Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary
Ten years ago, Halo single-handedly managed to make gamers sit up and pay attention to the fledgling Xbox. Redefining the potential scope and ambition of a console FPS, Bungie’s original game established a benchmark for control, pacing, universe-building, and multiplayer options that would be emulated for years. The revamped anniversary edition of the game does an excellent job of honoring that legacy, even if the project as a whole feels like it’s seeking an identity in the middle ground between new and old.
While longtime fans will remember Combat Evolved as the birth of the series, newer players should note that Anniversary picks up the story right where Reach left off. Master Chief awakes from cryo-sleep as a Covenant armada descends on the ship from which he escaped Reach. The armored hero and his shipmates crash land on a mysterious ring world and begin to unravel its secrets. While the story remains nearly untouched, keen-eyed players will note the addition of some new story content through several scattered terminals. Each triggers a cinematic that expands on the Halo fiction in new ways, offering untold details about the Flood, the Forerunners, and other story points.
Halo’s campaign levels and combat are exactly as you remember them, and that’s good and bad. Battles are furious and intense, with one combat zone after another feeling distinct and challenging. I love the scope of the fights, with dozens of enemies, plenty of space, and choices about where to make your stand. The signature weapons of the series are all in place, from the joy of sticky plasma grenades to the overwhelming power and precision of the pistol. An urgency and excitement pervades the action, and it’s easy to get caught up in the flow of the fights and careen from one encounter to the next. Speaking as a player who has made his way through these levels many times before, the charm hasn’t worn off. Those looking for a new challenge will find that gameplay-altering skulls have been added to the game. Track these hidden collectibles down, and you can change up the action in interesting ways, like doubling enemy health or disabling auto-aim. I’m also pleased with the two-player cooperative play over Xbox Live; co-op has always been my favorite way to experience this game, and I love having local and online options.
Unfortunately, because the gameplay has been left unaltered, players are also stuck with some of Halo’s less fondly remembered features. Disastrous checkpoint placement can regularly derail the fun. You’ll backtrack through almost every level in the game at some point. Shields recharge slowly, and the health system regularly leaves you badly damaged right before a big fight. The lack of objective markers will often have you searching through empty corridors long enough to push your patience to the limit. We were more accepting of these flaws a decade ago, but time and advancing design make the frustrations more noticeable.
I love the improvements that have been made to the game’s visuals – from surface textures and lighting to distant environmental vistas and character art. Your memory can play tricks on you, convincing you that it doesn’t look all that different. That’s why the ability to tap the Back button and switch to the original visuals on the fly is so much fun. I regularly found myself pausing to flip back and forth between the two styles, and marveling at how far games have come in a decade. For those with the necessary display, the game can also be played in 3D, but it doesn’t add anything to the experience.
I was surprised that I enjoyed another new feature: Kinect support. Far from the invasive motion nonsense I was worried about (which you can use in the menus, if you care), Kinect owners will have access to a cool voice-activated scanner. Analyze a weapon, enemy, or other notable feature, and it enters a library where you can learn more about it. It’s a small but enjoyable addition, especially for collectible-oriented players.
Even as Halo’s campaign has been meticulously recreated, the same can’t be said for the multiplayer experience. Instead, several classic maps have been remade for play in the Halo: Reach multiplayer system. I enjoyed these remakes quite a bit, as well as the new Firefight map that’s been added, but purists would be right in calling foul. This is not the multiplayer experience of the original game. On the other hand, Reach’s excellent leveling, matchmaking, weapon balancing, character customization, and game modes are hard to complain about. You can play these maps from either your Anniversary disc or by using an included map download code to play in Reach. For those only interested in playing multiplayer, it’s worth noting that the Anniversary map pack for Reach can be purchased over Xbox Live separately for only $15 rather than Anniversary’s full $40 price tag.
Halo Anniversary sits in a middle ground between faithful remake and spirited reinvention. Players who want an exact replica of the original will be frustrated by the absence of a faithful multiplayer experience. Hardcore modern gamers could be annoyed by the dated nature of the campaign design. However, for the majority of players who fit in the space in between, this classic game has received a new coat of paint and gives you reason enough to re-enter the fold.