Halo Anniversary: Returning to the Ring
Bringing a classic back to life, warts and all.
A decade is a long time in video games, and going back to Bungie's very first Halo game goes to shows how far we've come since 2001's Combat Evolved.
There's a pastel wash across the original's textures, an endearing naivety to its threadbare narrative and a raw simplicity to its gunplay that all speak of an era that seems so much further away than it really is. It's a relic, but it's a fairly youthful one.
And, in Halo Anniversary, ten year's worth of progress is condensed onto one button, with a simple press swapping out the original's visuals for a sparkier, more cluttered world.
It certainly looks good enough to rub shoulders with the shooter class of 2011, even if it's missing some of the loud-mouthed bombast of Call of Duty and Battlefield.
Play Halo Anniversary on a hulking 3D TV in surround sound and it even seems like Combat Evolved has found its true home - plasma grenades sparkle with furious fidelity, while the alien worlds are brought to vivid life as the matte skybox of the original now shimmers with detail.
It's a remake, but it's one of a very different order to the recent HD ports of Bluepoint Games on the PlayStation 3 - a curious tangle of old and new that's both faithful to the original whilst managing to reimagine it completely.
And as a collaborative effort between Saber Interactive, 343 Industries and Certain Affinity, it's a unique achievement. Here, producer Dennis Ries takes us through Halo Anniversary, the challenges it presented and its controversial Kinect implementation.
Eurogamer: How long's work been going on with Anniversary?
Dennis Ries: Well, we say it's been ten years in the making. But as far as work on this one goes, it's probably been a year and a half to two years. As long as two years ago we really started talking about a remake, and it was very challenging to know how to do this because we knew we wanted to stay true to the classic gameplay - and how to do that took a lot of effort. We went on a partner search to find someone to do that, and that's when we found Saber.
Eurogamer: So why Saber? What is it about them that attracted 343 to the studio?
Dennis Ries: One of the things about Saber is that they're a great tech house. We sat and we met with them and they had a great solution, which really allowed us to use the existing game code with their updated graphics and audio, and it gave us the best of both worlds.
Eurogamer: Was that tech that they had up and running already?
Dennis Ries: No, it was something they had to put together for this game.
Eurogamer: It's quite an eccentric and unique take on the concept of a remake. Was it always the plan to have this approach?
Dennis Ries: Not always the plan, but when we sat down and started talking about it we started talking about how we'd use the existing game engine and improve it. But after we went through all the [potential] partners, Saber came up with the most elegant solution.
Eurogamer: Was the artwork for Anniversary taken from Bungie themselves, or did 343 and Sabre produce their own to guide the game?
Dennis Ries: Where we could we used assets from Halo 3 or Reach, but when there weren't any available it was 343 working with Saber for the campaign. Obviously for the multiplayer it was Certain Affinity [the studio behind Reach's most recent multiplayer maps] but we had the same art director on both so you have the same feel, even though they're both completely different.
Eurogamer: There are a growing number of remakes that are starting to hit the market recently. Why do you think that, at this point in the console's lifespan, there's this new trend for revisiting older games?
Dennis Ries: Well, we're reaching that ten-year mark, and oftentimes it becomes the tailend of a console era - and you end up with a great combination of this developed IP and people trying to figure out how to keep it alive, and how to keep it interesting. It's been something the fans have wanted for a long time, and they've been asking for it since the launch of Halo 2 - it's funny, we've been searching for the right time, and with the Anniversary and with Halo fest and all these great things happening, we thought now's the best time.
"There were times when we contemplated tinkering, but we really wanted to keep this game, warts and all, as it was."
Eurogamer: Remakes and remasters are slightly more prevalent in films - but it does prove slightly problematic sometimes, and I'm thinking particularly of Star Wars and its subsequent releases. Have you been mindful of those problems when making Anniversary?
Dennis Ries: Well, you think about continuity of the franchise and making sure that you don't change things too much, and staying true to what the original was. Without speaking for whether or not Star Wars was good or bad or how they did the remakes, from our perspective one of the things that was important to us was making sure we stayed true to what it was ten years ago.
So even now with the fiction, Kevin Grace and Frank O'Connor who overlook the fiction of the franchise were really involved with the terminal videos, so that they're inline with the books that are coming out. We tried to make sure we had real continuity there.
Eurogamer: One of the problems with the Star Wars remakes is how they've come to replace the originals. In sixty years time, what should be the version of Halo Combat Evolved that people should play?
