Not all special editions are (re)created equal.
If you’ve lumped Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary in the same category as other recently updated last-generation classics like Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Resident Evil, Sly Cooper or Beyond Good & Evil, you’re making a mistake. And if you’re upset that Halo costs more money or offers less gameplay than those examples – that Microsoft is marketing this single 10-year-old shooter as a major holiday release with the $40 price tag to match – you’re missing the difference.
That difference is clear from the very first mission, from the very first moment you wake up in a cryogenic chamber as Master Chief. Remember the generic military grunt who opens the pod’s door and teaches you the game’s controls? Well, you will this time, because he’s no longer generic. What was once a cookie-cutter collection of polygons, indistinguishable from all the other military grunts on the ship, now has a distinctive pear-shaped body, instantly recognizable eyebrows and custom uniform. He’s a unique-looking human being, and so is his buddy in the observation room, and so are the officers on the Pillar of Autumn command deck, and so are the marines you fight alongside in the corridors after the Covenant have attacked.
See, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary doesn’t just feature HD graphics – it features entirely brand new graphics. When you hit the button that switches between the game’s 2001 and 2011 visuals, you won’t care how much cleaner and crisper the textures appear, because you’ll be staring at textures (and objects and environments and special effects) that didn’t even exist before. Walk up to a basic, boring ship window in 2001 and – switch! – gently glowing rays of starlight filter and fall in patterns upon the floor in 2011. Inspect a fuzzy, pixelated tunnel grate in 2001 and – switch! – it’s a completely realistic pane of glass, transparent yet slightly distorted and dirtied, in 2011.
Those are minor examples from the opening hour of the game. By the time you land on the titular Halo in the second level, the difference between old and new graphics is almost too much to properly describe. A static matte sky has been replaced by puffy, sun-streaked clouds with believable movement and volume. The cliff view from your crash site, once a muddy gray bitmap with something barely resembling a river drawn on the surface is suddenly a gorgeous, expansive view with believable height and distance that makes the player feel smaller and humbler. The water, grass and trees? Well, you can imagine.
Original developer Bungie never planned for you to see these things at such high detail and close proximity, but the current Halo caretakers at 343 Industries have added so much extra detail – big and small – that they seem to welcome fans’ scrutiny. A random and uninteresting computer terminal, for example, may now include a complex schematic for John-117’s SPARTAN armor… or for Linda-058’s, a name only recognizable to hardcore fans.
Despite the fresh coat of paint, however, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary’s engine is still the same, resulting in occasionally clunky animation that distracts from the makeover. And that makeover, of course, is still no prettier than what you saw in last year’s Halo: Reach. But the fact that it’s even that pretty – that the visuals offer a new experience rather than just a less old experience – justifies the price tag and the holiday push. Halo is more comparable to Monkey Island’s special edition or Tomb Raider’s anniversary edition than the recent crop of upscaled re-releases.
Now, whether we actually recommend buying it again? We’ll let you know in next month’s review.