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Halo: Reach's Remastered Graphics Are Almost Too Perfect to Be Good

What's lost when the Bungie classic gets improved visuals in the recent addition to the Halo: Master Chief Collection.

by Steve Rousseau
Dec 9 2019, 8:02pm

Image: Micosoft

By almost any measure, the remastered version of Halo: Reach, released last week as part of Halo: The Master Chief Collection for Xbox One and PC , looks better than the original Xbox 360 version. It runs at 4K 60 FPS on an Xbox One X or a moderately-powerful PC, far eclipsing the original's 720p 30 FPS. There's even an "Enhanced" option that slightly expands the draw distance and number of dynamic shadows.

Developer 343 Industries has spent the past five years since the release of the Master Chief Collection on Xbox One fixing and refining this remastered compendium of Bungie's Halo series towards something that looks and feels as good as how fans remember the originals. With the MCC version of Reach, 343 has retained everything from the 360 version save for one: the original's infamous blurry, ghosty look. The end result is something that looks considerably better and more modern, but that has lost a bit of Reach's identity in its pursuit of visual perfection.

The biggest visual change to the MCC version of Reach aren't the introduction of expanded resolutions and the increased frame rates, but rather an omission of something that defined how the original version looked: Temporal anti-aliasing.

Without getting too much into the weeds of video game graphics technology, anti-aliasing, AA for short, essentially smoothes hard edges, making things look less pixelated and more natural. For the first four Halo games, Bungie decided against using AA in favor of a more stable frame rate. But for Reach Bungie decided to experiment with something called temporal anti-aliasing — a less resource-intensive type of AA that, ideally, would help sell the game's sprawling environments and impressive vistas.

"The idea behind temporal anti-aliasing is fairly simple: the stuff you're rendering in a given frame is very likely to be nearly the same as the previous frame, so why not leverage all that work you did drawing the previous frame to help improve the current frame?" Bungie graphics engineer Chris Tchou told Digital Foundry in 2010. "The huge advantage to temporal anti-aliasing is that it's nearly free."

While Tchou uses "free" within the context of hardware resources, the use of TAA in the 360 version of Reach still came at a cost. "[The] major positive is that the effect on far away scenery in particular can be quite extraordinarily good, and one of Reach's major accomplishments is the creation of massive, sprawling levels with tons of view distance," wrote Digital Foundry's Richard Ledbetter earlier in 2010. "The disadvantage with this technique is that in fast motion, ghosting is a serious issue, resulting in a look rather akin to what we saw on very early, latency-heavy LCD displays."

Although major critics at the time failed to pick up on the fact that Reach looked much blurrier than past Halo games, looking at a side-by-side comparison of the MCC version versus the original, it's clear that the use of temporal anti-aliasing is the biggest difference between the two. The remastered version looks sharp and smooth, while the original looks imprecise, almost dream-like in the way that it moves.

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Halo: Reach on PC. Image: Microsoft

Mechanically, this is "bad" for a first person shooter, but thematically, I think it works in its favor. Reach is a prequel to Halo: Combat Evolved, ending literally right where the first game begins. The ghost-y, blurry visuals give the sense that you're playing an extended flashback, something outside of the franchise's main story. A gritty, hand-held account of the shit hitting the fan before the narrative cuts to the clean look of the present on the Pillar of Autumn. That Reach is the only game in the series to use temporal anti-aliasing only serves to set it apart from the rest of the franchise. In this sense, the temporal anti-aliasing is what made Reach look like Reach. Removing it arguably only makes Reach look indistinguishable from other games in the series.

And in this way, it's hard to say that the remaster looks "better" than the original. The two just look different.

Sure, the game "plays" better than it does on 360. The increased visual fidelity combined with the added precision offered by playing the game with a mouse and keyboard on the PC delivers a Reach experience that's "improved" over the original. Trying to land a headshot on an Elite with a control stick at 30 FPS is not the same as trying to land one with a mouse at double, or even quadruple, the frame rate.

But these two experiences are so different that it's hard to say that this the intended experience Bungie wanted players to have back in 2010. It sounds silly to say this when talking about a groundbreaking first-person shooter franchise, but the reduced framerate and blurred visuals give the original version Reach this distinctive cinematic feel that you do not get in the remastered release. Having played through the single-player campaign on both 360 and PC this week, I kept going back and forth between the two, trying to discern which version I preferred. The PC version certainly looks "better" than the 360, but the 360 version "feels" more like the Reach I remember—because, well, it is. It's hard for me to say that the PC version is the "ideal" version of Reach, only because it looks a little too perfect.

This isn't the first time that the objective "improved" visuals haven't lined up with the subjective "aesthetically pleasing." In 2012 Konami released the Silent Hill HD Collection, a remaster of the first three games in the popular survival horror series, which, in addition to a myriad of technical issues, featured expanded resolutions, a wider aspect ratio and increased draw distances. These graphical "improvements" ended up diminishing the game's iconic foreboding, claustrophobic atmosphere.

This is something that technology editor Jacob Kastrenakes grapples with in his assessment of watching the first Hobbit film in 48 frames per second, instead of the industry-standard 24. Doubling the frame-rate, in his estimation, didn't deliver double the visual impact, it made the movement seem "jarring" — a little too real, almost.

"To say that a higher frame rate is better is to say that the more closely we depict reality, the better that that depiction of reality is," he writes. "To argue that more frames better echoes reality is to ignore how best a sense of reality is created."

Although films capture the real world, their power is in their ability to show us different realities, and part of that, Kastrenakes argues, is using a frame rate that's not "realistic."

"Without realizing it, we've allowed ourselves to exist in an Impressionistic world of filmmaking," he writes. "Accepting what we see as an attempt at truth is the first and absolutely more basic step of watching a film [...] We don't need it to perfectly immerse us, we only need to believe that it accurately represents what we know."

Which version of Reach is "best"? One is, objectively, a better video game. The other is Halo: Reach.

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