Developer: 343 Industries, Saber Interactive, Certain Affinity / Publisher: Microsoft Studios / Price: $39.99 / Rating: Mature [Blood and Gore, Violence] / Played on: Xbox 360
There are, at most, a handful of games I would consider to be watershed moments; games that, looking back, made a meaningful and lasting impact on the way games are seen, played, and, most importantly, designed. Halo: Combat Evolved is one of those games. It certainly didn’t invent the first-person genre but it did make it catchy and accessible to the console gamer. Sure, more curmudgeonly gamers might tell you that Quake and Time Splitters was doing what Halo did before Halo but neither of them captured an audience like Combat Evolved. So, a decade later, it’s pretty easy to understand why so many have such fond memories and why 343 Industries’ first product bearing its name is Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, a remake that feels specifically crafted for only the biggest of Halo dorks. For better or worse, a sexy new coat of paint and a few small additions are about all that separate this remake from its source material, leaving much of the “feel” of Combat Evolved in tact.
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary sets a new standard for how HD remakes should be handled. This isn’t a mere uprezzing but instead a complete overhaul of the graphics. Even the biggest Halo veteran may not recognize an out-of-context video clip or screenshot as being from Combat Evolved. And it looks damn good. The lighting and texture work are top-notch. This is how the original Halo in 2011 should look.
But maybe my personal favorite feature in Anniversary is the ability to alternate between the sexy new graphics and those of the original in real time. It really highlights just how much work was put into this remake and, yes, we totally used to play games that looked like that. This alone probably isn’t the selling point for this product but it’s pretty neat.
In many ways, visual update or no visual update, Combat Evolved has aged surprisingly gracefully. The tight, silky smooth aiming controls that were such a defining characteristic of the game ten years ago still feel great. And the overall structure of the combat, for that matter, has been kept intact by 343. Halo has always been at its best when it avoids being overly linear and instead places you in more open-ended combat scenarios. You can take out that group of Elites with your sniper rifle and some plasma grenades or instead grab a nearby Banshee and shoot them from the sky. It’s a formula Bungie perfected over the course of its five Halo games and it’s interesting to take a look back at the roots. Enemy AI is, as it has been in Halo, a huge pain in the ass. They’ll dodge your grenades and melee attacks while flanking you with energy swords for a one-shot kill. Especially on the harder difficulties, it’s still some of the best enemy AI you’ll see in a first-person shooter even 10 years later.
But there’s plenty about Anniversary that acts as a harsh reminder of how much the first-person shooter genre has evolved (no pun intended) over the past decade. Poor health meter feedback and downright satanic checkpoints can definitely lead to some frustration but, without a doubt, the most egregious offense of Combat Evolved is the level design. Specifically toward the end of the game, it feels as though you are going through the same two rooms over and over and over again. And it feels like this because that’s exactly the case. You probably don’t remember how repetitive The Library is, do you? It’s crazy. The copy and paste nature of the environments make for some tedious-ass playtime.
Much like the rest of this package, the new additions to the campaign will probably appeal to you only if you have at least three Halo novels sitting on your bookshelf. If you have a keen eye (and an encyclopedic knowledge of the level lay outs of Combat Evolved), you’ll enjoy finding the hidden Skulls and Terminals. Acquiring different Skulls, like in previous Halo titles, will allow you to activate more challenging conditions. For example, in Anniversary, there is a Skull that will cause Grunts to explode like Plasma Grenades and another that will disable a piece of your HUD every time you die. And the most hardcore of Halo fans will totally eat up the Terminals. Finding these will play a slick, animated short featuring 343 Guilty Spark and will provide some deep insight into the Halo universe and even a few tidbits on what to expect in Halo 4.
If you were to ask me what my favorite game soundtrack of all time was, I’d probably say Combat Evolved. There’s something about the chants of the Halo theme that still hit me over the head with a big wave of nostalgia. The once-entirely midi soundtrack has been totally redone (along with the sound effects being remastered) with a full sized orchestra. It really adds some meat to the soundtrack and fits this package’s theme of being a perfect blend of nostalgia and new.
For ultimate convenience, the multiplayer components included in Anniversary aren’t just built on the Halo: Reach engine but are also fully integrated in it. The six maps included with Anniversary (which are remakes of both Halo 1 and Halo 2 maps) can be downloaded and played straight from your Reach disc in a set of new playlists including Anniversary Classic which is straight 4v4 with no armor abilities or Reach weapons. Additionally, you’ll get a new Firefight map called “Installation 04” which is an environment you’ll recognize from the campaign of Combat Evolved.
Playing maps like Beaver Creek and Hang ‘em High in the Reach engine is a real treat but here’s my problem with the whole thing. Microsoft is releasing these maps as Reach DLC for $15 on the same day as Anniversary. This means you’re essentially paying $25 for the single-player section of the game. Breaking it down like this, it’s a value proposition that may be harder to swallow for the less-dedicated Halo nuts.
In a lot of ways, Halo Combat Evolved Anniversary seems like an olive branch that 343 Industries wishes to extend to the hardcore Halo fan base as a way to say “Hey, we didn’t start this franchise but we promise it’s in good hands.” And it shows. There’s a lot of reverence and respect shown for this game here. As a value proposition it may not make a lot of sense and in more ways than one the campaign shows its age, but for hardcore Halo fans, those factors really shouldn’t matter. If the thought of cruising in a Warthog down a much better looking version of the beach from Silent Cartographer while an orchestral version of the Halo theme plays doesn’t give you goosebumps then this product isn’t for you.