Halo divided camps from the beginning: those who saw the Xbox’s prized launch title as nothing more than a polished copy of previous shooter principles, and those who understood the revolutionary nature of its open-ended gameplay and eloquently scripted plot. While those same camp wars continue, the latter group have been graced once more with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition, an honourary, graphically-enhanced salute to Bungie’s loyal ten-year fanbase. No longer in command of the control center, however, the honour of firing those twenty-one guns pointed at the head of the universe falls on the shoulders of 343 Industries, the new task force assigned to future Halo operations. In their first test, have they mastered the Master or wronged the relic ring’s respectability?
Claimed as critical that the game play exactly as it did ten years ago, Halo’s campaign has been almost entirely left to its classic grandeur; nearly nothing has changed, to no complaint by this reviewer. After all, Anniversary is a simple tip of the hat, not a full-fledged blockbuster release. To the not-so-well versed in Forerunner lore, the gamer steps into the shielded shoes of the Master Chief, a super-soldier who happens upon a mysterious ring planet in the middle of a war with an alien race. After the release of a parasitic menace known as the Flood (I cringe as I type), it’s up to the Chief and his virtual companion Cortana to destroy Halo and its malicious guardian intent on activating the ring’s destructive power.
Birthing the sci-fi military genre in gaming, Halo’s story still holds up remarkably well, but it’s the game’s characters that lend an emotional edge. The dynamic between Cortana and the Chief was a brilliant purple-to-green contrast; the intelligent and talkative female machine perfectly blended with the silent sobriety of the human soldier. The pairing resulted in the ideal in-game comfort; you always felt at home in the vacuous hero’s helmet, but, thanks to the girl always quite literally on your mind, never alone. Perhaps 343 could’ve thrown in a few additions without offending the Halo purists, but nevertheless, an enticing and well-paced story fueled with adventure, horror, and of course, action, has not become stale in the slightest.
Gameplay, like the campaign, has been left alone to its own devices. Halo plays exactly like you remember it, even with the shiny overlay. Toss a grenade, mop up the stragglers, hop in a vehicle… the choice is still yours. Scattered ammo often forces you to switch between a handful of human and Covenant weapons, all of which serve their own purpose. Treads are quite frequently more fun than treading, and no shortage of light to heavy vehicles are at your disposal. Some newcomers may find the world as frustratingly navigable as we veterans did a decade ago, but I say, suck it up and figure it out. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and 343 had no intention of fixing much of anything, aside from a few well-placed extras.
New to Halo are the standard set of player appeasements. Skulls and terminals have been strewn throughout the campaign, with the latter providing interesting mythos in the form of journal logs, courtesy of one Guilty Spark. As per next-gen requirements, achievements have also been added to the fray, sure to excite the enthusiast. For some damn reason, however, 343 made two notable alterations that won’t be getting my endorsement. The control scheme has been defaulted to the one used in Halo: Reach and though, thank God, you can switch back to the original button mapping, inconveniently titled “The Duke” rather than “Classic”, why the developers would persist to the letter that the objective of Anniversary was to make the fan feel exactly like he did ten years ago and not use the original controls baffles me to frustration. The other unwarranted change is crouch movement. Every time you move while crouched, you stand up, which is annoying and awkward as all hell, especially when you’re trying to pick off enemy Covenant covertly.
Anniversary’s obvious bullet point and main reason for its existence is its presentational upgrade, though the commendable effort leaves something of the original behind in the translation. The new updated skin is slick, with crisp textures, remodeled environments, and beautiful lighting, but the problem is that because the rest of the game operates exactly like its prime – choppy animations and so forth — often you feel like you’re playing a rather mediocre 2011 game, opposed to a fantastic 2001 game with the look of a current title. Certain levels have definitely benefited far greater than others from the upgrade, notably any area with grey (the Library is, at best, now tolerable), but others don’t appreciate the graphical gesture as much, such as the level 343 Guilty Spark, whose new visuals detract from the original’s eeriness . Character models have also sufferred, with Captain Keyes appearing the same as he did in Reach, which is quite askew of his original model and nothing like you remember him. Some of the audio has been remastered, with cleaner voice-over performances (despite truly awful dubbing), weapon sound effects, and a slight re-edit of the monastery monk score. Many of these tweaks are appreciated, but they are not essential to the experience. Throw in a set of recurring visual and audio bugs – you’ll bear witness to many a spinning weapon caught in a wall — and utterly ridiculous loading times when jumping back into the middle of a level after a leave of absence, and what you get is an unimpressive impression that time has been crunched. Make no mistake, Anniversary looks and sounds great, but it equally feels awkward and rushed.
If there is one ultimate blunder in Bungie’s beleaguered bundle, it is the complete absence of any true Halo multi-player experience. Stop rubbing your eyes; you read right. The online component provided utilizes the Reach engine with some re-edited Combat Evolved maps. Well, guess what, 343? If I wanted to play Reach, I’d play Reach. Hours of my kindled youth were spent labouring over Halo’s PC multi-player and any fan would expect the one aspect of the Xbox version, which unfortunately missed out on the release of Microsoft’s Live service, to include the Wi-fi counterpart to the LAN years of barricading ourselves in buddies’ basements, but to no avail. Oh yeah, that sort of brings to mind another issue…. Local Multi-player has been left out as well. Yep, no LAN capability either. Forgive the ease from eloquence, but were they smoking crack?! Did they think this through?! Whatever, moving on.
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is a worthwhile nostalgic venture for any fan, and a recommendable purchase with a $40 price tag, but it’s living proof that graphics do not make a game. At the time, the original’s presentation was far more impressive than the rehash’s in 2011. Touted as the same exact game and experience, Anniversary is assuredly not. Contextually, Halo was strategically released at a point when the gamer was starving for kick-ass innovation, but in a time, and more specifically month, when the military shooter genre is becoming as saturated as the World War II shooter genre was in the early-to-mid 2000’s, only the ravenous die-hard will itch for the trigger. Still, this is meant as a fresh trip down memory lane, not a replacement. Despite the lack of any true CE multi-player component (a fairly significant ‘despite’, mind you), the juggernaut’s humble additions make this anniversary one worth celebrating. You might just want to hold off on the card.