Games, unlike almost every other entertainment medium, are rarely considered to get better with age. On the contrary, in the eyes of fans, the next game is always the best. Rather than celebrate what is and has been, we tend to concentrate on what is yet to come.
The reason for this is that – for all the chest pumping and colourfully written press releases about new gameplay features, new design ideals and innovation – this is a technology driven industry. New consoles, new game engines, new input systems; these are the things we tend to associate with leaps forward in videogames. And that’s a shame, because (again, unlike other mediums) new generations of videogame fans often miss out on classic gems of the past.
Enter HD releases, the industry’s way of bringing older products to a modern audience. These are usually simple visual upgrades focused on improved textures, reduced visibility of hard edges and barely anti-aliased lines. Case in point: Resident Evil 4 HD and the God of War Collection.
While these are nice, there’s no hiding the fact that they generally still look incredibly outdated and have almost no chance of attracting an audience beyond those looking for a nostalgia fix.
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is both something different and something better than that. The visuals here have not only been improved but they’ve been re-imagined with completely new textures, particle effects and lighting systems painted over the top of the world. To say this edition looks as good as Gears of War or Uncharted would be a gross exaggeration, it’s truer to say the visual quality is something closer to Half-Life 2. No matter what, though, it’s impressive.
What’s more impressive is that the new aesthetics have been created with a respect that honours the original rather than obscuring it. Stepping out of the crash-landed emergency escape pod and taking that first glimpse of the re-imagined planet of ‘Halo’ is wondrous – at once familiar and fresh.
The happy emotions are not just reinvigorated by Halo itself, your first glimpse of Cortana, your first headshot with the pistol and getting behind the wheel of the fishtailing Warthog feel more brilliant than ever thanks to the redesign. Purists will likely sneer at such a remark but it’s hard to emphasise just how big a difference the visuals make.
It’s genuinely amazing that 343 Industries has managed to stamp their own mark so decisively without spoiling the memory of one of the most cherished games of the past decade. Plus, at the press of the ‘Back’ button you can revert back to the original visuals at any point. No menus, no restarting levels, no fuss – you can switch back and forth as often as you want without interrupting your game. The system works in a similar way as the releases of the original Monkey Island games.
No matter the quality of the visuals, however, what no HD release/re-imagining/remake can hide is outdated gameplay. But here’s the thing, Halo’s gameplay barely feels outdated at all. It seems that the original was so far ahead of its time that everyone else has only just caught up.
When it’s all said and done, the original Halo gameplay remains the finest of the series to date. Yes, Reach and Halo 3 were impressive (I tend to shun Halo 2 and ODST) but they were simply attempts to refine the already stunning gameplay of the first game. For its purity and clarity of design, this is the finest of all Halo campaigns and it’s a joy to play in this new skin.
Master Chief’s movement is slick, fluid and opens up all kinds of avenues of attack when combined with the shock and awe of explosives (grenades and rocket launchers) and crafty use of the sniper rifle and pistol. When combined with vehicles there are so many different angles from which to approach a firefight.
The AI still stands up well, also. Enemies disband and panic when their squad leader is killed, they’ll jump on the nearest turret whenever possible and snipers do a good job of blocking off areas of the map you’d otherwise use to exploit weaknesses in the close quarters enemies.
Plus, Halo’s regenerating shield and energy bar combo is still the health system of all first-person shooters; promoting aggression but punishing foolishness.
The only real weakness in the gameplay comes from the level design of interior areas, but even then it’s a rare occurrence. The inside of space shuttles/stations and land bases can feel bland due to use of cut-and-paste corridor sections. These moments can be difficult to navigate due to the lack of distinguishing features. Backtracking can feel tiresome as you prepare yourself for the lack of visual variety you’re about to experience for at least the second time.
It’s also a fairly difficult game. I think this generation’s shooters have numbed my FPS campaign skills because Halo is a lot more difficult than I remember it being. At one point in chapter three I must have died 10 times in the same area, a checkpoint structure that’s far less generous than games of the past five years making each death a bitter pill to swallow. The number of enemies on-screen at one time is less than the 360 Halo games, but the challenge is still significant.
The new co-op campaign support does make things easier, but as usual with this kind of thing, whether or not playing as a duo improves the experience is entirely down to your partner. Playing in the same room with a friend via split-screen or system link is the best way to go as you’re properly able to celebrate your successes and argue your failures in a manner impossible online.
Multiplayer consists of six maps that employ the same rules as Halo: Reach. This means you’ve got the use of jump packs, active camo and the series’ newest weapons, plus everything else in between. Your profile is consistent across the two games, meaning you’ll start at whatever rank and with whatever unlocks you’ve acquired from your Reach online games. The six maps can be downloaded to your hard-drive which allows you to access and play them online with your Reach disc in the drive.
Firefight, the wave-based Horde Mode imitator, also makes an appearance. As does the customisation station that is Forge Mode and the game modifying Skulls.
Considering Halo Combat Evolved Anniversary is being sold at a reduced price, I really can’t see any reason not to take the plunge given how well the gameplay still holds up and the tender way in which it’s been repackaged. Whether you’re a veteran looking to experience the original magic for a second time or a newcomer wondering what all the fuss is about, this is an excellent package.
Perhaps 343 Industries really are up to the job of taking the reins of this Halo thing after all…