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A Ten Year Leap in Graphics - Stepping into a Time Machine with Halo 2: Anniversary

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Halo 2 came out ten years ago, and set the standard for first-person shooters and revolutionized the way we play multiplayer games. You probably have countless memories of playing Halo 2 with your friends on legendary maps like Zanzibar and Lockout. As well as battling through the campaign. Ten years ago, Halo 2 was a powerhouse in terms of graphics, but play it now, and it's not quite like you remembered it, compared to the graphical capabilities of today's hardware. Well, there's no better way to compare a game from ten years ago, to the exact same game remastered for next-gen hardware than playing Halo 2: Anniversary. The devs at 343 Industries took everything you know and loved about Halo 2 and re-skinned it to be on par with next-gen games in terms of graphics, and even sound design. A lot of us here at Digital-Tutors were extremely impressed with the work that went into the remastering of this legendary game. We even met up with one of the environment artists who worked on the remastered multiplayer maps to get some insight into what went into the project. In this article we are going to look at some of the technical achievements in Halo: Anniversary.

Campaign

One of the amazing things about Halo 2: Anniversary's campaign is the fact that you can switch from the new to the old graphics instantaneously without any load times. Even during the middle of a firefight, you can switch from the old to the new graphics and see the improvements in everything from the plasma grenade explosions to the gun sounds. At times, it's hard to even advance in the game because you're constantly walking around, and doing the graphics switch on every single object in the game to examine just how different Halo 2 is from Halo 2: Anniversary. You're able to see instantly the improvements that have been made in texturing, modeling, lighting and effects. For instance, fighting a Hunter in the original Halo 2 shows a very low-res creature with not much detail, switch to the Halo 2: Anniversary graphics and you'll see a highly-detailed creature, made up of small worm like creatures. It's clear that the techniques used in game development have increased significantly in ten years time, from higher resolution textures to the use of normal maps and a higher polygon budget. It's easy to take for granted the graphics we have available to us until you essentially go back in time ten years. That is very much how Halo 2: Anniversary feels when you're playing it, like a time machine.
Before After

You can see from the image above just how much detail was added to Halo 2: Anniversary, the rocks in the original Halo 2 were extremely jagged and low resolution. Those same rock formations in Halo 2: Anniversary consists of much higher resolution geometry, higher res textures and normal maps to make the rocks feel much more organic. You’ll also notice the very prominent lack of shadows in the original Halo 2. In Halo 2: Anniversary you can see the crisp shadows being cast from the trees, rocks and buildings, and the use of ambient occlusion to help accentuate the deep crevices in the rock formations and trees. You’ll also notice the detail in the foliage from Halo 2: Anniversary compared to the original, the moss on the rocks is no longer simple textures, and the sides of cliffs have various vines and foliage growing up the side. You can also see the lack of any real atmosphere in the original Halo 2, there is no mist, fog or any type of effect to add depth to the scene. In Halo 2: Anniversary there’s a nice distant fog that adds atmosphere to the level.

Another very dramatic improvement from Halo 2 to Halo 2: Anniversary are in the cut scenes, which were done by Blur Studios who also did cut scenes for Halo Wars and some of Halo 4’s cut scenes. Now, obviously the original cut scenes from Halo 2 were in-game cut scenes done in the game engine. The cut scenes done by Blur Studios are pre-rendered. So the graphical fidelity between the two is going to be substantial. Even so, you’re able to be drawn into the cut scenes in Halo 2: Anniversary much more than the original, the characters feel more alive, the animations are fluid and polished, and many of the changes to the camera cuts have made a dramatic improvement to the story being told through the cut scenes.

Before After

You’re really able to get a whole new look at the Halo Universe through the cut scenes done by Blur. We really liked the new details you’re able to see in the Elites, their rows of razor sharp teeth and the small details in their skin really made them feel more gruesome and powerful than the original cut scenes did. You can really see this is what the developers had in mind for the Elites, but simply weren’t able to show it with the technology that was available ten years ago.

Multiplayer

The multiplayer in Halo 2 has also been remastered, and includes six remakes of classic Halo maps like Zanzibar, Lockout and Coagulation. While the overall layout and feel of the original Halo 2 maps have been left intact the maps had to get a complete graphical overall.

As stated by Justin Walters who worked on remastering the maps, “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. 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.”

That’s a large undertaking for the team at Certain Affinity who were responsible for recreating the classic multiplayer maps that so many fans know and love, but the team was given creative freedom on the design of the maps from 343 Industries, “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.” Justin explains.

Before After

We were really impressed with just how much work was put into remastering these multiplayer maps, and you can see from the image above the difference between Ascension in Halo 2 to Halo 2: Anniversary. One of the first things you can notice is the skybox. No longer is the Halo ring shrouded in fog, but rather beautifully reconstructed to show just how vast the world is. You can also see the detail that went into redesinging the different alien structures that made up the environment, the shaders give off a feeling of a mettalic material rather than the flat grey cement that is in the original Halo 2.

As Justin Walters explains there are challenges to building a map from scratch and remastering a map that has already been built, ”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.”

And that is exactly what has been done here, the maps themselves have their original structure but given a complete next-gen overhaul.

When you’re playing Halo 2: Anniversary it is truly like stepping into a video game time machine, and getting to experience a game from ten years ago, and the same game, only with today’s graphical capabilities. It is extremely impressive to see just how far the fidelity of video games have come in ten years and its exciting to think about the advancements we can expect ten years from now.

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