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Remastering a Legend: Interview with a Halo 2 Anniversary Environment Artist

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The Halo franchise is arguably one of the most popular first person shooters. With six different games in the series, the Halo universe has attracted a devoted following and for good reason, setting the stage for online multiplayer shooters. When you think of Halo, you typically think of multiplayer and battling your friends online. Halo 2 is really the staple, the title that defined a generation of shooters and started it all. Now, ten years later, the iconic Halo 2 is getting the full remaster treatment for Xbox One and six legendary multiplayer maps are also getting a full re-skin in Halo 2: Anniversary. We recently spoke with one of the Environment Artists, Justin Walters, who worked on remastering the maps to get some insight into what went into Halo 2: Anniversary.
Q

What type of creative freedom were you given at Certain Affinity for remastering the six multiplayer maps?

Aesthetically we were given a large amount of creative freedom, as long as the final art felt like it was a part of the Halo universe. From a design perspective, Halo 2 is such an important game for so many people. The multiplayer was a true milestone for online gaming and millions of gamers spent countless hours playing it. The remastered maps have a few alterations and interactive elements added to them, but are true to the originals in layout and feeling.

Q

Which is more difficult, creating a level from scratch or recreating a level and updating for next gen consoles?

In my personal experience there are positives to both. When you’re creating something original you have absolute creative freedom and a chance to carve out something that’s never been done before. When you’re working on a project like remastering classic multiplayer maps from Halo 2, you have an amazing opportunity to build off of something that has an incredible legacy. It was a real ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ feeling for me, personally. I’m a huge Halo fan, so getting to work on the franchise was an absolute joy.

Q

What does the process look like when recreating levels for next generation consoles? Is it just texture maps that are recreated, or do you look at recreating everything from the skyboxes to the environment geometry and foliage?

Everything had to be recreated. Halo 2 was a graphical powerhouse when it was released ten years ago, but at this point there’s been so much advancement in game visuals that nothing could really be salvaged from the original.

In terms of process, the art team was divided up into smaller map specific teams. Each team was given a rough playable version of their map from the design department. That rough block-out geometry was divided up and assigned to individual map team members. Each map team member was responsible for taking their assigned area of the map from the basic block-out geometry to finished artwork.

© 2014 Microsoft

Q

As an Environment Artist what is considered to be your job, and what are you responsible for?

I was responsible for taking sections of the designer graybox (rough block-out geometry) that had been assigned to me and turning those pieces into the finished environment art that you see in the final game. We had access a large library of textures already established when I came onto the project, so I was mostly tasked with using existing tiling textures and creating geometry, UVs, and collision.

Q

What does your typical day look like at work?

My typical day on Halo 2: Anniversary mostly revolved around modeling, UV work, and collision work in Maya and testing out that work in the engine. I got to work on a lot of architecture created by the UNSC (Halo’s human faction), which has a very recognizable and established style. There was a lot of checking style guides and referencing established Halo art to make sure it felt correct.

At Certain Affinity, we also frequently play-test our levels, so I’d get to step away from my monitor and go play Halo for a bit, which was always a blast! Besides being a lot of fun, play-testing gives you a chance to see your work in context and realize what the large reads are and what you need to prioritize. Sometimes as an artist the areas you want to add extra detail to are non-focal points when actually playing the game, which is really important to be aware of.

© 2014 Microsoft

Q

Were you able to reuse any of the original assets when you’re remastering the multiplayer maps?

Nothing was reused from the original game, however we had access to a lot of assets from previous Halo maps that Certain Affinity has worked on as well as Halo 4. The textures from these assets were re-baked at higher resolutions and put through Substance to update everything and take advantage of the Xbox One’s hardware.

Q

What software did you use?

For this project we used Maya for 3D work. For texture work it was mainly Photoshop and Substance.

Q

When you start working on a map, what are the keys things you tackle first?

The things you really want to establish as quickly as possible are what colors, textures, and basic lighting you want to define your level. These will inevitably change during the course of production, but you want to hit all of the broad strokes of mood, light, and color first.

© 2014 Microsoft

Q

What were some of the guidelines set in place for the Environment Artists when recreating the maps?

We had fairly standard guidelines for this project. Getting excellent performance is always the top priority, especially for multiplayer. Visually, we had style guides for UNSC architecture that were very helpful in informing artistic decisions, as well as provided concept art and previous Halo games to reference.

Q

What are some of the things we can expect to see in the Halo 2: Anniversary multiplayer maps that we didn’t see in the original Halo 2?

The design team has largely kept true to the original maps, but added interactive elements and small modifications. One example we’ve shown a lot in demos is the interactive waterfall you can trigger in the remastered Sanctuary map (renamed Shrine in the Master Chief Collection). This single interactive element changes player visibility in what has classically been a very secure defensive position on that map. That one element can really change up the outcome of a game.

The art has been pushed much further than what the original was able to achieve, due to a decade of advances in game visuals as well as the unbelievably talented team at Certain Affinity. I’m extremely humbled to work with such a brilliant and accomplished group of artists!

Most importantly, you can expect to have an incredible amount of fun! Play-testing this game brought back a lot of memories for me, personally. I’ve had an absolute blast working on this title and playing it!

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