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Review: Despite its age, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is a breath of fresh air

In many ways the first-person shooters of today owe a lot to the original Halo, which launched back in 2001 alongside the original Xbox on November 15. It stomped its way onto the scene and proclaimed the genre could indeed be successful on consoles despite most gamers believing a keyboard and mouse was needed for a truly great experience. The naysayers were incorrect and nowadays first-person shooters are the single most popular genre on both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Halo not only proved that first-person shooters could work on analog sticks for a console game controller, but it also created a totally original universe steeped in cultural and religious undertones as well as a meaningful, yet understated relationship between the main character and his computer-AI fueled, yet simply human, compatriot known as Cortana.

So, here we are ten years removed from Halo: Combat Evolved’s launch with a remastered edition staring us in the face, trying to have a voice among the throng of other titles in the holiday season. The original developer Bungie has moved on, but Microsoft’s new Halo studio 343 Industries — and two external developers Saber Interactive and Certain Affinity –have created a “gift for gamers.” The game packs re-done high-definition visuals that take advantage of the leap from the original Xbox to Xbox 360 and game play that’s extraordinarily similar to the original, less a few discrepancies that I’ll get into later. It also comes complete with six remastered multiplayer maps that piggyback on the Halo: Reach multiplayer experience as well as a reduced price tag of just $39.99, compared to the standard $59.99 for most games.

It’s good to be back

If you’ve never played the original Halo (first of all, where have you been?), it’s a classic tale of good versus evil with players taking the reins of Master Chief, a revered soldier in the UNSC (United Nations Space Command) and humanity’s last hope against the alien race known as the Covenant. Master Chief begins Halo as a silent participant, not unlike Gordon Freeman from Valve’s Half-Life series, but soon changes to become something more. Something wholly relatable despite the most unrelatable of circumstances. This is largely thanks to his purple digital compatriot, the aforementioned Cortana. It all begins with a very simple setup that gains depth and meaning as you progress through the campaign and through the subsequent games in the series. Very little has changed from ten years ago as far as the story is concerned. The dialogue is identical and the cut scenes, though re-imagined with some nifty new camera angles, are essentially the same.

The first of two deviations in the single-player is the addition of terminals. There’s one hidden in each level and activating them triggers a cut scene that peels back a small layer of the Halo mythos. Terminals are designed to tie the action of the original Halo to the direction that the series is going to take with Halo 4. I won’t give away anything other than to say that they’re well done and add some nice depth to a few select characters and events. The second change is the inclusion of hidden skulls, items that originally debuted in Halo 2. Picking up a skull allows you to alter the game play in some way, almost always increasing the difficulty.

As you make your way through the somewhat lengthy (at least by today’s first-person shooter standard) campaign, you’ll realize that the game play feels exactly as you remember, though there are some slight inconsistencies. First of all, you no longer have access to binoculars by clicking the right analog stick. This won’t matter if you have a scoped weapon in-hand, but if you want to zoom in on enemies from afar when using the assault rifle or shotgun, you’re going to have issues. Secondly, for some reason the folks at 343 Industries didn’t include vehicle degradation in this anniversary edition. In the original players could shoot off hub caps, break windshields and further tear up their rides, but none of that is included here. Neither of these subtle changes have a detrimental effect on the core fun you’ll have in the campaign, but they’re noteworthy nonetheless.

Of course, if we’re talking about purely aesthetic changes then there’s more than this review will allow. The entire campaign has been remastered and includes the requisite amount of detail that you’d expect on the current Xbox 360 hardware. Textures on enemies and objects are far more stylish than they were ten years ago and everything else has an extra sheen of polish. Particle effects are more plentiful (as evidenced in the later levels when snow flurries become common), enemies are a bit more intimidating and even weapons and vehicles have benefited from the upgrade in technical capability. In fact, the developers were so proud of their work that they saw fit to include a flashback ability. By tapping the back button or saying “Classic” if you have Microsoft’s Kinect peripheral, you’ll be teleported back to the 2001 version, just as it was. You can play the entire game in either mode, but take note that you can’t switch back and forth during a cut scene, which occasionally contains some of the most impressive visuals.
All of that new panache comes at a price, though. The frame rate (the number of images that are displayed in a second) chugs very often, especially when Master Chief heads outdoors or the action gets especially frenetic. What’s more puzzling is that the frame rate runs into issues in both Remastered and Classic modes. The great looking textures that I mentioned earlier also run into some issues. Occasionally they’ll take a split-second too long to load and some objects wind up looking very muddy until the high-resolution texture loads into frame. This was especially prevalent in later levels.

While Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary does a solid job of bringing new life to the visuals, the same can’t be said for the core design of the game. Much like they did in 2001, the levels feel very repetitive late in the campaign with backtracking being commonplace and mission objectives being quite redundant in spots.That withstanding, this dated campaign still manages to be a breath of fresh air when looking at the current stable of first-person shooters. Franchises like Battlefield and Call of Duty tend to be more about style than substance. Enemies pop up from behind cover and retreat again as if in a game of whack-a-mole. There’s none of that in Halo. Enemies typically have a discernible level of intelligence and strategy is a must when attacking a situation. And while the campaign is linear, different situations present a number of tactical opportunities for players to discover. Halo: Anniversary is less about awesome scripted set pieces and more about delivering fun game play and crafty artificial intelligence and it’s a better experience for it.

A missed opportunity

Straying away from the campaign, Halo: Anniversary also comes complete with multiplayer game play. Sort of. It leverages the Halo: Reach (released in 2010 and developed by Bungie Studios) multiplayer engine, which means you’ll get Firefight as well as Forge. Firefight pits you and a group of players against wave after wave of AI opponents that increase in difficulty as you progress. The Anniversary Edition comes with a new Firefight map called Installation 04 that’s ripped right from the campaign and should please fans of the original Halo. Forge is taken straight from Halo: Reach and allows players to make edits to current maps by adding and deleting objects as they see fit. Neither of these modes are unique to the Anniversary Edition, but both are welcome inclusions.

What people will be most interested in, though, are the six newly remastered multiplayer maps from Halo: Combat Evolved. They’ve been given a similar graphical treatment as the campaign missions and play largely as you remember, except with Halo: Reach’s game play. That’s my single biggest issue with the multiplayer offering in this Anniversary Edition, it simply isn’t faithful to Halo: Combat Evolved. It was a conscious decision from the folks at 343 Industries to not fragment the Reach player community and ecosystem, but those who want to experience the same nostalgic feeling that they’ll get from the campaign will be sorely disappointed, despite maps like Beaver Creek and Hang ‘Em High making their return (the absence of Blood Gulch is blasphemy in my mind). It’s obvious that the developers knew this was going to be an issue and thus included some options to make Halo: Reach’s gameplay feel like the original’s as much as possible. Sadly there’s still a fairly large disconnect between the two experiences, and it sadly keeps the Anniversary Edition from feeling like a complete package.

Conclusion

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is a good game, made even more impressive if you’ve never played a Halo title before (I envy you, in a way). It does a great job of replicating the feel of the single-player gameplay and story with some great-looking visuals, that do come at a cost. Being able to use that over-powered pistol again and hear the Halo theme that was crafted by Marty O’Donnell more than a decade ago is a fantastic experience, especially when you toss in the ability to hop back into 2001’s version of Halo whenever you please.

But with a lot of good, you also get some bad. The framerate and texture issues are inescapable and the mission design as well as level structure could use some serious variety, especially when compared to what else is on the market today. The multiplayer, while it is as strong as Halo: Reach’s offering, never feels connected to the Halo: Combat Evolved experience, despite six original maps making an appearance. The Anniversary Edition of Halo: Combat Evolved is a definitive rendition in terms of the campaign, but for my money I’d rather be playing in a LAN (Local Area Network) party with four Xboxes wired together in my parents’ house with the original game than this Halo: Reach version of a handful of original maps. In the end, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary gets an 82 out of 100.


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