The world was a very different place in 2001. Call of Duty hadn’t been released yet, Medal of Honor was good, and fans of first-person shooters were still searching for health packs instead of waiting for their health to regenerate automatically. And then Halo came out to completely change the landscape, not only of the first-person shooter, but of gaming in general.
Ten years later, there’s probably not a gamer in the States who hasn’t heard of Halo. The image of Master Chief has become synonymous with Microsoft’s consoles, and perhaps even of gaming itself. But with recent additions in the series, like Reach and ODST, the original tale that started this phenomenon is becoming a rapidly fading memory from a past generation. 343 Industries wants to change this, throwing players back in the shoes of Master Chief himself and letting them re-experience the story of Combat Evolved in HD. Now, calling this game a remake is almost doing it a disservice. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary was completely rebuilt from the ground up, with new textures and character models (though several of the character models may have been imported from Reach.) But is there room for a ten-year-old title on your shelf alongside all the great games that have come out this year?
The answer to that depends on what type of person you are. If you’ve never played a Halo game and are looking for a good jumping in point, then CE Anniversary is a must-buy. If you’re absolutely in love with the CE story and want to play through it again in glorious HD, again, this is a must-own title. If you’re the kind of player who won’t even touch a single-player campaign but will spend dozens of hours in online multiplayer, then this title is a strong “maybe.” But for you, there is a second option. More on that later. The most important thing to know about CE Anniversary is that it’s the exact same campaign you played back in 2001, right down to the positions of the enemies. Only it’s been given an exhaustive graphical makeover to the point you might not even recognize screenshots of it as being from CE. The muddy, blurry textures that were so prevalent at the beginning of the original Xbox’s lifespan have been removed, replaced with much more highly detailed ones. To top it off, bland landscapes have been filled with ferns and other sundry types of vegetation, giving you the impression that this is a world that lives and breathes. Character models have been given an overhaul as well; the Covenant, Flood, and even the Marines have new life, and the grunts in particular look suspiciously like those found in Reach. Now, the reason the aesthetic is so important here is that, ten years ago, Halo completely blew us away with its atmosphere. The fact that we weren’t on Earth was apparent everywhere we looked, from the strange ring shape of the world itself—which we could see extending off into space—to the alien architecture that dotted the landscape.
The graphics aren’t the only new addition though. Every mission has a hidden terminal to discover, which will show you a video that gives you a deeper look at some of the lore. I originally expected these to be simple blocks of text, but they are actually full videos done with a mix of CGI and painting-style animations. They look incredible, and are well worth the effort of searching for them all. Also, Skulls, which weren’t originally implemented until Halo 2, have been hidden in some obscure places, and finding them allows you to tweak your gameplay experience. Generally, Skulls make the game more difficult, doing things like increasing enemy health or lowering the amount of ammo you gain from drops. And, of course, there is a full list of achievements to help you bolster your GamerScore. organic, natural landscapes with the bizarre metal structures that were obviously built by some sort of sentient beings with remarkable technology. With the overhauled visuals, this contrast becomes even starker. Driving a Warthog on the beach in the beginning of “The Silent Cartographer” is a great example of where this dichotomy works brilliantly. Another example, and perhaps my favorite, is the downed Pillar of Autumn in the middle of the desert in the game’s final chapter.
If you are a complete purist and want to experience the exact game you did back in 2001, you can use the back button at any time to toggle the graphics back to the 2001 original. There is an option to toggle the audio back to the non-remastered version as well. And speaking of the audio, it’s as great here as it’s always been, only now it’s been remastered for a higher quality overall experience. As I mentioned earlier, it’s the contrast between the organic and the alien that makes Halo such a standout experience, and the score emphasizes this. With its monastic chants layered with synthesized string sounds, or tribal beats played on electronic drums and punctuated with electric guitar riffs, Halo manages to sound both ancient and modern at the same time.
However, as beautiful as the game looks and sounds now, it still shows its age. The character models may have been given extraordinary amounts of detail, but the low polygon counts of objects in the environment don’t always lend themselves to the incredibly rich textures that have been applied to them. However, purists of the Halo mythos won’t find complaint with this, as every last bend in every last rock is in the exact spot as it was in the original game. But no amount of visual fidelity can hide the fact that the gameplay feels a little outdated. Not as much as other shooters from this era, mind you, but dated nonetheless. This is the most apparent in the middle portion of the game, in which you’ll traverse cut-and-paste versions of the same exact rooms over and over. And toward the end, it’s hard to ignore the fact that most of the second half of the campaign is spent backtracking through the first half.
The controls are unmistakably Halo. The franchise has once again omitted the option to let players use ironsights. But this is something Halo fans have come to expect. Even Reach, which released just last year, didn’t have this feature, and, truth be told, it would feel out of place in a Halo game. If you’re used to the more modern control schemes of shooters like Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3, you might have to spend some time getting used to the Halo setup. Yet once you do, it all begins to feel natural, though admittedly not as refined as Reach. But if you’ve played CE before, you’ll find those nostalgia centers of your brain kicking in and taking over. I have to admit, though, that driving Warthogs is as awkward as it was back in 2001, and this makes the ending sequence a bit more frustrating than it would be otherwise.Of course, for many, it’s the multiplayer experience that draws them to Halo. After all, this was the shooter you’d find in just about every dorm room in the United States circa 2001. CE Anniversary has a scaled-down multiplayer package, with six classic maps selected from Halo: CE and Halo 2, as well as a brand new Firefight map called Installation 04. These maps have been rebuilt in the Reach engine, making them compatible with Halo: Reach. In fact, if you want to skip the CE campaign altogether, you can just download the multiplayer portion as a map pack for Reach. If you do buy CE Anniversary, though, you’ll get a code to download the maps so you can access them from either CE Anniversary or Reach.
And the Reach engine means that besides Reach’s graphics, you’ll have the Reach HUD, the Reach version of the assault rifle (32 rounds per clip rather than CE’s 64), and, most importantly, Reach’s smoother controls. Even the Warthogs feel less awkward in multiplayer than they do in the campaign. All in all, this is a welcome return to an adventure that changed the face of gaming a decade ago. The upgraded look does a lot to bring back that sense of awe that we felt the first time we played the game. The multiplayer experience is small, but the compatibility with Reach means there will be a larger pool of people playing these maps. If you’ve never played the game that launched the Halo franchise, or if you’ve been longing for a return to this adventure, pick this up. If you’re only interested in multiplayer, the map pack is a solid purchase as well.
Make sure you pick this one up, and remember what made the Xbox what it is today, and witness what game made it all, and started a trend, a community, and to some, a lifestyle.