Approximately ten years ago, Microsoft and Bungie partnered together to create video game history. If it wasn’t for their deal to release Halo: Combat Evolved as an original Xbox launch title, who knows how well the console would have caught on. You see; the science fiction first-person shooter really put the computer giant’s first foray into console gaming on the map. Its incredibly high sales numbers and created LAN party addiction also helped bring shooters to popularity on television-based devices. As a result of those successes, a large part of the gaming community has Master Chief’s debut to thank for hours of continued online death matches using dual analog joysticks.
Thanks to digital upgrades and advanced horsepower, a new generation of gamers will now have the chance to experience what made this frag fest such a hit. To celebrate the game’s first decade anniversary, the Chief’s new masters at 343 Industries have performed an ultimate act of fan service for the series’ fans. Not only has the team re-released the game that started the Halo craze; they also went a step further and completely remastered it with brand new visual assets, online multiplayer and added content. Entitled, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, the budget-priced title is now available on the Xbox 360 in full high-definition.
Compared to other shooters, this series tells quite a complex storyline involving religion, power struggles and potential destruction of the human world. Last year, Bungie released its franchise swan song in Halo: Reach – a game that acted as a prequel to the events in the series’ debut. It told trigger happy gamers a storyline about the final events on the planet Reach leading up to its destruction. That plot effectively set-up Master Chief’s storyline in Combat Evolved. A decade ago, the prequel story was only a tale told amidst grenade tosses, leaving a lot of it up to our imagination.
It’s important to note that Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary isn’t an altered single player experience. What you’ll find on the DVD disc is a remastered version of the iconic campaign, with technical upgrades acting as the only major change (unless you count collectibles). The game tells the story of humanity’s first glimpse of the titular, planet-surrounding ring, which is said to harness great destructive powers. Not surprisingly, the evil Covenant forces are hoping to use that power for unforgivable reasons. That is where we gamers come into play, taking things into our own machine gun-toting hands, as stoic Master Chief. From the campaign’s opening Covenant attack to its final mission, bullets and grenades end up speaking louder than words.
When Halo: Combat Evolved reached popularity, I didn’t own an Xbox console. It actually wasn’t until a year or more after it hit store shelves, that I sat down and played the game at a friend’s. In all honesty, I’ve never been a huge fan of the entire series. However, I enjoyed my first play through of its debut, which still stands as my favourite series entry thus far. Going back to it after just shy of a decade was as much of an enjoyable experience as it was a look back at a time capsule. It’s easy to forget just how fast technology and game design improves, as it’s not hard to notice dated aspects within this relatively recent game. The fact that it’s a bit dated shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone however, so don’t throw your pitchfork yet. In this case, that term doesn’t relate to low quality.
Taking the entire shooter spectrum into account, it’s hard to think of a series that plays with as much individuality as this one does. It’s due to that reason that a lot of people either absolutely love these games or can’t get into them. Halo shows a futuristic world where plasma grenades are gamer kryptonite. Bungie also set the stage early by including a zoom-equipped pistol which packs more punch than any handgun ever seen in interactive media. Both of those forms of weaponry play huge roles once again, within this remodeled upgrade. However, despite the technical changes, the gameplay is exactly the same as it was all that time ago. What that means is that the vehicle controls are still very floaty and challenging to get used to – something which hasn’t been addressed in recent releases.
For the most part, the game’s campaign is a run and gun affair. All out bullet battles are infused with the aforementioned grenades, though stepping away from conflict is also a necessity if you’d like to stay alive. Its employed health system is a mix between regenerative and traditional. Master Chief’s shield falls into the former category, while his underlying health bar relates to the latter camp. Once your shield is depleted, it’s only a matter of time before the ten or so health bar ticks go the way of the dodo bird. As a result of this potential doom, it’s incredibly important to take cover as soon as the shield damage indicator starts to beep. This is especially true when it comes to legendary difficulty – something which the series’ veterans love to tackle.
The included stages feature a nice mixture of interior and exterior locations, with expansive environments that were meant to show off the console’s impressive horsepower at its time of release. Some outdoor missions allow the option for vehicular game play action, complete with turret gunners and forms of alien weaponry. While those areas present more cover options, the interior stages tend to be a bit more difficult. Their rooms can change from wide and airy to narrow and claustrophobic, as the latter gives the evil-doers chances for close-quarters ambushes.
