Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Review
Better than Halo?
Version tested: Xbox 360
Revisiting past masters is a prickly business that video games are only just beginning to dabble in, with varying degrees of success. Do you go for preservation or reinvention? Either way, you've got to tread carefully, for you're stepping on the precious memories of those who hold the originals dear.
There have been, of late, Bluepoint Games' delicate remasters, restoring Ico and Shadow of the Colossus to glories they never knew and providing a more modern theatre for the bloody spectacle of God of War. There are the curios, repackaged and reskinned for audiences new; witness Treasure's brilliant revivals of Radiant Silvergun and Guardian Heroes, and Daytona USA's 13-years-overdue homecoming earlier this month.
Then there are the remakes, a trickier business still, the most recent and most successful being Grezzo's reworking of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. An elegantly handled return to Hyrule that managed to offer a drastic visual overhaul while staying faithful to the tone of the aging original, Grezzo's masterstroke was presenting the game as you remember it, handling those memories with care and massaging them onto a new console.
Confusing Halo Anniversary with memories of Bungie's 2001 original is unlikely. Saber Interactive's take on the campaign throws up a surprisingly modern game thanks to its aesthetically aggressive makeover, throwing in everything you'd expect of a first-person shooter in the HD age.
It's an approach that can work to brilliant effect, too. The beaches of the Silent Cartographer, Combat Evolved's most lauded set-piece, are now lapped by more dynamic waters that reflect a redrawn skybox, the thin clouds of the original lent new volume, an added dash of purple being thrown into the previously clear blue expanse.
Old textures are ripped out and replaced with ones more fit for purpose on an HD screen, while Marty O'Donnell's soundtrack - re-recorded by the Skywalker Orchestra - thunders out in full-blooded 5.1 surround sound, lending a sense of Hollywood that the original could only allude to. One button washes away the new look in a near-instant, and Halo's classic visuals, untouched but now presented in 16:9 widescreen, look shockingly simple in comparison.
Anniversary looks like a modern game, and it's the greatest testament to Combat Evolved that, with the mechanics of the original untouched, it plays like one too. Bungie spent the best part of a decade trying to recapture the brilliance of the original campaign, and it's arguable that it ever really managed to - and the likes of Reach and Halo 3, for all their many achievements, certainly never bested the tale of Master Chief and Installation 04.
As a first-person shooter, Combat Evolved remains a remarkably open experience, and in the context of this year's slew of Simon Says shooters, a refreshing one too. There's a dizzying sense of freedom that undercuts even the most scripted of moments: set-pieces like the fraught opening of Truth and Reconciliation are still alive with possibility, while Assault on the Control Room, with its contrasting expansive battlefields and tightly woven honey-comb interiors, remains a masterpiece of level design.
It's a perfectly tuned toy-box, and one that's a pleasure to tinker with. At times, when playing on Heroic difficulty, the trial-and-error nature seems more akin to a Trials HD than any shooter contemporaries; a little delicate squeeze of the trigger at just the right moment can break you out of a fatal loop in which every failure is met with Master Chief thrown across the scenery like a doll being violently discarded.
And what toys Combat Evolved offers. Playing with Halo's original set of tools - before they were mutated, watered down or repurposed - is an absolute treat. The Magnum pistol remains gloriously overpowered, a pocket-sized powerhouse that's just as effective close up as it is at long range, and it's met on the Covenant side with a Needler that's utterly brutal. The Assault Rifle, meanwhile, is as reliable as it ever was, perfect for painting pockets of enemies with peppery bullet spray.
Ten years on and the Covenant forces of Combat Evolved still impress with their intelligence in a fight. Elites, when faced on the right difficulty level, are infused with a menace that's undercut by the comic relief of the Grunts, Halo's divisive cannon fodder. (And for what it's worth, I don't find them as much as a nuisance as some. You can, after all, always stop their chatter with the butt of your rifle.)
"Bungie spent the best part of a decade trying to recapture the brilliance of the original campaign, and it's arguable that it ever really managed to."
There is, of course, the Flood to consider too, and the passing years haven't been kind to an aspect of the original that's always been a sore point. Their arrival still heralds a noticeable sagging in the campaign towards the latter half as they make their presence felt, and one of the only legacy problems that Anniversary finds itself having to face.
Anniversary's real problems, though, are more intangible, and the appendages to the aesthetic upgrade come across as either wrong-headed or just plain wrong. Kinect features are limp at best - an Analyse mode bathes the screen in thermal vision, with objects scanned to a library where they can be examined later. It is, though, more than a little awkward in implementation, and the rewards - a series of 3D assets dimly illuminated with some scant text - are hardly worth the effort.
It's one of the omissions that cuts the deepest. Multiplayer sits awkwardly aside the main campaign via a series of classic maps playable in Reach's separate game engine, which also hosts a new Firefight map - Installation 04 - that's modelled after one of the second level's Forerunner structures. A more powerful Magnum helps complement the nostalgia, but it's a poor substitute for the four-player split-screen of the original that's sadly been nixed for Anniversary.
Terminals are one of Anniversary's new offerings, little panels ferreted away in corners of the remastered campaign that expand on Halo's increasingly stretched mythology. There are glimpses, for those immersed enough in the lore to decipher them, of what lies in wait for Halo 4, though it's ultimately jarring to see the simple sci-fi of the original mixed in with the weighty and self-important mythos that's increasingly marred the series. It's a conflict that's felt more urgently elsewhere.
There's a grating tension at the heart of Anniversary, and its visuals, for all of their splendour, lack the harmony of Grezzo's work on Ocarina of Time. Instead of being teased into the new look, the original's artwork is too often just trampled over. The golden brown dust of Combat Evolved's world has been turned to burning white sand, while the dark expanses at the depths of the Forerunner architecture have been lit up and filled out with panels of electric-blue steel. There's still a sense of wonder here, but it's a more garish one than the melancholic fantasy conjured by Bungie.
And if at times Anniversary's new look is insensitive, at others it's just plain clumsy. Some of Bungie's visual cues have mysteriously not made the journey over to the remastered version, the flashing doors that signpost the way in Assault on the Control Room being absent in Anniversary's new mode. Cloaked elites, meanwhile, are hidden within the new detail and clutter, demanding that you often have to switch over to the classic visuals in order to progress.
It makes for a curious game, and one that's as problematic as it is exhilarating. This is no longer Bungie's Halo, though much of what made the original so successful is here and intact. It's an awkward reinvention that manages to be at once faithful and a little wide of the mark. But such is the strength of Combat Evolved, this is still an Anniversary that's worth celebrating.
8 / 10