Despite the frustration felt by a lot of gamer’s over the server issues plaguing Halo Master Chief Collection, the shining light at the end of the tunnel was a chance to get an early three week taste of Halo 5 Guardian’s multiplayer Beta. Now that it’s out and available, we’ll investigate how the title is currently shaping up and just what the future might hold for the Xbox One’s flagship FPS.
For our testing, we’ve focused on the 4 versus 4 Slayer mode, which is currently the most popular online. I’m sure you’re fairly familiar with it – a time limit is put in place, and the first team to reach the necessary kill count wins. Helping you out about the map are more advanced weapons (for example, Sniper Rifles) and thus team play is advised to gain control of the areas those weapons are located as and when they spawn. This also fits in rather nicely with causing a lot of rampant destruction, as several players struggle to get possession of the weapons.
It only takes a few minutes to realize that while it is the Halo you know and love online, the ability to both ledge grab and boost in mid air add to the gameplay variety. The first moment I’d started playing around with these new abilities I (along with just about any other player) got the distinct vibe of Call of Duty Advanced Warfare. Weapons handle fairly similarly to previously (and naturally, many fan favorites remain in service), shields regenerate over time; it’s even still Red vs Blue. In other words, the core mechanics haven’t gone very far.
Back in May of last year (2014), Bonnie Ross (head of 343 Industries) said “Halo 5: Guardians is a bigger effort than Halo 4. That applies to the content and scope of the game, as well as the technology in what’s now a brand new and more powerful engine.
“Certainly there are some core elements carried over from prior games, but we’ve invested a huge effort in retooling our tech to take full advantage of the Xbox One’s hardware and ecosystem to create worlds and experiences worthy of next-gen.”
Frank O’Connor (Halo 5’s Development Director) meanwhile had this to say “we made some big improvements on Halo 4, which was an evolution of the first Halo engine, but this is a big re-set in terms of the technology. Some core principles of the gameplay and some familiar pieces of code are still going to be buried in there because, ultimately, Halo has a soul that you want to respect and retain. But technologically, this is a whole new ball game and we’re incredibly excited about it.”
Halo 4 looked fairly ‘pretty’ on the Xbox 360, running at a native resolution of 720P and running at 30 frames per second. The 30 fps frame rate has gone bye-bye in Halo 5, and instead the target is 60 FPS. Naturally, the transition from 30 to 60 FPS halves the time a frame has to render, from 33.3 ms all the way down to just 16.6. As we’ll discover, generally (at least for the beta, and let’s be honest, things can change in the full title) the game manages to hold pretty close to its 60 FPS target, but dips are noticeable.
For right now, let’s discuss the graphical fidelity. The first casualty of the higher frame rate demands is the resolution, with the native frame buffer staying at 720p. The resolution was confirmed by 343 industries themselves (which is nice of them, as it saves us from doing pixel counting!) to the disappointment of some. Of course, the native frame buffers resolution isn’t the be all and end all of visual quality, but there’s few who’ll deny that the lower resolution forces the introduction of the dreaded ‘jaggies’. What this means is the image loses a lot of its crispness, a lot of its beauty as stairing and other familiar image scaling issues pop up.
As we’ve stated, beta is beta – and who knows what resolution 343 Industries will manage to crank the game’s Frame Buffer up to. But currently one could magine (given the lower resolution) that the GPU is what the developers are finding the limiting factor. This conclusion can be arrived at by considering that resolution typically isn’t affected much by CPU processing. But it’s also possibly not the cause, due to frame rate drops happening, well… randomly at points. Even picking up weapons can cause the FPS to take a kick to the shin, and a weapon pick up isn’t particularly GPU demanding, as you can imagine.
Of course, there are certainly noticeable improvements in the visual effects of Halo 5 Guardians. Showing the title to a few friends and they were suitably impressed by the improvements over Halo 4. Most of the improvements are thanks to a more robust lighting system, so now improved lens flare, Ambient Occlusion and of course a smattering of screen space effects. You’ll likely spot the motion blur implemented (for example, if you boost downwards after a jump, or running to regroup as a few players on the other team think their rockets actually belong to you).
