Exactly 10 years ago today, Bungie dropped Halo: Combat Evolved, effectively changing the face of video gaming in ways that no one at the time could have possibly predicted. To celebrate the anniversary, the current franchise lead developer 343 Industries has prepared a special treat for the fans: A high-definition remastering of the classic Xbox title, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. Make no mistake either–this is definitely a game for the fans.
This isn’t to say that the classic FPS fares poorly in its HD translation; to the contrary, 343 did some fabulous work on the technical side. If Anniversary had been able to skip the birthday release date, it would be a big deal. Unfortunately, this remastered Halo faces some pretty stiff competition on its November 15 release date. The $40 price tag helps, but it’s tough to recommend a decade-old game to anyone other than die-hard fans when there are so many new quality games to choose from.
Back To Basics
Let’s put aside the competition for now and just focus on the game. The campaign portion of Anniversary is unchanged from an A to B progression perspective. You’ll still visit the same locales and shoot at the same enemies that you did 10 years ago. The game in its original form remains, warts and all. What’s surprising in playing Combat Evolved now is just how well it has aged in spite of those warts.
The game is at its best when it’s doing exactly what the Halo series has always done best: Pitting Master Chief against gauntlets of Covenant (and, later, Flood) forces in a series of carefully designed combat arenas. It’s an atypical FPS; while there are plenty of moments that involve standard-fare corridor shooting, there are plenty more than give you a mostly open environment to explore, and an army of enemies to stand in your way.
Unfortunately, the entire experience doesn’t hold up as well as the core “run-shoot-hide-repeat” mechanics do. There is a woeful absence of helpful checkpoints to guide you through the game’s varied and semi-open environments. Occasionally you’ll get a red on-screen indicator pointing you toward one goal or another, but you’re most often expected to find your way. No big deal for Halo vets, but newcomers who are trying this series on for the first time might be thrown by the absence of what, by today’s standards, is a pretty rudimentary feature.
That’s really the biggest gameplay drawback though. The combat feels shockingly fresh and current, as if this is a brand-new release. Your guns are snappy and responsive. More than that, human and Covenant weapons now have a very different feel from one another. Halo was always great about forcing players to try all of the different guns, largely because different types of ammo tended to be in short supply at different times. The twist in Anniversary is that you’ll actually enjoy the switching around. Except for when you have to drop the pistol; longtime fans will appreciate its return to the overpowered, “sniper rifle-lite” form it took in the original Combat Evolved.
Map Pack Multiplayer
Since it wouldn’t be a Halo game without some sort of multiplayer component, 343 put together a set of maps for the Anniversary Map Pack. Playable as part of Anniversary and as a separate DLC release that integrates the new maps into Halo: Reach; all copies of Anniversary include a map pack download code; it costs 1,200 MS Points a la carte. There are six classic multiplayer maps plus a seventh map for co-op Firefight missions in the pack.
The six multiplayer locations are all remakes of maps that appeared in Halo: CE and Halo 2. There are actually more options than that, since each map can be played in one of two ways: in its (close to) original form or in a newly enhanced form that takes advantage of the wider range of multiplayer options that Anniversary offers over its 10-year-old predecessor.
For the multiplayer mode in Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, 343 Industries used the same engine that was used to power the online play in Halo: Reach. Some of the remastered maps work better in their enhanced versions when you’ve got Reach-features enabled–things like jetpacks. That’s the trick, too: You’re able to turn off various Reach elements, pushing the multiplayer experience closer to what it was like a decade ago if you so choose.
In addition to the six multiplayer maps, there’s also Installation 04, the pack’s lone new Firefight map. It’s a location pulled from an early section of the campaign, and it’s great fun to play on. The Reach multiplayer engine also means that you’ve got access to the Forge map builder. There’s nothing new or shocking here, just the same, highly addictive tool that’s been a feature of the series since Halo 3.
Same Book, New Cover
The biggest draw for Anniversary is the visual makeover it’s been given. Textures have been re-written for an entirely new graphics engine, and the results are surprisingly impressive. You can still point at the graphics and label them as inferior to today’s standards if you want to be a jerk about it, but the improvement over the original Halo is huge. There’s more of a cartoon-y feel to the new look, particularly in the character models, but it all works, and works well.
You can even get a sense for how the old compares with the new. Pressing the Back button on your Xbox 360 controller at anytime will switch between the fancy, new visuals and the older graphics. It’s not quite a perfect comparison, since Anniversary‘s “old” graphics are in HD widescreen and come from the PC version of the game. That said, the results are still remarkable. 343 did fine work in making Anniversary look excellent.
Also, let it just be said: Anniversary adds two-player co-op to the campaign. You really don’t need to know much more than that on this point. Four players would have been more awesome, but any kind of co-op play in this classic campaign is absolutely welcome.
Less impressive are the voice-controlled Kinect features, which are added via a launch day patch. While you can use it for things like reloading (say: “Reload”) or throwing grenades (say: “Grenade”), there’s a noticeable lag between the command being uttered and the in-game action being performed that keeps the feature from being useful. Non-game voice commands that let you adjust brightness or switch between graphics modes are more useful. The coolest Kinect feature is the Analyze function, allowing you to scan 45 in-game characters and objects into a browsable library.
The Kinect stuff is largely secondary to the overall experience, as evidenced by its status as a day-one patch add-on. The package delivers though. It might be tough to justify spending $40 on during this busy holiday season unless you’re a super-fan, but it’s actually a bargain. The original Halo is available as a Games on Demand download over Xbox Live for 1,200 MS Points (minus the HD treatment). The Anniversary Map Pack is another 1,200 MS Points, roughly a $30 value taken together. For $10 more you get all of that plus improved visuals, Kinect features and access to the Anniversary maps even if you don’t own a copy of Halo: Reach. There are bigger games this holiday. Prettier ones and more popular ones. Fans of the series should sit up and take note though… Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is definitely worth your time.
Score: 8 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Microsoft Studios)