Twelve years ago, a successful but relatively small studio unveiled what was to be a revolutionary first person shooter at Macworld… and then Microsoft bought them. Halo: Combat Evolved became the exclusive killer-app for Xbox. Ten years and more than 40 million units later, Bungie has moved on from the franchise, and Halo has moved into the hands of its new developers, 343 Industries. Before the anticipated Halo 4 comes out next year, 343 takes us through one more look at the game that started the goliath franchise.
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary picks up right where Halo: Reach left off. Boy that feels weird to say. The Pillar of Autumn emergences from slipspace near a mysterious artificial ring-world, tailed by a fleet of Covenant cruisers who attack the ship, forcing the recently awoken Master Chief and Cortana to escape down to the Halo. Unfortunately the station is hiding more than the humans know, and the ring becomes a site for the rebirth of the Flood, a parasitic race that wiped out the ancient Forerunners. Halo’s plot holds up today as an interesting look into a detailed and nuanced sci-fi universe. Master Chief still lacks much in the way of development, but this allows the player to project onto him, so it’s not entirely a bad thing. If you’ve never played the franchise before, it’s easy to form an attachment to the universe through this entry.
Remakes seem to be all the rage this generation, with HD up-scales of pretty much every high-profile release being published either via download or retail collections. Most of these are just a resolution shift and a graphical clean-up job, and sell for $10 per game. A few more ambitious ones add 3D and some special features, but few are actually true remakes. They are really upgraded ports. Anniversary kicks it up a notch, with a full graphical engine overhaul on top of the original Combat Evolved gameplay.
And it really is the original gameplay. Anniversary doesn’t change the slightest thing in Halo’s original engine, and you can in fact swap back to the original visuals at any time while you play. All the crazy physics are in-tact, along with every weapon and their damage. Yes, that means you can still rock with the godly Magnum. It’s refreshing to revisit a classic game, and the gameplay holds up fairly well against ten years of first person console shooter advancements (or perhaps that’s a sign of lack of advancements). With the modern graphics on, Anniversary has little trouble fitting in with today’s shooters.
Of course, the age does show in a few places. Enemy AI isn’t particularly good compared to today’s efforts, and the total lack of weapon balance that makes the Magnum fun also makes some of the other guns like the Needler less-so. Friendly AI are also about as likely to get stickied and blow each other up as they are to actually kill an enemy. The semi-repetitive nature of the level design also starts to kick in. You’ll run through the same basic Covenant structures and underground buildings more times than you care to count. That said, it’s still a fun experience, and the fun factor gets an extra boost with online co-op available in the Combat Evolved campaign for the first time ever.
343 didn’t entirely leave the game without updates. The two major additions to the campaign of Anniversary are Kinect controls and Terminals. If you played Halo 3 you’ll be familiar with Terminals as objects that provide extra story info. In the case of Anniversary they actually provide some plot background for Halo 4 through some very pretty animated cut-scenes. Kinect allows you to shout commands at the game to reload, switch weapons, and toss grenades… which feels pretty bad. There are good uses of voice commands, and this is not one of them. What is a nice use of voice commands is the new scan function, which lets you scan enemies and objects in the game to identify them, but it would be nice if it went the extra step and provided some lore info as well.
So with the pretty great single-player campaign in-tact, the big question is how does the multi-player fare? Unfortunately, that’s where Anniversary stumbles a bit. While the single-player campaign is a totally faithful visual conversion of an already enjoyable game, the original Halo: Combat Evolved multiplayer doesn’t exist in Anniversary at all. Instead just six of the maps have been modernized and included on the disc to play in Halo: Reach’s multiplayer, along with a download code to add those maps to the Reach disc. There is also one new Firefight map, bringing the total to seven. You could argue that there are really eight Combat Evolved maps in Reach, since Blood Gulch already had a remake.
There is good and bad to this decision. The problem is that half the fun of Halo was in its multiplayer. In fact, it’s where I trace back most of my good memories of the game, and they really have far more to do with the gameplay than the actual layouts of the maps. Insanely overpowered Magnum fights, crazy Warthog ramming wars, and plenty of fun with the physics in general made Halo’s extensive multiplayer feel unique. When you take that away it’s just a Reach map pack, which is nice, but the pricing then starts to feel skewed. Map packs for Reach tend to run 3 maps for $10, so by that measure the seven total pieces in Anniversary make up about $23 worth of maps, but it’s not particularly great that Halo charges $10 for three maps in the first place. It’s also brought down by the fact that it’s only six maps out of the 19 included in the PC/Mac versions of Combat Evolved.
On the brighter side, the maps are remade well, and are all fun to play on. The six included competitive maps have been renamed, and they are Beaver Creek (Battle Canyon), Damnation (Penance), Headlong (Breakneck), Prisoner (Solitary), Timberland (Ridgeline), and Hang ‘Em High (High Noon). Ridgeline should be especially interesting to some, as Timberland was one of the maps exclusive to the PC and Mac versions of the game. Half of the maps err on the smaller recommended number of players, which is nice since most of Reach’s existing maps are not great for small groups. New features have been added to accommodate the Reach armor powers, and they will present suitable feelings of nostalgia. That said, jetpacks still mess with the strategy of the geometry of many of the maps; a frequent complaint about Reach. I found Solitary particularly addicting, and all the maps add some solid justification for into Reach’s multiplayer again.
Perhaps more interesting than the competitive maps is the new Firefight map, Installation 04. Installation 04 is a vehicle-heavy firefight map based on the “Halo” level of Combat Evolved. Like any Firefight map, it can be played solo, in co-op, or with an opponent as an Elite supporting the Covenant. Unique to Installation 04 is the presence of Marines and ODST’s, who fight alongside the player against the Covenant. This adds a bit more of a campaign feeling to the map, and adds a nice bit of spice to an already solidly replayable game mode. Unfortunately the rumors of The Flood appearing in the map didn’t pan out. A Flood firefight map could have been a really great change… hint hint. Make it happen.
How do you balance the original appearance of a classic with the need to update for modern visuals? Well you do both, of course. Or at least that was 343’s plan, and it turned out pretty great. Swapping graphics on the fly just to see the updates becomes a fun distraction, and the new visuals are very nice. They aren’t quite up to Reach quality, but they’re around what you would see in Halo 3, and it helps the game blend with the more modern entries in the franchise. 3D is included, but it's not particularly well-done. There is too much protrusion of Chief's arm and weapon, and it looks sort of awkward and causes eye-strain. It would be nice to see Halo 2 get a similar makeover. On the audio side, the remastered soundtrack is simply gorgeous, and the legendary music all returns. Voice acting is a bit less consistent than you’d expect out of a modern game, but Cortana still sounds great at least.
It’s hard to compare the value of Anniversary versus other HD remakes hitting the market. The upgraded visuals are a really nice change, and it’s great to see a developer do something more than a half-assed upscale and clean-up job. On the other hand, you’re not getting anywhere near the full multiplayer experience of Combat Evolved. You are getting seven new Halo: Reach maps, but they’re only a fraction of the original multiplayer content, and many, myself included, would have liked the chance to revisit that. At a discounted $40 it’s still a very good value for your money, but not necessarily everything it could have been.
There are few franchises more established and entrenched in their genre than Halo is with shooters. Love it or hate it, its mark on the console shooter is eternal, and Anniversary is a great tribute to that. The original game does show its age to some extent, and it splits itself between the modern multi-player and classic single-player, but like Halo 3: ODST, it’s a waypoint in the franchise between major entries. Also like Halo 3: ODST, it’s a great game for fans, but not necessarily a must-buy for others.