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10 years, two sequels, two spinoffs, one prequel and countless companion media later, it’s remarkable how many gamers still say that the original Halo is their favorite entry in the entire franchise. Is that opinion based on objective quality or subjective nostalgia? With this anniversary edition of the classic console shooter, we have an opportunity to both relive… and reevaluate.
To start, though, let’s set one thing straight. This is more than a special edition and much, much more than an HD upgrade. Unlike recent re-releases of Ico, God of War, Resident Evil, Sly Cooper, Splinter Cell, Beyond Good & Evil and Prince of Persia, the visuals in Halo: Combat Evolved haven’t merely been cleaned and sharpened to appear presentable on a modern television monitor. They’re completely, breathtakingly new – the difference between getting your car washed and getting your car pimped by an MTV reality show. The structure of each scene and each area is intact, but the artists have not been at all shy in adding their own style and flourish. This is basically how the game would look if it were created for the first time this year.
We’ve included a few comparison examples below, but with the Xbox 360 controller’s back button, you can marvel at 2001 vs 2011 whenever and wherever in the game you choose. Though the switch is a little too sluggish, and can’t be used during cutscenes, it does provide an endlessly entertaining “wow” factor.
The main menu. The Halo ring, once a dull gray sidewalk on one side, is now mesmerizingly shiny and intricate. Space, once a flat matte, is now filled with unique stars, galaxies and asteroids.
Master Chief awakes from cryogenic slumber. Notice how 2001’s generic, copy-and-paste polygon people have been replaced by distinct characters with distinct outfits and distinct facial features. Also, the amount of light, color and atmosphere in each indoor environment has increased dramatically.
Outside, the depth – as well as the detail to that depth – is astounding when compared to what we found acceptable a decade ago. You believe you’re in a real 3D world, not a giant windowless room with fake sky painted on the walls and ceiling.
Even darkness looks better!
Flipping back and forth will also yield several new Easter eggs, of both a humorously random and lovingly fan devoted nature. If you’re enough of a Halo enthusiast to play this Anniversary edition, the developers at 343 Industries clearly want to reward you as much and as often as possible. To that end, they’ve also hidden a game-altering skull and backstory-revealing (possibly Halo 4 teasing) terminal in every mission. This is a love letter from them to you.
But how does the gameplay hold up? You may be surprised…
Halo: Combat Evolved looks drastically different in the 2011 Anniversary edition, but plays exactly as it did in 2001 – that’s because, beneath the gorgeous new skin, the skeleton of the game is unaltered. Every level is structured the same way, every weapon functions the same way, every vehicles handles the same way and every enemy behaves the same way. While the developers at 343 didn’t hold back whatsoever when updating the visual design, they must have decided that Bungie’s original gameplay design was too sacred to touch – it is pure and preserved here. This is a remastering, not a remake.
In many ways, that was the right choice. Combat Evolved is still one of the better shooters of the past decade, with a diversity of action and freedom of movement that put even modern competition (including recent Halos) to shame. For each tight linear corridor, there’s a massive and wide open canyon in which you can jump, fly, commandeer a tank or take over an alien turret. For each generic military gun that works just as you’d expect, there’s a colorful and bizarre invention like the Needler or Plasma Grenade that transforms the flow of combat completely. A single mission can take you from a bright sandbox beach to a claustrophobic underground base, then back again, with no loading. A single mission can start you on a cliff with stealth and sniper rifles, then leave you in a spaceship with neon blue and fluorescent green energy beams bouncing wildly in all directions. It’s easy to see why Halo was so revolutionary and so embraced upon release… and it’s easy to understand why fans would be upset if this core was changed.
Nostalgia or not, however, it’s impossible to play the first Halo ten years later without experiencing quite a lot of unexpected tedium and frustration. Remember the infamous, mind- and thumb-numbingly repetitive Library level? What you won’t realize until now is how many other sections of Halo: Combat Evolved are just like that. Remember the less forgiving, more hardcore health bar, which didn’t regenerate completely without med kits? What you won’t recall until now is how often that, combined with a maddening system of save points, causes you to die at extremely undeserving moments. Remember those overpowering, over punishing Hunters? What won't drive you crazy until now is how many times those things show up, again and again and again until the fear factor is gone and only the annoyance factor remains.
Also gone are many abilities we now take for granted, like hijacking vehicles and zooming in with certain weapons. We’re not suggesting that these abilities should be added, or that the flaws described above should be fixed. Only that you will notice them. Only that they will irritate you. Only that the game hasn’t aged perfectly. Very well, but not perfectly.
Some may be disappointed by the multiplayer in Anniversary as well, though we weren’t. Yes, updates of all 13 original maps would have been nice, but a mix of six Halo 1 and Halo 2 maps (each with classic and Reach-style variants), plus a new Firefight map, plus the addition of Xbox Live co-op to the campaign, is more than enough for a value-priced package like this.
Regardless of any complaints or criticisms above, we’d still wholeheartedly recommend Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary to any diehard fan of the franchise, and with just minor reservations to everyone else.
Halo 2 Anniversary in 2014? Can’t wait.