What is there to be said about a game that is ten years old? Can I somehow convince someone who did not enjoy Halo: Combat Evolved that the Anniversary edition is worth getting? I have distinct memories of resolutely not playing Halo as a younger man, peeved by the Library levels and their all-encompassing sameness. The single player campaign remained unbeaten by me until something like five years ago, when my brother and I sat down and cooperatively played our way through, although I’d of course witnessed others play through the game before.
So much of my gaming history revolves around being a spectator as well as a player. A curious aside and possibly one of the reasons why games that I tend to enjoy have narratives that for whatever reason I decide to care about: they push the right buttons, and I am engaged. Ten years ago, Halo did that exact thing for me. The importance of the original game for the Xbox cannot be understated — it single-handedly kept the system from being a colossal failure instead of merely an unprofitable venture (but with the promise of enough profit to make it worth everyone’s while). It was also the first time that I at least had been introduced to a control system for an FPS on a console that allowed me to both move and shoot, and while I remain thoroughly enamored of, for example, the way Metroid Prime utilized the Gamecube’s controller in a marvelous fashion, there’s little getting around the fact that Halo‘s control scheme became more or less the obvious thing to copy. One trigger to shoot, the other to throw grenades — a thoroughly pleasing scheme that made perfect sense. It felt right.
It will never feel as right as a mouse and keyboard, mind you. But it came close.
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is there for people who, like me, played the hell out of Halo. The difference is in presentation — the graphics are quite splendidly updated, as are the sounds of gunfire.
Shooting some Elites in the butt.
It is a shot-for-shot remake — indeed, the old engine sits under the new one, and should you find yourself feeling nostalgic for the chunky looking models of ten years past, you can switch to them on the fly. The effect is massively affecting. It was not until I got a look at the opening shot of the Pillar of Autumn dropping back to sublight speeds in all its new, glorious detail that I realized just how long I’ve wanted exactly this thing to exist (for the curious, I’ve wanted a re-skinned Halo since the end of Halo: Reach, if not for longer). It was like coming home, except someone painted the walls and cleaned up the furniture.
The Grunts are still Grunts, just less triangle-shaped.
All the annoying things about Halo are still there, of course — the levels still repeat themselves an unholy amount, and your squadmates are still dumber than a box of rocks most of the time, but if you played Halo and forgave it those faults ten years ago, you’ll forgive it again now that everything looks new and shiny. They could have done more, of course, given Master Chief the abilities of Noble Squad (i.e. the armor powerups) or at least given the satisfaction of the assassination animations, but as this is — make no mistake — just a reskinning of the series with a few extra bits of lore sprinkled in for flavor, it is best to adjust your expectations accordingly. Namely, get used to the idea that you’re going to be playing Halo: Combat Evolved, only the graphics are prettier and the sound is meatier. That’s it — and really that’s enough.
My one real complaint is that some of the brightness of the environments seems to have been discarded in this graphical upgrade.
The colors of Halo popped off the screen in a way that was completely at odds with the way things tend to have gone (i.e. the predictable brown and gritty look, a trend that started way back with Quake and has stubbornly refused to die). Halo’s world, by contrast, was stunning and alien in a way that very few games, even today, tend to be. Even Halo: Reach had toned down its colors a bit, though the earlier levels remain colorful as ever. The enemies too, were brilliantly designed to be easily identifiable and stand out from the scenery (apart from the damnable invisible swordsmen). This is something that the remake holds true to, and apart from this movement toward a more shadowy Halo than I experienced ten years ago, the graphical updates are fantastic (especially with regards to the hands and how they are no longer just blocks).
As for the extras, there are a few things that I take issue with, namely the criminal lack of four player split-screen multiplayer. This is not as bad as it sounds, of course for should you desire to run around the original Halo’s multiplayer maps in the new engine, you need only download the classic Halo map pack in Reach (the code for which comes with purchase of Halo) and play it there. Why the decision was made to actually subtract features from the anniversary edition rather than add them is, of course, nothing that I can explain adequately. The game assumes (probably correctly) that anyone who would buy the anniversary edition of Halo owns Reach, making this not a huge problem — but it is a problem nonetheless.
If, for some reason, you’ve never played Halo before and find yourself wondering what it would be like, the Anniversary edition offers you the opportunity to experience the game in a graphical fidelity that is not pretty dang ugly by modern standards, and that’s something.
All the same, however, the original edition’s simpler look is worth seeing. The upside is that you get it both ways with the Anniversary edition, and not only that, it will, unlike the original Halo, play on the new model 360 slims, which as my friend discovered to his dismay earlier this year, does not allow you to play the original Xbox disc anymore.
Bottom line? The lack of four player local multiplayer is the product of a stupid decision by someone at 343 Industries, but the rest of the game is as good as the first time around, if not better simply by dint of its feeling like a well-worn pair of pants. There are also apparently a bunch of additional motion-comic things to find which serve to fill in a bit of the backstory for Halo 4, so there’s that too, and I, at least, am for whatever reason completely taken in by damn near anything having to do with the Halo narrative (except for Halo: Legends which was terrifically disappointing in its complete failure to do anything interesting with the world). Worth the purchase if you’re a fan, and maybe even worth the purchase if you’re just looking for an enjoyable sci-fi shooter? You could do far, far worse.