Prepping for the upcoming release of Halo 5: Guardians, I’ve gone back to play the previous entries in the game’s storied history. As I play through the games thanks to Halo: The Master Chief Collection, I’m reminded of what I felt when I originally played them years ago when they were new. The exquisite use of motion blur and how it smoothed things for me in Halo 3 made the Master Chief’s first foray on the Xbox 360 feel like a legitimate jump in visuals and technology. The story threads of Halo 3 don’t exactly tie up everything from the abrupt end of Halo 2, and the game left many plot holes as well, but the fact was in terms of both gameplay and visuals, it was a markedly vast improvement over what the original Xbox could do.
Couple this with what Bungie did with Halo: Reach later on, and finally, 343 Industries’ first excursion with Halo 4, and both games show a step forward in terms of storytelling and visual presentation. Which is why when I play Halo 5: Guardians at various conventions, I find myself conflicted with my own personal gaming preferences. This is only exacerbated when analysis proves just how much Halo 5 has had to shed in order to to make possible what is not playable.
Halo 4 was, until Grand Theft Auto V released a year or so later, the culmination of what a developer could do with the Xbox 360, with 343 Industries eking out every last ounce of technological juice it could muster; period. However, having played Halo 5 a few times at various events, and then seeing what I experienced repeated on trustworthy sites known for their critical eye at the “under-the-hood” aspects of video game tech, I can’t say that it’s an improvement over what 343 accomplished on the Xbox 360.
This by no means says that the game won’t be good or fun, but while Halo 4 was the magnum opus of what 343 Industries could do on the Xbox 360, Halo 5: Guardians, to those willing to look, is shaping up to be the poster-child of compromise on the Xbox One.
I spent the past few days playing Halo 3 and the sands of the African landscape around New Mombasa and Voi reminded me of the Halo 5: Guardians Warzone level I played at GameStop Expo in Las Vegas in early September. As someone who holds gameplay stability over the importance of graphical goodies, I am shocked how eerily similar the games looked, as echoed by Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry.
However, as the Warzone level opened to me in Halo 5, my disappointment began immediately. The resolution wasn’t even the sub-optimal 900p we have come to expect on the Xbox One, but lower. This has been confirmed by Digital Foundry as they point out Halo 5’s multiplayer hovers closer to the 1152×810 instead of the standard of 1080p. With Halo 5 using “Dynamic Resolution Scaling,” they are able to achieve a locked 60 frames per second, a mark that fans of the shooter genre will hold over all other benchmarks. And while the argument can be made, and certainly is being made, that the 60fps target should be the priority. However, in doing so, the rest of the game’s presentation is being compromised. In effect, 343 Industries has been required to trade an unstable resolution for a stable framerate.
This is an issue that isn’t entirely 343 Industries’ fault. Rather, it’s an issue indicative of the hardware running the game. The Xbox One has a history of not running games at the standard with which even it’s close competitor, Sony, has at 1080p30. So while many had been optimistic that Halo 5: Guardians would reach that standard benchmark seen on PC games (and the argument can be clearly made that Halo 5 deserves to be on PC as well), the hardware doesn’t have the track record to provide those results. Instead of relying on techniques such as resolution scaling, one should argue that the hardware used to play these games should be good enough to handle the load to begin with.
Halo 5: Guardians is likely to be a fun, engaging game, judging by early previews and even my own experience. Once I got past the initial disappointment of the decidedly last-gen presentation, Warzone afforded me plenty of enjoyment in my few playthroughs. However, with each entry in the Halo series, progress could clearly be seen. Subsequent Halo games drove each entry to be better than the last. That should be what Halo 5: Guardians showcases: the next iteration of the Halo franchise with not only its evolution in storytelling but also with its gameplay and visual presentation. Instead, Halo 5 exudes a feeling of regression, vividly portraying artistic compromise at every turn.
[Images via Microsoft]