We haven't had a cross-generation Halo game release before. - But that's just an excuse, game engines and effects are scalable, Battlefield 3 used an engine that did just that where it scaled from 24 players on Xbox 360 in multiplayer to 64 players on PC.
Levels sizes, effects and more were all reduced.. In that instance the PC was the lead platform and it looked and played like an early 8th gen title, but scaled downwards to 7th gen devices.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure Infinite was built for the XBO and is being scaled up for XSX, rather than being built for the more powerful hardware and being scaled down like in the case with Battlefield. If that is indeed the case, then Infinite is arguably a current-gen game that's being given a boost in fidelity and/or performance on next-gen hardware, which is what is likely going to be the case with most other cross-gen games being released this fall.
I do have to disagree that Halo wasn't a technical showpiece, it most certainly was, the Pixel Shader 2.0 effects on PC in combination with the Parrallax mapping was impressive stuff back in the day, plus the open environments with vehicles was new and novel.
On Xbox, obviously the console didn't have hardware support for Pixel Shader 2.0 effects, but it did have support for 1.0 - 1.4 shader effects and it leveraged them extensively for material assets like metal surfaces, it looked great... And that game was doing things that just wasn't possible or being showcased on Gamecube or Playstation 2, it was leading the industry.
Halo: Combat Evolved was also a title that was frequently used in benchmarking on the PC due to how intensive and impressive it's technicals were back in the day.
For example: https://www.anandtech.com/show/1174/18
Halo may have been technically impressive, but that does not translate to having visuals that were, by the standards of its day, at the absolute cutting edge, at least not in any immediate, superficial way obvious to the average gamer. For example, character models were not as impressive as in many other games from the era, and its environments were geometrically simple. At the surface level, it looked nice because of its art style, and it wouldn't surprise me if its simplicity also is how Bungie were able to create such large environments for a 2001 title.
I still think CE looks nice and has held up better than many of its contemporaries, but that's more because of its simplicity and art style rather than having the most eye-blistering graphics of its day (also, its scale is still impressive for a linear game). It did not appear to win many awards in its day for graphics, either, which seems to suggest that, even if a lot of people thought it looked nice, it wasn't the most graphically impressive game of its day. There were a number of other games from the time that, at least to me, were better-looking, at least at the immediate surface level.
Moving past just CE, Halo 2 did improve things over Halo CE by quite a bit, but took sacrifices in other departments. It has noticeable LoD issues, with often glaring pop-in. Its levels (at least the intended play space, excluding nominally out-of-bound areas) are also smaller and more constrained. Even things like particle effects were sorely lacking.
Halo 3 was already beaten by several other notable early Gen 7 console titles. Halo 3 did have good lighting and, unlike many of its contemporaries, good use of color, but again it wasn't exactly the most immediately impressive game graphically (human character models in particular were... not great).
Reach and Halo 4 did look a lot better than Halo 3, but again they were released later in the generation, and there were various sacrifices or shortcuts made to make them look that nice. For example, as I mentioned in my earlier post, Halo 4 has the most linear and constrained levels in the series, and many of its textures leave a lot to be desired. Even then, there were other late Gen 7 games that looked better than Reach and Halo 4.
Halo 5 was not all that impressive when it came out. There were many games that looked better. Sure, it ran at 60 fps, but that came at a cost. I didn't think it looked all that great running on a base-model XBO. A lot of the game barely looked like a step up from the 360. It was lacking split-screen as well, something that was sacrificed to attain its high frame rate. The game looks a lot nice running on a One X, but there are still other games that blow it away.
