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Halo: Combat Evolved - Anniversary (Xbox 360) artwork

Halo: Combat Evolved - Anniversary (Xbox 360) review

"When the rocket launcher and shotgun appear later in the game, they appear for specific situations and not because your arsenal has been lacking up to this point. And from the early appearance of grunts on the Pillar of Autumn all the way to the grand reveal of the Flood and the Sentinels, Halo is a textbook example of how to gradually unfold enemies in a meaningful way. Are you prepared to fear a cloaked elite with an energy sword for the very first time, all over again?"

Halo holds up. That's the main takeaway from Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, a remastered re-release of the ten year old game that established console systems as a viable place for shooters. Goldeneye on the N64 demonstrated that shooters could work on a console system. But Halo demonstrated that they could be great.

For this re-release, Microsoft rebuilt the single player campaign in a new engine. To verify all the new, press a button to almost instantly toggle the graphics to their original appearance. It's quite a difference. Ten years ago, we thought this looked pretty good. We probably appended the words "for a console game" to that phrase, but we still thought it looked pretty good. The remastered version has the same basic geometry and animation, but boy what a difference the incidentals make. Higher resolution textures, longer viewing distances, better lighting effects, and all those lovely pointless bits of foliage. Anniversary looks pretty good. For a remastered ten year old console game.

Halo: Combat Evolved - Anniversary asset

But ultimately, this all takes a back seat to just how good Halo was. Is. And you don't have to append the phrase "for a console game", or even "for a ten year old console game", to that. This was and is a flat-out great shooter.

At first, it can be hard to erase from your brain the intervening Halos. I died more times than I care to admit trying to hijack that first Covenant tank. In case you're wondering: six. You might find yourself similarly trying to pick up an energy sword, equip plasma guns akimbo, or swap out the running ability for a holograph. Not so fast, Chief. That stuff doesn't come along until later games. And surprisingly enough, it's not terribly missed. The weapons and enemies are still wonderful creations, full of personality. It's a delight to rediscover how elegant the guns felt this early in the series. When the rocket launcher and shotgun appear later in the game, they appear for specific situations and not because your arsenal has been lacking up to this point. And from the early appearance of grunts on the Pillar of Autumn all the way to the grand reveal of the Flood and the Sentinels, Halo is a textbook example of how to gradually unfold enemies in a meaningful way. Are you prepared to fear a cloaked elite with an energy sword for the very first time, all over again?

Halo's level design was a masterpiece of economy, almost miraculously shoehorned into the first Xbox at its launch. Bungie created a variety of spaces, and they did it in a way that told a story. You begin, of course, on a spaceship which is presented exactly as spaceships are always presented: hallways and the occasional hangar bay. But then you land on Halo and you're fighting in large lovely outdoor environments, including some crazy team battles with friendly marines and later some impressive vehicle sequences. Along the way, you occasionally glimpse the underground levels, which is a bit like pulling aside a curtain and seeing the inner workings. And eventually, you will plunge deep into these bare bones for a startling discovery and an even more startling change of pace.

Halo: Combat Evolved - Anniversary asset

In these early glimpses of the halo's interior and especially the later levels, Bungie made places that felt strange, characterized by recurring chunks of weird modular geometry. You really felt that the halo was a vast alien assembly. Why does this wall bend up at that angle into the ceiling? Why does this strange duct run along this wall into a dead end? Why are these low rises arranged like this and those hallways located down in those sunken areas? What is the purpose of this room with this shape in it? What is this vertical drop under this glass? It feels like someplace truly otherworldly, beyond human ken. Plenty of games have tried alien bases and ancient constructs. Few have done it as well as Halo.

These levels feed beautifully into Bungie's combat sandbox battles. Halo is full of cover, and flanking options, and raised platforms, and opportunities for motion sensor cat-and-mouse. Some of this stuff you won't appreciate if you're just playing it like a shooting gallery, as is often the case on normal difficulty. But when you play on the harder settings so that weapon management is crucial, and when you play co-operatively with another player, it's easy to see the genius of Bungie at work as the enemies, weapons, and level design conspire to create one of the finest combat sandboxes ever built, still as good as it ever was this early in the series.

The story holds up as well. There's a welcome simplicity to the way Halo skips the exposition and drops you into a war between humans and aliens. The incidentals don't matter, since the war is just the setting and not the substance of the game. Halo instead is a story about preventing a zombie apocalypse, with a grand reveal about the halo world itself. Although a lot of it is taken directly from Larry Niven's Ringworld and James Cameron's Aliens, it's an imaginative rip-off, with its own distinct elements. You could do a lot worse for a shooter. You usually do.

Halo: Combat Evolved - Anniversary asset

Since the original Halo, the series has lost a lot of its luster for those of us who weren't die-hard fans. The stories got increasingly incoherent, the tone got more earnest and self-important, the writing lost focus, the level design stagnated, and the emphasis shifted to a large but dedicated multiplayer community. But here it is again at its best and earliest.

However, as an overall package, Anniversary is disappointing in a few very important ways. For instance, a skull system came along after the original Halo. You could find skulls as you played, each of which let you apply a twist when you later replayed levels. Some of these were just goofs, but most of them made the game harder with a commensurate scoring multiplier. Anniversary adds skulls to the original Halo campaign, but there's no scoring mode. So the skulls make the game harder for, uh, bragging rights? If you're going to add a risk/reward mechanic like Halo's skulls, you can't just stop at the risk part of the equation. What a disappointing lack of insight into what makes the skull feature great.

Also disappointing is Anniversary's lack of attention to the Firefight mode introduced in Halo: ODST and carefully honed in Halo: Reach. Firefight mode is Halo's fantastically flexible answer to Gears' horde mode. Here is the almost perfect distillation of Halo as a combat sandbox: set up the sandbox however you like and go to town. However, there's always been something missing from this sandbox, and what better time to add it than a re-release of the original Halo? Because what kind of horde mode doesn't include one of videogames most notorious hordes? Where is the Flood? Not here. All you get in Anniversary is a single map, titled Installation 04 because it's set on the original halo. Which was, as you discover in the story, a research installation dedicated to studying and containing the Flood. It's almost like they're taunting us by giving us that map and nothing else.

Halo: Combat Evolved - Anniversary asset

Otherwise, the only contributions to multiplayer are a few maps for Halo: Reach. Even if you don't have Halo: Reach, you can play the maps online with the teeming throngs of Halo players. But the intent is that you'll import these maps to your copy of Halo: Reach. In other words, a map pack for another game. They're fine maps, but they're mostly variations on arenas where you've already been fighting. If there's one thing Bungie did over successive Halos, it was refine the multiplayer maps from the original Halo. So here they are again.

Ultimately, Anniversary is an interesting experiment. You don't need to buy a new game to know that Halo is great. And you certainly don't need a retail package, as last year's remastered version of Perfect Dark for Xbox Live Arcade demonstrated. Microsoft tries to justify the box by putting in a little extra value beyond the remastered graphics, but they fumble the extra value part, leaving you with the same great game you played ten years ago. Anniversary feels less like a complete package and more like an appeal to nostalgia. Which is worth the reminiscing, to be sure. But is it worth a whole new game?


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Freelance review by Tom Chick (November 20, 2011)

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SamildanachEmrys posted November 21, 2011:

Good points. I think the XBLA re-release of Perfect Dark had the right idea. Here, however well Halo holds up after ten years, I don't see it justifying the asking price - £30 (about US $47) in my locality.

It's a shame, since I only ever played the original Halo for maybe half an hour on my brother's Xbox. I'm curious, but I'm not £30 of curious.

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