As we’ve eluded to, the frame rate holds up in most situations at the stated 60FPS mark. There are dips however that aren’t really explained by pointing the finger at ‘things were busy on screen’. Entering into a room you’ve not been in for awhile, picking up a weapon, reloading are among a few of the reasons the frame rate can choose to take a dive. Generally, at worst, it’ll be at around the 50FPS mark. It’s certainly much better say Halo 4’s 30FPS, but still falls short of what we’d hoped for. If the Xbox One’s GPU isn’t the limiting factor in the resolution or performance (which is possible, after all, 343 Industries might have wanted to concern themselves more about the core games code rather than a easier to tweak thing like the resolution) then it’s possible we’ll see the game operate at a higher resolution for the final build.
If we’re looking into the future we’ve both cause for concern and optimism. While the beating of the “It’s beta” drum is probably getting old, it’s vital to remember the title isn’t being released until autumn this year. That’s about nine months of development time, which is a lot of time to optimize the games code and ultimately, its performance. With that said, these aren’t the larger maps, and we’re only seeing Halo 5 Guardian’s running a 4v4 Slayer map, not a full blown 16 player slug fest with more open environments and say, throwing vehicles into the mix.
Latency is fairly reasonable from what we’ve found so far, although clearly will depend greatly on what connection you and your foes are using. But bullet detection and the other suspects all behave well in the beta; which is an excellent sign. One problem I’ve personally got with the game so far are the loading times. They’re pretty bad, and when combined with the time it can take to find opponents you can become a little impatient. Similarly, death cam and chase cam after each death is frustrating. There’s little you can do to stop the few seconds of chase cam, and as a mechanic, it feels a little redundant in Halo 5’s Slayer game mode.
Fortunately, controls feel tight. Naturally, input lag isn’t helped by a frame-rate drop to say, 50 FPS, but Halo 5 Guardian’s still feels like you’re firmly in control. The Xbox One’s default controller layout allows for a high amount of precision (well, as high as a pad allows for a first person shooter) and we didn’t get the feeling from our play test of “I know I pressed that button, and nothing happened”. With the default Halo 5 layout, the “B” button allows you to do the aforementioned air dash (in a multitude of different directions), melee is now relegated to the “RB” button, while the familiar “A” to jump and “X” to reload remains. As usual, the triggers allow for aim down sights and firing the weapon.
Then again, with monthly improvements to the Xbox One’s SDK and API (along with news of a seven CPU core and additional GPU bandwidth being made available to games developers) who knows what impact it’ll have on Halo 5. Resolution is often down to the GPU, but keeping track of physics, weapons, player locations and other ‘stuff’ is typically down to the CPU. And of course the GPU can’t render anything without the CPU’s approval.
The biggest problem Halo 5 has is expectations players had for the game. When the title was announced, the Halo faithful expected a 1080P 60FPS experience. Instead, the older games in the franchise (remastered in the Master Chief Collection) are offering that, and Halo 5 doesn’t. It’s currently rendering in a 720P frame buffer, with some nice graphical improvements that aren’t a million miles away from the remasters which grand access to the beta.
With all of this said, we don’t know what the final versions of the maps will look like, or what the larger environments will contain. It’s evident that we’ve an improved lighting setup, textures and so on that we’ve discussed. But just how Guardian’s handles these larger maps, with vehicles charging around will have to remain as idle speculation.
Similarly, the single player performance of Halo 5 Guardian’s is also something of a mystery. It’ll be exciting to analyze the game and see how it compares to say, the remaster of Halo 4, not just in performance and how ‘pretty’ it looks, but in size and scope too.
I (and the others on the RGT team) still remain hopeful. Look at the alpha / beta progress of any game – World of Warcraft, Counter Strike; hell, take a look at the early Street Fighter 4 artwork and gameplay. Huge changes, performance improvements and so on are implemented. So while the new Halo 5 Guardian’s engine isn’t quite what we’d maybe hoped for, beta is beta.