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Halo: Combat Evolved - Anniversary (Xbox 360) artwork

Halo: Combat Evolved - Anniversary (Xbox 360) review

"Anniversary is a remake in the visual department only, and the enhancements actually make Halo a worse overall game. You can avoid this by switching over to Classic Mode, but then you might as well just save yourself a healthy chunk of money and download the original game off XBLA, unless you think it’s worth paying nearly three times the price for widescreen support."

The fact that Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary flaunts “100% authentic gameplay” on its box demonstrates how little effort 343 Industries put into this remake before shipping it to store shelves and selling it for two-thirds the price of a full-scale Xbox 360 game. Anniversary is a paint job. The environments are crisper and the characters no longer have nutcracker mouths, but 343 has otherwise ignored the small but numerous steps forward this series has made since its inception. People slammed Reach for being a rehash, but you don’t appreciate a decade’s worth of subtle improvements to vehicle handling until you’re reminded of how poorly they controlled to begin with. I used to loathe the fact that the overpowered Scorpion tank was limited to a single (albeit long) sequence halfway through Halo; upon revisit, I found myself kinda wishing it had been scrapped altogether.

Still, if Anniversary proves anything, it’s that the Halo franchise still stands out even after becoming a victim of its own success. The whole reason the term “vehicle sections” has become commonplace in our vocabulary is because most developers treat them like novelties, whereas Bungie treated vehicles like core mechanics, and there are about a thousand other conventions that Halo popularized that no one else seems to understand the value of. Regenerating health and a two-weapon inventory are two shooter clichés that feel perfunctory elsewhere; here, they underline the strategic undercurrent of the basic gunplay, which is smart, intense, and merciless.

Because if there’s one aspect of Halo that still impresses, it’s the AI. It was groundbreaking in 2001 and developers still struggle to equal it today. Halo was not simply a game about shooting things; it was a game in which you were forced to outwit enemies who could take cover, flank, call for backup, and use the strengths of their equipment and environment against you. There’s not generally a lot of variety in the way your typical Halo game unfolds, but crank up the difficulty and there doesn’t need to be. The constant cat-and-mouse game between you and your adversaries ensures that every individual gunfight feels unique. At its best, Halo is still an exemplary shooter.

Halo: Combat Evolved - Anniversary asset

And sure enough, playing through the campaign again for the first time in years, Halo’s best moments still hold up. Crash landing on the ringworld for the first time and setting out in a Warthog to save other groups of surviving marines. Crawling along a desert cliff side at night, quieting sniping roaming Covenant patrols. Storming the beach of the Silent Cartographer and then exploring every inch of its lush island. Traversing the epic-length expanse of a snowy mountain range in Assault on the Control Room, which may still be the series’ finest hour. I hesitate to call the game’s levels “sandboxes,” but their at times open-ended nature elevates Halo beyond simple run-and-gun.

And hell, I even like the story. The later games sort of collapsed under their own weight as Bungie humanized the Covenant and delved so deeply into the mythology of the ringworlds that they ceased to be mysterious or imposing. In contrast, the simplicity of Bungie’s storytelling in the original game was what made this universe so fascinating. The first thing we saw in Halo was the titular superstructure, suspended in front of an enormous gas giant. What the hell is that thing? The lack of backstory regarding the humans-versus-Covenant conflict was effectively irrelevant, because the game was about Halo, and we knew as much about it as the heroes did. Bungie let us bask in Halo’s beautifully peculiar architecture before rolling out the big guns in the second half: the ringworld’s true purpose, the terrible secrets it concealed, and what the various characters involved with this mess planned to do about it. It’s a masterclass of buildup-and-release.

343 Industries’ lone contribution is a series of optional cutscenes that mostly chronicle Guilty Spark’s efforts to maintain the installation and the various roadblocks he hits leading up to the events of the game. There’s some interesting insight here for fans, but first-timers should probably skip these scenes altogether and allow the plot’s startling revelations to naturally unfold. Either way, though, there’s no getting around Halo’s hideous new redesign. Those opening shots are far less intimidating when Halo looks less like an alien superstructure and more like a glow-in-the-dark toy.

And while I really don’t have any complaints about the central plot, I do have issues with the effect its twists have on the second half of the game. Without revealing too much, the Halo series has you battling a parasitic infestation known as the Flood. As cool as the implications surrounding their reveal are – basically, failure would result in a potentially galaxy-wide zombie apocalypse – the Flood themselves just aren’t any fun to fight. Bear in mind that Halo’s biggest strength up until this point has been the advanced AI, so a sudden and unexpected switch to what are essentially overly agile zombies is a significant downgrade, to put it mildly.

It’s at this point in the game when the level design takes a turn for the worse, as well, largely ditching the big, open outdoor environments in favor of aggressively repetitive corridors. The series’ most notorious mission, the Library, is to FPS fans what Troll 2 is to horror movie geeks: celebrated for how comically, mind-bogglingly awful it is. It’s literally a succession of the same handful of rooms and corridors, copied-and-pasted in various shades of ugly brown until the level hits the 45-minute mark. To make things worse, it’s notably the only mission in the game from which the Covenant are completely absent, leaving you at the mercy of hundreds and hundreds of boring Flood. The Library completely contradicts what Halo does well; it’s a level designer being bad at his job. It’s also worth noting that this is the sort of thing least in need of a graphical makeover, because at some point, bland corridors are just bland corridors.

Halo: Combat Evolved - Anniversary asset

Unfortunately, Halo never recovers. Its final three missions are all partial or full repeats of earlier missions, which I always attributed to Microsoft pressuring Bungie to finish the game in time for the Xbox’s launch. And it wasn’t a lost cause, as there’s a good chance the Xbox brand wouldn’t have survived if Master Chief hadn’t been there, representing from day one. But what’s the point of remaking a game if you’re not going to fix what’s wrong with it? Well, yeah, I understand the point. The point is to make money and fill a gap, because damned if Microsoft is going to let a year go by without a Halo release. But forgive me if I’m not exactly impressed by that approach.

Anniversary sure does look good, though, especially when comparing it to the original… which you can do quite easily by toggling between the classic and updated graphics mid-play (and the fact that you can do so demonstrates just how little has actually been altered). But while it looks noticeably prettier, silly 343 Industries didn’t bother to re-calibrate the hit boxes to the new scenery, meaning that shots will miss and explosives will detonate prematurely because they collided with invisible walls surrounding objects. This probably wouldn’t be too big a deal on lower difficulties, but some of us like to play our Halo games on Legendary, where the AI is brutal and unforgiving and that extra inch of visibility can mean the difference between victory and death. During Anniversary’s tougher moments, this seemingly minor flaw is a constant – constant – nuisance.

So Anniversary is a remake in the visual department only, and the enhancements actually make Halo a worse overall game. You can avoid this by switching over to Classic Mode, but then you might as well just save yourself a healthy chunk of money and download the original game off XBLA, unless you think it’s worth paying nearly three times the price for widescreen support.

As you can tell from their name, 343 Industries was assembled for the specific purpose of carrying the Halo flag after Bungie departed, and we won’t be able to properly measure their skill until they release a game of their own. But if the laziness on rampant display in Anniversary is any indication, I’m not terribly optimistic for the future of this franchise.


Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (January 22, 2012)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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Masters posted January 23, 2012:

What I gather from your review, is that Halo games suck because the guns lack punch. Well said! =D

But seriously, sweet review, Mike. Nutcracker mouths, ha!

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Suskie posted January 23, 2012:

Thanks, Masters.

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