one thing that will sound new and awesome is the “distant gunfire” scheme. You know when you watch a completely awesome war movie, and in the distance you hear big, wide, echoey shell and gunfire and it takes on that weird, ethereal quality? We have that now. The funny thing is, at first it sounds like an ambient noise – you know, like birdsong or thunder – that we just put in for effect. But in fact, it’s all “real” which is to say, generated by actual distant battles.
But I was surprised to find out why it sounded so utterly convincing. It isn’t just surround processing on the sound sample for that weapon – although of course that happens – but rather it’s two different samples . One sound is close gunfire, one is distant gunfire. They both have such dramatically different sounds, that a really efficient way to achieve that effect was to record and play back both, mixing them together at an appropriate distance and then switching fully to distant or close, depending on where you’re at. Now that description doesn’t do the effect justice.
It’s awesome in a good surround setup, like the best parts of Saving Private Ryan. You’re just going to have to hear it for yourself. Luckily, a lot of you will get to do just that during the beta, since this is one of the features that seems likely to have been fully implemented by then. Fingers crossed. In a big game of Team Slayer on Valhalla, I spawned on an empty part of the map, and was able to head towards the distant and ferocious sounding fight using the audio cues. But they weren’t just useful – they added real drama. Nice!
I am also neck deep in the Halo 3 manual, working on item, weapon and cough, other thing descriptions – and I came to a horrible realization – which is that at standard 360 manual sizes, we literally didn’t have room for everything, especially given the crazy number of new features (not just objects). Anyway, we’ll find a way to squeeze it all in, one way or another.
And finally, here's the occluded version of Mr. Chief.