Sixth and Eighth: The Graphics of Halo 3

April 21, 2016

Today, Microsoft announced that after eleven years, Xbox 360 production is coming to a close. So let’s talk about a game that came out in 2007 and helped define a substantial chunk of the 360’s early life.

Halo 3’s visuals take on an odd life in discussions. Perusing a thread on some online forum, it would be unsurprising to read one post applauding Halo 3’s artists for saving the game from its horrible graphics, followed by a post praising advanced graphical features while attacking the artists for letting them go to waste. Many agree that Bungie aimed for the stars, but whether they ended up catapulting their efforts into the Sun has been hotly debated.

In a way, Halo 3’s technical focus seems to have been an attempt to duplicate what Halo 1 did in 2001. Then, bump-mapping was not a new concept, nor were dynamic light sources, and nor were shiny surfaces with glossy reflections. But having all those things working vibrantly together as well as they did in Halo 1 was novel. And it coexisted nicely with snazzy particles  and decals, and with large environments with some rich texture detail.

It paid off, the game receiving broad graphical praise.

Halo 3 would similarly attempt to leap forward onto a new console generation with ambitious lighting, while otherwise still looking like a AAA blockbuster.

In some respects, Halo 3 arguably didn’t succeed massively with that later goal. Geometry is fairly sparse and can sometimes be chunky, likely a major contributor to the common accusation that it didn’t look very “next-gen.” (Although, this may be a part of why Halo 3 handles split-screen with relatively little loss in performance and visuals. A smaller geometry workload can mean less work duplicated when rendering multiple viewports.)

And of course, no discussion of Halo 3’s assets looking crude is complete without some Lord Hood 🙂

Similarly, although animations are more detailed than Halo 2’s, they have a similar kind of stiffness, lacking a sense of qualitative advancement.

However, if some elements of Halo 3 reminded people of the original Xbox, some graphical choices were simply astounding for a 360 game, let alone one from 2007. But, having delved into the realm of costly subtleties, they often don’t get discussed much beyond vague “HDR” comments.

This article aims to explain some of what Bungie was doing.

Notes and Stuff

All Halo 3 and ODST screenshots were captured from the games running on Xbox 360. For the most part, claims of methods used in Halo 3 are based on in-game observation, and on Hao Chen’s “Lighting and Material of HALO 3” presentation made for SIGGRAPH 2008.

(Click on the page numbers below to navigate the article.)


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4 Responses to “Sixth and Eighth: The Graphics of Halo 3”

  1. Halo 3 is great. I wonder if modern games match the HDR. They don’t look like it usually… UE4’s lighting seems very high range. maybe its just the tonemapping.

    • Bungie’s Lighting and Material of Halo 3 presentation indicates that if the 360’s ROPs had better support for FP16, they would have used it and had massively higher dynamic range for the same memory footprint. Modern GPUs have good support for FP16 output (compute shaders have no trouble with direct FP16 access, and the ROPs have robust single-cycle FP16 capabilities), and the ideas behind PBR encourage mimicking realistic range… I’d be surprised if modern games don’t often beat Halo 3 by a large margin.

  2. Wow, this was really great! I learned a lot about from this. You did a great job explaining the different types of lighting, HDR, and the implementation of water and physics. Looking forward to more articles!

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