Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Review
343 Industries boasts that Halo Anniversary’s nifty flashback feature highlights ten years worth of game design at the touch of button. It certainly represents a more startling transformation than the similar feature utilised in LucasArts’ Monkey Island remakes, but as a centrepiece for Halo’s trip through memory lane, it could prove to be its greatest stumbling block.
Anniversary opens with the purest of intentions; the preservation of a classic campaign, the exploitation of current technology (redefining the word juxtaposition) and a timely reminder to everyone where Halo came from and why it changed the way the world thinks about the FPS, games and how big blockbusters can get.
There’s no escaping its impact, no matter how many Modern Warfare games climb the charts; they will never have that same spark of originality that Halo: Combat Evolved had when it landed on unsuspecting gamers.
You can see the love that’s been poured into almost every piece of code in Anniversary and restarting its campaign brings with it an odd sense of nostalgia and retrospect.
It’s been ten years since we began our adventure with the Master Chief and stepping back onto the Pillar Of Autumn is a jarring experience. After playing through ten years worth of Halo evolution, both good and bad, returning to the source, as it were, elicits mixed emotions.
So much of Halo has been burnt onto our psyche, so much of it already in our minds, that seeing it with current-gen visuals brings about a weird dream-like sense of inertia.
It’s the same, but different. An odd middling situation to be in with such a familiar game, but 343 has taken the time to provide Anniversary with as many bells and whistles fans could want, while rather cunningly keeping it the all same, too.
Anniversary’s Elites have a look similar to Reach and will still duck and weave away from your shots.
A brilliant idea, if it worked as intended. The problem is, most of Anniversary’s issues, and unfortunately they are many, derive from 343’s insistence that Combat Evolved gets a current-gen coating rather than rebuild its engine from the ground up, or even present the old game with a perfectly acceptable HD sheen.
As an industry that’s evolution peaks and troughs with the introduction of new technology, we have seen a steady levelling out of game design. This has been highlighted with the recent increase of HD remakes appearing on our shelves.
The Tomb Raider of today is largely reminiscent of the Tomb Raider of yesterday, and remakes show just what has changed over the years. But, there have been no leaps of the kind Halo provided and Anniversary is stuck in the middle of this feeling like a ten year old game with better than average visuals.
Our blockbuster-heavy gaming calendar can be attributed to the impact of Bungie’s original game all those years ago, too. 343 has been vocal about its assertions that Combat Evolved, with its Anniversary updating, has more than enough clout to compete with today’s best shooters.
We’d love to agree, but as with anything that has seen such a large passage of time go by, it’s become something of a time capsule, perfectly encapsulating the thinking of the day and no matter how forthright and advanced that was, it’ll never entirely hold up.
There are moments throughout Halo’s campaign that showcase why 343 would make that assumption, and it’s rather telling that those best moments are the very same ones you’ll hear Halo fans talk about when pushed to describe their love for all things Bungie, but Anniversary shouldn’t have to compete with today’s best games; it’s best remembered as their inspiration.
The reworked sound effects and music lend the action a beefier, meatier feel to the combat.
Those first steps onto the ring, jumping into a warthog and rescuing stranded marines, a beach assault and subsequent level that sees you traverse an entire island and interior.
These are levels and experiences that are quite rightly revered as among the best that last-gen technology could provide. Not only because they’re intelligent, well thought out and ambitious, but because they expertly walk the line of player freedom and funnelling on to the next objective. Something even modern games struggle to strike.
That these suffer from technical issues becomes 343’s biggest problem with Anniversary. Disappointment in its representation of Halo’s best moments can be encapsulated in one particular technical gripe; framerate.
There is no reason that a ten-year-old game, even with modern visuals, should suffer from such frequent and crippling framerate issues. What starts out as an excusable dropping and visible struggling to maintain the action during the big open environments that Halo became famous for, is exacerbated in the later levels when the Covenant and Flood lock horns. It’s here that things boarder on the embarrassing and it begs the question; why is such an old game struggling to keep up?
The answer could lie at the heart of Anniversary’s reliance on the original code. The ability to jump back and forth between the old visuals and the new is no doubt a compelling reason to return to Halo’s hallowed ring, but it’s not enough when it’s a technical struggle.
There’s a level of difference that fluctuates in quality, too, with some levels showing a greater degree of change than others. Most of the time Anniversary’s levels highlight just how far we’ve come, while others offer miniscule differences between the two.
When things heat up, Anniversary struggles to maintain its framerate and in the later levels this becomes a serious issue.
That its signature function takes three to four seconds too long to implement doesn’t do itself any favours and it’s something that, rather than be used to quickly refer to a certain moment, is left to those special Halo instances you know it will have an impact on.
Anniversary is a mixture of Halo brilliance and imperfections, both new and old. When Bungie’s campaign hits its highs there is very little that can detract from it. Whether you remember the Library as an epic slog or the Flood as an incessant irritation, it’s still an incredible achievement and one that’s right to be preserved.
While visually this is leaps and bounds beyond the original game, it doesn’t quite hit what Bungie managed with Reach. There’s a very definite sense that 343 has coated Halo with some shiny graphics and, occasionally, it breaks at the seams revealing what’s underneath.
When Anniversary works at its best, it’s allowing Bungie’s original game to shine through unencumbered. Fantastic moments of pure sand-box invention that show off the AI (which is still excellent) and allows you to approach combat the way you want.
That Halo’s last-gen legs only just fall short of this-gen’s expectations is nothing short of amazing, which is why it’s disappointing to see that Anniversary doesn’t technically live up to Halo’s memory as well as it should. 343 Industries approach has been almost flawless.
Allowing the original to shine through, warts and all, while updating it for a modern audience is the right way to execute a high profile remake.
The problem is, 343 has allowed for some new warts to creep in that detract from the experience and render the update redundant. Is this a better way to play Halo than on an original Xbox, as it was intended?
Unfortunately, we’d say no. But that shouldn’t detract from what this celebratory package does get right. Its adherence to the core of what made the original game the landmark that it is, is on clear display and should not be ignored.
More games should have benefited from a campaign this considered and ahead of its time. We just wish that today’s tech was capable of handling 343’s vision of uniting Halo, new and old, in Anniversary’s ambitious, but flawed, package.