Dennis Ries: In my perspective, it would be the version that you like best. What I love about this version is that you can flip back to the original and see what it looked like ten years ago. When we started looking at the remastered version, we knew gameplay would hold up, so it came down to the graphics. We knew there were going to be decisions we would make that some of the hardcore fans maybe wouldn't like. And that's why we have something like classic mode available.
Eurogamer: The gameplay does hold up really well, and Halo's really fortunate in that regard - there are not many other FPSs from ten years ago that still play so well. But there are areas - like AI - that feel a little rusty, especially in light of playing something like Reach. Was it tempting to tinker at all?
Dennis Ries: It was - there were times when we contemplated it, but we really wanted to keep this game, warts and all, as it was. It was tempting, but we made sure not to do that, so people could relive that magic.
Eurogamer: It feels odd playing the new version - when playing the new mode it feels laggy, but flip to the old version and it feels fine. Maybe it's psychological, that when you have this high def game in front of you, you also expect the fidelity of controls that contemporary shooters have.
Dennis Ries: So things like sandbox animations, all of that remains the same. It's a little weird, because you'll see animations in the sandbox from ten years ago, and it feels a little unnatural at first. So yeah, I don't know if that's a lagginess, but I do understand there's a weirdness to it. I think that users will see that playing in the original mode is like it was 10 years ago.
Eurogamer: Obviously you've got the tech there - and it's quite impressive tech. Would you look for a return on your investment by bringing back Halo 2?
Dennis Ries: We're not really talking about anything in the future. We're happy with the tech and what it's done for the campaign. We're not talking about Halo 2, but anything's possible.
Eurogamer: Of course. Halo's been defined by its post-release support in the past - so what kind of support is Anniversary getting in the next twelve months?
Dennis Ries: You'll see a lot around the multiplayer space - we've spoken a bit about the title update we're doing, and you're going to see some things throw back so there'll be some changes to the pistol.
Eurogamer: The Terminals are in there too - and they're laying a foundation for Halo 4, right?
Dennis Ries: As we mentioned if you pay attention to the Terminal videos you can find some information on what's to come in Halo 4.
"I can see [that people might be upset] but I think we were able to mitigate a lot of that as we didn't really take away from people who didn't buy Kinect."
Eurogamer: And it seems to be pointing to a shift back towards the Forerunners for Halo 4.
Dennis Ries: So we're not talking about Halo 4 - but we are encouraging people to go and check this stuff out.
Eurogamer: Fair enough. You recently announced some of the Kinect features for Anniversary.
Dennis Ries: Really there's two major components of Kinect - one being the voice integration, so you'll be able to say grenade to throw your grenade, or even reload - and also there's analyse. If you say analyse, you get a filter on the screen to see what objects in the world you can analyse. Once you do you can scan these objects and scan them to the Library. Here you'll be able to look at a lot of the fiction and details around what those assets are - so it becomes something of a collector's game.
Eurogamer: It's exclusive to Kinect, this mode - can you understand why the fans would be upset that it's Kinect-only?
Dennis Ries: One of the things we did was make sure that there are no achievements associated with Kinect. From a production standpoint, Kinect made it very easy for us to do voice integration. So that seemed like the best way to go. As far as the content goes, it is all available online.
More on Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary
Eurogamer: So this content's all on Waypoint?
Dennis Ries: Yes, you can get it all on Waypoint. Yes, I can see [that people might be upset] but I think we were able to mitigate a lot of that as we didn't really take away from people who didn't buy Kinect. If you have Kinect, it's a great feature. Similar with the 3D stuff - if you have a 3D TV, you're going to use it.
Eurogamer: What percentage of users do you see using Kinect?
Dennis Ries: Honestly, I don't know - I hope a lot. I think it's a fun feature - it's one of the features that is kind of surprising. At first I didn't know what to think of it, but it's a lot of fun.
Eurogamer: One year on from Kinect's launch, it's got a growing number of dedicated games but core games are adopting it in quite a curious way. Where do you see the integration of Kinect and core games going?
Dennis Ries: From our perspective it was important for Halo Anniversary to not disrupt the core gameplay, as that's been our pillar the entire time. So we looked at it being additive - how could we enhance the core gameplay without changing it?
Eurogamer: But would that change for future Halo games?
Dennis Ries: Well, you know we're not really talking about those right now!