Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary
Perhaps the best praise I can level at Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is this: as I recently played through Modern Warfare 3 for review – possibly the most anticipated game of this year, destined to sell through the roof – I constantly had an itch to play more Halo.
Now, this is a game that first released 10 years ago almost to the day. And while Anniversary sees the game on the receiving end of a spruce-up courtesy of Certain Affinity and Saber Interactive, the bones of the game remain unchanged. Yet it’s still a single-player campaign that I’d routinely rather replay over those of many of this generation’s heavy hitters.
One of my personal favourite aspects of Combat Evolved is its story. Just like the original Star Wars film, it’s a perfectly self-contained narrative in its own right, possibly even best experienced in isolation from its sequels and predecessors. It can be tricky to get your head around at first since you’re quite literally thrown into the middle of a sci-fi story with a surprisingly rich lore. But the more you engage with Halo, the more you’ll find yourself drawn in, fascinated and making new-found sense of it all.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the core gameplay mechanic of Combat Evolved is one of the most addictive in the FPS genre. Bungie once famously said that the secret to a successful game is ensuring that the core mechanic constitutes “30 seconds of fun” that can be repeated over and over. Combat Evolved’s otherwise simplistic guns, grenades and melee gameplay absolutely nails that formula. In fact, it’s a formula that Bungie never quite managed to recapture in subsequent offerings, perhaps slightly overcomplicating and thus diluting the flow of combat that made Combat Evolved so special.
But enough about the unchanged fundamentals – there are existing reviews of Combat Evolved out there for that. Let’s talk now about the ways in which 343 Industries has enhanced the game.
Obviously, the visuals have been improved to bring it in line with the graphics of the current generation. This has been achieved with the assistance of a secondary graphics engine that overlays new, vibrant textures over the classic models. You may not notice it at first, but an incredible amount of detail has been added to truly flesh out the characters and environments. Previously bare walls (I already used the ‘spartan’ joke) are now decked out with Forerunner etchings, vibrant, glowing lights and more. In the notorious Library level (a seemingly endless maze of corridors that many players felt was too easy to become lost in), the new textures even aid you along the way, with floor arrows just like those from the level Assault on the Control Room.
But the visual improvements are perhaps best demonstrated in the swamp level 343 Guilty Spark, with the once plain tree models now pulsating with a green, Lambent-like life force. In fact, I encourage you to try out the much-discussed “Classic” mode feature (which allows you to revert to the unchanged, classic look of the game by pressing the Back button) on this level in particular just to see how much extra detail has been added.
In fact, that’s perhaps the true value in the inclusion of Classic mode: it demonstrates just how much work has gone into this remake. This is no lazy port, and the contrast between some of the original textures and those of the remake really hammers that home. If your reaction is anything like mine, you’ll shudder and scramble to press the Back button and return the game to its glorious new digs. That said, playing Classic mode for longer stretches without juxtaposition to the enhancements also highlights that Combat Evolved was a pretty decent looking game for its time.
The character models are perhaps the most jarring visual difference, and some of the franchise’s more pedantic fans might take issue with some of them. In particular, Cortana’s appearance is more in line with her Halo 2 and 3 incarnations, while the UNSC Marines and the Covenant Elites and Grunts more closely resemble those of Reach. The classic animations and AI banter have all been retained, though, so it still feels more than familiar.
I did notice that a few minor liberties have been taken with some of the remade cut scenes, but only those who’ve played the original to death will likely spot these. For instance, if you contrast the opening cut scene in both Classic mode and the remade version, you’ll notice that some of the shot angles are slightly different, some of the animation has been tidied up, and that Captain Keyes is missing his trademark pipe (which returns in a later cut scene, oddly enough). But these small quibbles aside, the cut scenes are rather faithful recreations of the originals.
