Sixth and Eighth: The Graphics of Halo 3

April 21, 2016


After Halo 3’s launch, Bungie began work on two final Halo games: Reach, the next high-budget mainline release, and ODST, a smaller project slated to release first, that would provide a new campaign and leverage the tech from Halo 3 with relatively little modification. This was a first for the Halo series, which had previously massively overhauled the tech between games.

Lighting and Materials

Whereas Halo 3 makes heavy use of natural environments and includes Covenant and Flood architecture, ODST focuses almost entirely on the artificial buildings and streets of New Mombasa. Despite the change in setting, Halo 3’s material tech was made to accommodate the brick, metal, and pavement quite well.

The infrastructural network below the city’s streets

Brick, metal, and concrete on the surface

The nature park, evocative of Tsavo Highway from Halo 3


ODST strongly features very dark nighttime environments with scattered ultra-bright elements. As a result, Halo 3’s HDR tech wound up being an extremely good fit for the game, arguably better than it was for Halo 3 itself.

NeonNightLots of vibrant things on the nighttime streets, even without plasma rifles blazing

A few spots of very bright red light in an otherwise very dark scene

This is doubly important considering ODST’s VISR mode, a sort of night vision which ramps brightness way up. Even when already-bright elements with a large amount of bloom are made massively brighter, the HDR allows the bloom to remain smooth as VISR is engaged.

VISRnVISR off, and the battlefield is dim in the low morning Sun

VISRVISR on, battlefield is well-lit; while the entire sky is white, the bloom is strongest from the area that was brightest when VISR was off.

Skyscraper Rendering

New Mombasa is full of skyscrapers. Skyscrapers with windows.


Oftentimes in games, a developer will use a shiny rectangle on the wall of a building in place of a “real” window.

MEScreenshot of Mirror’s Edge; the corner rooms are real geometry, but others are not

ODST itself sometimes does this, even ironically in some instances where real rooms exist behind a window.

OneWayWindowSneaky one-way window

However, for many windows, especially those on large skyscrapers, ODST uses another approach. Wall, ceiling, and floor textures are projected onto virtual interior surfaces via a sort of parallax mapping. To give the impression of some rooms having lights on and others not, the effect is only used in some spots on the sides of buildings.

ODST’s fake rooms up close. Note how the effect exists for the middle and upper row, but is masked in the lower row.

Too see for sure that the rooms are indeed “fake” and not actual geometry in the game world, look at the virtual room existing outside of the edge of this building.

RoomCut5-D Space



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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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