By now you've no doubt succumbed to the onslaught of new Halo: Reach information and imagery that's sweeping across the internet and newsstands. The first screenshots from our next game, generated from a pre-alpha build last November, have garnered a lot of attention, buzz and in some cases, furious debate. I tend to agree that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," with each of us forming our own personal opinions of what is and isn't visually pleasing. However, regardless of your personal artistic preferences between the new direction of Reach compared to that of our prior Halo games, there's no denying that with a powerful new technical foundation, our incredibly talented art team is pulling out all the stops and pushing our content to brand new heights.
At this stage in development, the most obvious and striking examples of the asset evolution can be found in Reach's sandbox. Thanks to some handy comparison imagery and insights provided by 3D Art Lead Scott Shepherd we can get a better sense of exactly how much improvement is in store for Reach.
From the beginning, the Bungie team had the goal of really raising the bar and building the defining game in our Halo series, improving and evolving literally every system and asset from our decade's worth of development. The Halo series has spawned a number of iconic sandbox elements and many of them will be making a return in Reach, albeit with brand new visual fidelity.
To save time in production the original plan for the team was to carry over the existing assets from Halo 3 and add a few new polygons here and there and rework some textures to bring them up to the Reach bar. That didn't last long. As Scott explains, "the more we started looking into this, the more we found that realistically we could rebuild each asset from scratch with a huge increase in quality without significantly investing more time."
As new technical systems came online, the Bungie 3D Art team began to rebuild these timeless assets with impressive results.
"In some cases we were able to quadruple the budgets of the original Halo 3 assets, really creating an aesthetic that fits perfectly in the Halo Universe but is 100% unique to Reach and and clearly demonstrates what Bungie is capable of," says Scott.
The image below shows the Assault Rifle as it first appeared in Halo: Combat Evolved then in Halo 3 and finally the new hotness that's coming to Reach. For perspective, the texture resolution is double and the number of polygons is over four times the last incarnation. The AR in Reach actually has more polygons than an entire Marine character
did in Halo 3.
But how does the art team harness this new horsepower and create something new without losing ties to the original? As Scott puts it, "it's definitely a balancing act to make something fresh and new but still remain faithful to the parts of it that people love."
"The Assault Rifle is a great example of this where at the start we nearly completely redesigned it. After we put it in the game we got a lot of feedback that while it looked really cool, it just didn't really feel
like the AR that people knew and loved. So we actually ended up dialing it back and re-introducing some of the things that made the AR so iconic."
This same process has been followed for all of the "returning" staples. "The rule we've put in place is to always remain faithful to the spirit of the original asset, if not to the letter." Scott continues, "this allows for a high degree of artist creativity and some surprises while still carrying the impact and history of something people have grown attached to over the last decade."
It wouldn't be a Halo game without the Warthog and the new Hog carries forward a tradition upgrades spanning every one of Bungie's titles. (from left: Halo CE, Halo 2, Halo 3 and Halo: Reach). Click the image above to see the larger resolution to really appreciate the attention to detail that's going into the Reach Warthog.
Working on a prequel to the existing Halo saga has provided some new and exciting challenges and opportunities for our entire team. On the art side, it means going back and having some fun visualizing enemies and weapons that predate the later models seen in the more recent games.
In the case of the newly designed Grunt, inspiration came from a logical place - the early Shiek Wang concept sketches created over ten years ago as Halo: Combat Evolved was taking shape inside a Chicago office building.
Scott explains it further, "We really wanted to push the visual distinction of variants in Reach. One day Eric, one of our artists, and I were flipping through one of the old Art of Halo books and saw a sketch for a Grunt concept that really liked." That Grunt variant, on the far right in the image below, is internally referred to as the "pony keg" Grunt. "Just goes to show you that good design can really be timeless," notes Scott.
I asked Scott which of the returning, newly improved assets has seen the most significant overhaul and it wasn't something he could easily answer.
"This is tough to answer as I feel everything has gotten a pretty significant overhaul. Some of the most obvious are of course the Spartans and Elites. Being the two primary focal points for this story, we really wanted to show off these characters in the best possible light," explains Scott.
From a gameplay perspective it seems safe to say that both internally and externally, everyone is excited about fighting Elites again. These agile, cunning foes really came to define Halo combat and our designers are already hard at work making sure they are every bit as formidable and fun as you remember (and more so).
On the art side, the Elites were treated differently than some of the other returning 3D assets. According to Scott, "we really wanted the Elites to feel more menacing physically." This began with a major re-design starting from a brand new skeleton and new proportions.
"The new Elites got significantly larger, with a greater sense of weight and are much more 'animalistic'," explains Scott. "A lot of this was driven by the animation team and their vision for how the Elite should move."
You can see the result below and the progress that's been made to the model in each game since it originally debuted in Halo: CE.
While the new Elite and Spartan models do indeed kick much ass, and are clearly the star players in Reach, it was the progression of the troopers that were most striking to me, personally. I certainly didn't recall ole Captain Keyes being so simple and blocky back in the day but it seems like just yesterday we were all sitting around our desks marveling at the new and improved Marine in Halo 3. And now looking back they all pale in comparison to the level of fidelity and detail the Reach team is bringing to the game.
It's unknown yet if we'll have the pleasure of seeing a newly realized , higher resolution Robt McLees or Marcus Lehto trooper, first made famous back in Halo: CE when their real faces were mapped onto soldiers. (Also resulting in some highly collectible action figures.)
With such a big technical leap forward in terms of the game engine and our own tools, the assets appearing in Reach are definitely going to look better than every before but the tech is only part of the equation. It's the twelve full-time and up to a dozen more contract personnel who wield these tools and this power that are ultimately responsible for the outcome.
As Scott explains, "the tools and tech have grown significantly, in some cases up to four times as many polygons and double the texture resolution, but I really feel the strength of our team has grown just as much."
By infusing talented new hires and improving upon existing infrastructure the art team is "more comfortable with our tools, our hardware and our abilities to make really incredible art," says Scott.
Of course there's a lot more to Halo: Reach than just much prettier looking versions of existing 3D assets. There's new stuff in store, too. So far you've already seen glimpses of new weapons like the DMR and Needle Rifle as well as the new "Warthog of the sky," the Falcon. Each new item is built with the same painstaking attention to detail as the re-imagined originals, while staying true to the design team's goals and vision for gameplay.
In the weeks ahead we'll be looking closer at these new sandbox additions as well as the major advancements and investments being made in animation and how the team will be bringing these characters, weapons and vehicles to life like never before.
Stay tuned to Bungie.net and the Halo: Reach project page
for the latest intel.