Infinite is an open-world game running at 4K & 60fps. Is that not technically impressive, despite the other issues? There isn't a single open-world game this generation that does that. Most don't even target 1080p/60fps. Fidelity of other visual assets is prioritized over frame rate. Even with the power of next-gen systems, having an open-world game running at 4K & 60 fps would be a massive accomplishment, and almost certainly would come at the cost of some other aspect of the game's visuals. Most open-world games probably won't target both 4K and 60fps, and I imagine that given the choice most developers would target the latter over the former. For example, what we've seen of Horizon: Forbidden West is shaping up to be an absolutely gorgeous (assuming the final game looks close to the trailer's graphics), but A) it's being developed exclusively for a next-gen system, and B) is apparently targeting 30 fps. I imagine there will be other open-world games as well that look better than Infinite, but do so largely by targeting lower frame rates and/or resolutions and by being developed exclusively for next-gen hardware.
I agree, art design is extremely important, but great art design does NOT need to come at the cost of "graphical bells and whistles". - You can actually have both, many games do have both.
A game with good Art direction though can punch above it's technical underpinnings, case in point: Breath of the Wild... But that is more out of need on Nintendo's behalf due to their low-end hardware choices for their devices. It is what it is.
Infinites Art isn't the issue in this instance though, the assets are actually of good quality for the most part, it's the lighting and some of the material shader work that is letting it down... Plus missing some alpha effects that we have grown accustomed to on various assets from the Halo franchise in order to conserve bandwidth.
So whilst yes, it looks like a good game, it's overall presentation still leaves more to be desired... It's constructive criticism and 343i seems to be taking note and making moves to improve and rectify that... Basically we are going to get a better game due to constructive criticism.
Case in point: https://www.vgchartz.com/article/444668/halo-infinite-dev-your-voice-matters-and-is-heard-following-criticism/
The issue I have is people taking an "apologetic" perspective on this and giving it a free pass for whatever reason, that doesn't result in a net benefit for the consumer, if we hold developers to a higher standard and demand higher quality products, then us consumers end up winning in the long run and the developer keeps evolving and improving as a result.
I'm not trying to give the game a free pass. It does clearly need some polish. But much of what I've seen isn't constructive criticism. The reactions have far too often not been "Needs work" but rather:
Too many people are just being negative for the sake of being negative, something that is, sadly, far too commonplace on the internet. Sure, there are some level-headed analyses to be found, but too much of the criticism of Infinite's visuals involve simply shitting on the game by using totally hyperbolic language and memes using cherry-picked frames. If all you knew of Infinite is what you read on the internet and saw in a handful of memes, you'd swear that it was the ugliest game in recent history. It's not. It already looks fine for what it is. Not great, but fine (and the cutscenes look amazing, IMO).
It does need work, though. I know it. You know it. 343I knows it (and has addressed it). We all know there is clearly a lot of room for improvement in regards to LoD, lighting, and even minor blink-and-you-still-won't-miss-it issues like facial animations. Digital Foundry went over a lot of this. But just because it needs more polish does not mean it's ugly, yet so many are treating it as if it were a hideous abomination and an embarrassment to the franchise. Too much of the internet thinks in terms of absolutes. Everything is either a zero or a ten, with no in between (to reference user scores on Meta). Everything has to be "OMG! Mind blown!" or "Shit sux." Too much of what passes for conversation on the internet is like that. And that's what I'm objecting to. Maybe I'm just burned out by the constant barrage of negativity in the world, but I just really did not like how something that put a smile on my face (in a year where there hasn't been a lot to smile about) was instead considered an insult by so many other people.
Halo has always been a case of "always someone better" in the graphics department. Not a one of them could claim to indisputably the best-looking game of its day. And that's fine. Halo never needed to be the king of the graphics hill. It always looked good enough. Not the best, but more than adequate. And the games were still great regardless (well, to varying degrees, at least; I've had my fair share of criticisms of the games). And as always, even if Infinite gets more polish but still doesn't have mind-blowing next-gen graphics, that's fine, because gameplay matters more than graphics. Pretty visuals can accentuate the experience, but having fun is the most important thing. That's a point that gets lost in these discussions, which make it seem like visuals are the single most important aspect of a game. So much time and effort has been focused on Infinite's graphics that discussion over its mechanics seems like it gets lost in the mix.