Playing Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary on the Xbox 360 is a strangely depressing affair. Not because it’s a bad game – far from it. If anything, my mild sense of depression is rather borne of the fact that in the ten years since its initial release, the original Halo is still one of the finest first person shooters that money can buy. Take away the Reach engine overhaul and Anniversary delivers the exact same experience as it did back in 2001; same AI, same physics, same everything. Surely, in an industry as fast moving as this one, a ten-year-old shooter really should feel dated when experienced on a modern console – well, it doesn’t. While that is invariably down in part to the undoubted quality of the original Halo experience, I for one am certainly concerned at how strongly a return to Halo’s shores highlights the lack of evolution found in videogames’ most popular genre. With subsequent Halo campaigns often bogged down by exposition and others in the genre championing linearity over freedom, going back to the organic sandbox of the original is as enjoyable and as exciting now as it was all those years ago.
Issues with genre stagnation aside however, the fact remains that Combat Evolved is a masterpiece of modern game design. Returning to the dark corridors of the Pillar of Autumn before being set loose on the beautifully created Halo ring world still delivers that same sense of awe while the sudden shift in pacing and mood delivered by the introduction of the Flood and the beautifully realised jungle location of 343 Guilty Spark once again emphasises the games knack for perfect pacing. Sure, the Library, even with its vastly improved visuals, is still as boring as ever, but that misstep aside, Combat Evolved still stands as the finest example of a sandbox shooter to date.
Of course, while the gameplay remains completely unchanged (it’s particularly great to see the handgun and assault rifle in all of their high powered glory), there are a few additional extras for those eager to search them out. Beyond the obvious addition of Reach quality graphics and the welcome inclusion of online co-op, there are also a handful of information posts that can be scanned for additional background story and even a few hints towards what might be coming in Halo 4. These could have easily been delivered via static text but instead are presented via beautifully directed animated shorts that make them extremely worthy of the time one might take to search them out. A token nod to Kinect compatibility has also been made, but other than being used for scanning items and basic voice commands is wisely underplayed.
The big change, however, comes via the game’s extremely impressive visual overhaul. Anniversary hasn’t been given a quick coat of HD sheen as is the case with the majority of re-releases found nowadays, no, this is Halo: Combat Evolved as it would be had it been made just last week. Using the highly impressive Reach engine, Combat Evolved’s lush and varied landscapes now wow like never before with even the most mundane of locations now imbued with the kind of quality lighting effects and attention to detail that was simply not possible back in 2001. There are framerate issues to be wary of but these are mostly vanquished via installation to the hard drive. Having to do so is something of a chore, but given the improvement, it’s certainly something I would recommend.
While the genre may not have advanced a great deal since the release of Combat Evolved in 2001, the opportunity to switch back and forth between the new and original visuals does highlight just how far the industry has advanced from a technical standpoint. Beyond being a welcome addition for purists, the option to switch between the two styles as you play is a great chance to see the game how it originally was while still being able to enjoy and really appreciate the beauty of Combat Evolved when powered by a modern engine. The only problem with this is that the switch over can take up to four seconds depending how busy the screen is. Change over in the middle of a fire fight and you might find yourself a bloody heap by time the new filter kicks in. It’s not a major issues – it just means that you should probably save your nostalgic switcheroos for the quieter moments that the game affords.
As fantastic as it is to once again experience Bungie’s classic 30-seconds-of-gameplay template in its purest form, one area that the original was clearly lacking in was cinematic direction. As great as the largely exposition-free story is, at any point in which the narrative is framed, it does tend to fall dramatically short of the quality found in subsequent Halo releases. The camera work is basic and the delivery quite mundane. Again, it’s hardly game breaking stuff but it does serve to remind just how far the industry has come in terms of actual storytelling. Still, if I had the choice, I’d take the freedom offered by the original over its more cinematic sequels, and for many, that freedom will once again prove Combat Evolved’s biggest draw.
Outside of the fantastic campaign, the chance to return to a collection of six of the original game’s finest multiplayer maps and one all new Firefight offering all wrapped in the unmatched quality and stability of the Reach multiplayer engine proves extremely welcome. Some will inevitably begrudge the fact that the same lack of reverence has not been offered to the multiplayer component of the Anniversary experience, but given the huge strides in online play over the past decade, the choice to bring it in-line with Reach has to be heralded as a wise one. The fact that the game also comes with a code unlocking those same maps for use on your copy of Reach goes to show just how much thought and planning has gone into every aspect of the Anniversary release. There are even codes for Halo-based avatar unlocks that, while far from essential, once again highlight just how impressive a package Anniversary actually is.
Despite a few minor niggles, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is now the yardstick by which all other remakes will be judged. With a perfectly balanced commitment to both reverence and technical advancement, this stands as a rare remake that will be enjoyed just as much by newcomers as it will be by hardcore fans of the original. A lot of that is inevitably down to the quality of Bungie’s original design, but in fairness to 343 Industries, as a first crack at the Halo universe, this one has to go down as a resounding success.
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