Not surprisingly, the outdoor areas are the most pleasant to look at. However, there’s a downside to be found in their designs. Whenever on-foot travel is required, there’s usually a lot of it. It wouldn’t be a downside if there were more enemies to be found, but there are quite a few sparse areas with next to nothing but peaceful serenity. As a result, parts of those stages tend to feel a bit dull ten years later. In my opinion, some of the levels are possibly a bit too large, though it’s understandable that they’d create such landscapes for technical showcasing.
Adding some extra excitement and interest to this returning favourite is its addition of two-player cooperative play. Now, two friends can team up to try to take down the Covenant (and the flood foes who are introduced part-way through), on heroic or legendary difficulty. If you just want to have fun, then easier difficulties also work. Sometimes it’s enjoyable to just sit back and relax while playing on a casual difficulty with a good friend, though most will surely opt for the tougher challenges.
In order to add some extra incentive to dive back in, the team at 343 Industries added in collectible, game-changing skulls. For the uninitiated, these well-hidden items can be used to alter the way the game plays, acting as cheats. They’re accompanied by hidden terminals, which provide some neat motion comic-driven back story to the game’s plot. Finding all of them will give you much greater insight into events that led up to the game, following a plot line that wasn’t a part of Halo: Reach.
Also joining the action with this second release is competitive online multiplayer. Running through Halo: Reach, the Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary map set is completely playable from the disc’s menu, with an option to bring them into last year’s title. There’s a quality selection of well-designed maps, which feature a good assortment of game types, locations and levels. Multiplayer fanatics are surely going to love being able to play these classic maps online, as opposed to the work-intensive LAN parties everyone used to set-up. Making things even better is the fact that a Firefight map is included, alongside Reach-specific achievements and leveling. If you’re close to getting to that final rank in last year’s game, then this year’s will aid in that attempt.
Where Combat Evolved Anniversary is most impressive is in the presentation department. To say that the makeover artists put a ton of work into upgrading this game to high-definition would be an understatement. They went leaps and bounds further than a traditional resolution upgrade. Every environment found within this experience has been re-done with brand new texture work. The changes are both detailed and impressive, employing a look that resembles the series’ current generation releases. Purple and green are noticeable primary colours employed to give the world its own look and feel. While it’s easy to praise this new makeover, I did notice a couple of visual glitches as well as two bugs: one of which had Master Chief falling through a hill and into oblivion.
Although the game admittedly doesn’t look up to par with some of this generation’s most impressive visual feats, it’s certainly hard to say anything negative about the work that was done. This digital experience has never looked better, which is certainly to be expected. Despite that fact, most fans will still be surprised by how much effort and elbow grease went into this revamp, considering most high-definition upgrade sets don’t come close to this level of change. Of course, it’s easy to jump into a time machine in order to see what the title looked like ten years ago, as the back button presents a chance to switch back to its original look. Being able to jump back and forth on the fly (with only brief black loading screens in-between) is a great touch that adds an extra level of character to the production.
Those who own 3D enabled televisions can also shoot their way through the game’s campaign, while viewing it in an added dimension. Although I admit to not owning one myself, I did get a chance to watch part of one stage with glasses on, while at a Microsoft preview event. Based on what they showed, the third dimension certainly added some noticeable depth to the experience. It was impressive to see the needler’s spikes popping out of the screen, along with text overlays. Bullets whizzing by also showed well with the effect turned on.
Continuing along with presentation-based praise, it’d be a crime to overlook how good the music and sound effects are in this revamp. Its unique, interesting and polished original score is loud with great fidelity. The effects are obviously more prevalent, with intense explosions and well-designed bullet noises. The only downside to its audio has to do with the voice actors’ recorded volumes. While the dialogue is quite well-written and presented, half of it seemed lower than the other half. I had a hard time hearing lines in certain sections, with no issues to report during others. All the while, the music and sound effects were both prominent and boisterous.
Jumping back into this iconic piece of gaming history after at least nine years was an enjoyable time. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is a very good game which is certainly worth its forty dollar price tag. Although there are some noted issues and bugs, this is one trip back in time that Halo fans won’t want to miss out on. Those who have never played the game before, should certainly check it out as well, in order to see what all of the fuss is about. There’s quite a bit of bang for your buck here, which is always a good thing.
This review is based on a copy of the game that we received for review purposes.