343 Industries is just about ready to drop a Warthog on your front lawn. If you’re up to speed with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, you know that this Warthog has the engine of the shooter that started the fight ten years ago, combined with the bodywork that only a current-generation console can bestow. You also know that by “Warthog,” I mean the entire single-player experience.
It’s a significant project in itself, made more momentous by the fact that it is the first full game coming to us from 343i, who are also behind the next major chapter for Master Chief: Halo 4.
Do they succeed in remastering the original Xbox’s killer app? In a word: yes. But more on that side of things later. 343i has done something pretty interesting with Anniversary’s multiplayer component.Essentially, it’s Reach. When you pick multiplayer from the game’s main menu, your Xbox will nod off for a few seconds before presenting you with a familiar sight: your customized Spartan, waiting as usual in Reach’s interface. Anniversary brings six new maps to the octagon – throwbacks to Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2 – plus an altered firefight map borrowed from a part of the campaign that lends itself perfectly to stronghold defense (namely, that first fortress you come across after touching down on the eponymous ringworld). Another show of good faith from 343i: those of you in it for the thrill of the online kill alone can buy these seven maps for $15.Now, purists on both sides of the developer/consumer fence were disappointed by the lack of true CE competitive multiplayer. It’s understandable, but it was technical necessity, in large part, that led 343i to using the already up and running Reach platform online.
And there’s a caveat: since 343i inherited the servers for Reach, they’ll be (and already have been) tweaking numbers here and there to make playlists reminiscent of Halo: CE’s mechanics (e.g. the magnum kicks like a horse, while the melee attack is nerfed). In short: if you love Reach, here’s more of (mostly) the same.
Until you embark on the single-player campaign, that is. Then it’s a matter of whether you loved Halo: Combat Evolved. Yes, 343i has held everything in the original as sacred. You’ll relive the beachhead assault in “The Silent Cartographer,” the paced unveiling of the Flood, the beautiful relevance of each and every gun… Those ten levels that changed the way we look at console shooters play just like they did as many years ago. Hit boxes, death animations, overshield placements, glitches… all are as you remember them.
And it’s impressive how well CE wears its age. Sure, marines will break into a run a little abruptly, but from the first-person perspective, the mechanics are peanut-butter smooth. In no way does Anniversary feel like an obliging visit to the antique shop.That’s mostly due to the game’s main attraction: remastered visuals. In partnership with Saber Interactive, 343i has taken creative license with Halo’s textures, music, and sound, and the result is fantastic. It’s not just a matter of greener grass, deeper shadows, and higher resolutions (though those things do mark a substantial improvement); Anniversary often presents players with a visual element that simply wasn’t there in the original. Slabs of artificial stone take on pulsating Covenant imprints, new islands dot the watery horizon, and previously barren landscapes become layered backdrops of porous rock.
Some of these visual distinctions are useful as much as they are aesthetic. The Library, that Flood-infested maze, is made more manageable by the visual asymmetry of its wings. It’s a very perceptive way for the developers to have flexed their visual remastery, and it will pay off in the gratitude of fans.
You’re given a front seat to the remastery via the back button, which toggles (give it a second) between classic and remastered visuals. It’s a beautiful inclusion – play through the next skirmish as you did ten years ago (well, almost like you did ten years ago: remastered visuals are in 720p), or find an open vista and admire the evolution for yourself. Is more always better? That’s just it: no. Often CE’s original visuals feel like a nice exercise in restraint compared to Anniversary’s second take. And that just makes the back button feature all the more appreciated.You can wind back the clock on the music too, through the start menu. In either domain, sight or sound, 343i never oversteps the line between homage and excessive novelty.
Sure, added are the beloved skulls of later games, as well as terminals – discoverable cinematics that expand Halo’s fiction through the eyes of the dastardly Monitor. But these are inexistant in the classic visuals, in adherence, again, to the “everything is sacred” mantra.
A final stand-out feature is the possibility of playing co-op over Xbox Live. It’s one of those things that goes from 0 to 60 in appeal whether you’re playing with a stranger or a friend. If there’s anything than can be equated with 8th grade more than Halo for me, it’s having played through it with a friend that I essentially moved in with. Whatever life stage you may be at – whether you worshipped the original game or were busier watching Sesame Street – Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, especially at $39.99, deserves your patronage.
Overall score: 5 / 5
An afterword, if you’d be so kind as to allow it: There’s a passage in GameSpot’s review for the original Halo: Combat Evolved that tells of how you can, “if you’re fast enough–hijack a Banshee and use it to fly down to a valley below to combat enemies you wouldn’t normally confront for another half hour…” There’s so much more to that sentence than meets the eye.
Halo is a mostly linear experience, yet often puts you in huge sandboxes. It’s the variety within them that makes for battles every player will experience differently; in “Assault in the Control Room” (which the above quote refers to) pockets of Covenant foes can be tackled directly or with patient drive-by tactics, as you bite off only as much as you can chew in one banshee drive-by after another. You can even take the thing indoors – something that surely the developers knew was possible, yet doubted that many players would put together. That glorious flexibility is, in part, what made Halo: Combat Evolved such an exceptional game. 343 Industries and its partnering studios have carried that masterpiece, intact, into 2011.