In what must be the ultimate testament to the original soundtrack as scored by Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori, the differences in the re-orchestrated score (recorded by the Skywalker Orchestra, no less) are mostly textural. The additional layers enhance the audio only in subtle ways, and that’s a fantastic thing, because the original score is truly one of gaming’s all-time greats. Combat Evolved is absolutely one of those games where the tension, the action and the awe are truly intensified by the music at key points throughout the game. It’s as integral to the game’s success as the gameplay and its rich story. It’s masterful stuff, and it’s paid the utmost respect in its treatment by the Skywalker Orchestra. In fact, the casual fan could well be none the wiser that the music’s been tampered with at all, let alone re-recorded. If you’re particularly precious about the original score, though, this can also be reinstated by disabling the remastered version in the options menu.
There are one or two new features to Anniversary, but they’ve been implemented respectfully, with no disruption whatsoever to the core package. Firstly, Terminals have been hidden around the game’s levels that provide some background information on the wider Halo canon in video form. These are cleverly hidden, and also add a new challenge and level of discovery to veterans who know this game like the back of their hands. Secondly, the Skull modifiers that have featured in every Halo game since (but not including) the original Combat Evolved have been integrated into Anniversary. Also hidden throughout the game, once found these Skulls can be switched on to add certain challenges (such as increasing the health of enemies and disabling your radar). Anniversary also allows cooperative play over Xbox LIVE for two players, affording full-screen Combat Evolved co-op for the first time. And finally, the game is playable in 3D, and there are some Kinect-exclusive features such as the ability to throw grenades by voice, and an “analyse” function that allows you to scan enemies and objects for an in-game codec. Unfortunately, I don’t own a Kinect peripheral or a 3D TV, and so I couldn’t test these features out. Frankly, though, I’m personally only interested in the codec aspect and could take or leave the rest.
If there’s one disappointing aspect of this package, it’s that we’re not getting the original Combat Evolved multiplayer experience – we’re essentially getting a new “classic” map pack for Halo: Reach with features intended to replicate that experience. For instance, the Halo Classic playlist consist of maps that emulate those from Combat Evolved, the pistol is tweaked to match the overpowered fan-favourite, and the armour perks are disabled. You can understand why 343 Industries has opted for this approach from its point of view so as not to fragment its current multiplayer community. But still, the Reach engine is not quite the same as the true Combat Evolved multiplayer experience, which in its heyday was as much a part of Combat Evolved’s popularity as its excellent campaign.
I was unable to test the adversarial aspect of the new maps before launch (as it was difficult to find a match with only small windows where the playlists were activated, and with so few Australasian pre-release players), so check back soon – I’ll be sure to post some thoughts on the new maps in due course.
Without feeling too much like a loner, though, I was able to test out the new Firefight map, Installation 04, on my lonesome. Now this is a fitting homage to what just might be the original Firefight sequence in the franchise’s history: a section from Combat Evolved’s second level in which the Master Chief and a handful of UNSC Marines must hole up in a Forerunner structure and repel invading Covenant troops deploying from dropships. They’ve even added friendly AI Marines to the mix, which you can endeavour to protect (as an optional, self-imposed goal) or leave to their own devices.
343 Industries could have attempted to really mess with this classic and retrofit all manner of newer mechanics (as a certain Star Wars director is known to do from time to time, much to the dismay of die-hard fans). But this release is all about homage and celebration – of enhancing memories, not altering them – and in that respect it’s a resounding success.
I questioned the need for such a remake at first, but I’m happy to admit that I was wrong to do so. But your take on whether it’s worth picking up may vary. Love Halo: Combat Evolved? Then this re-release is absolutely unmissable, not to mention your best reason to give it another shot. And best of all, it just might recreate that sense of wonderment that you felt the first time around. If you’ve never really engaged with Halo before, I’d like to hope that this might be the release to aid you in doing so. If Halo’s never been your thing, Anniversary is unlikely to convert you.
Ultimately, though, this one’s for the franchise’s many die-hard fans. Admirably, it goes above and beyond many others in this recent glut of HD remakes and sets a new standard for fan service.