Many entertainment items belong in the hallowed halls of retrospect where silver isn’t merely limited to their linings. This is because of how beautifully our brains work in regards to treasured memories. It seems that in these hallowed halls, the only entertainment items served on the menu are delicious and untainted feasts. There was a time when Star Wars and Indiana Jones remained pure items of bliss. But then an evil remaking force came along and tarnished those treasured memories.
Because of this, it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I looked forward to the release of Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary.
For those who missed the boat on Halo: Combat Evolved, the original game now remade tells the sci-fi tale of a single human spaceship that’s on the run from an enemy armada. The story begins with the lone ship accidentally stumbling on an ancient relic known as ‘halo, just before their Covenant foes—a union of zealous alien species hell bent on discovering Earth and eradicating humanity—arrive and all hell breaks loose. Players step into the shoes of Master Chief, a genetically modified super warrior who kicks all kinds of arse.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Halo: Combat Evolved -- a launch title for the original Xbox -- Microsoft thought it wise to remake the popular shooter and see if they could get Halo fans to part with more dollars. And at $70RRP a pop, it’s not too big an ask considering the pitch: a remastered version of the Combat Evolved campaign, online two-player co-op, prettified competitive multiplayer and a single Firefight (read: Halo horde) map that’s been redesigned with the Halo: Reach engine.
And that’s where the technical weirdness begins. While the single Firefight map is fun and as good looking as Halo 3 Cortana, the Reach engine hasn’t been used to update the visuals of the single-player campaign. This is both a good and bad thing. The good: Anniversary has been rebuilt on top of the original Halo: Combat Evolved engine, meaning that the gameplay and level design is faithful to the original game; think of it as an extremely fresh coat of paint. The bad: there are a lot of visual oddities at play that simply weren’t present in Halo: Reach, begging the question as to why they didn’t use the Reach engine for the whole experience.
While the enemy character models look better than ever, friendly characters don’t fare so well. The titular halo, that used to be such a wowing backdrop in the original game, seems incomplete, and switching back to the old graphics engine (a super cool feature) shows a more detailed backdrop than the prettier remake. Noticeable rendering issues occur throughout the game, even with the game installed, frame rate jutters occurred in cutscenes and intense firefights, graphics pop-in was heinously evident at times, and there was a black-screen pause when switching between the old and new graphics.
And then there’s the lip syncing that looks like a poorly dubbed version of a kung fu flick. It really is that bad and distracts from the storytelling. Speaking of storytelling, the Halo storyline still stands up as a compelling narrative nowadays, despite the inclusion of some additional cutscenes that feel more George Lucas than necessary. Thankfully, these are all optional; both in viewing and in the fact that you have to first discover them.
My experience with Anniversary was bittersweet, to say the least. It was incredible to revisit the only console shooter, outside of GoldenEye, that has shown me how well the first-person shooter genre can be translated to console in a way that didn’t leave me craving a keyboard and mouse. But at the same time, the technical issues mentioned above kept dragging me out of the reliving of my treasured Halo memories.
Technical issues went so far that at one point I thought I’d broken the game. After leaving it paused on a particular level for a couple of hours, I returned to what I dubbed a ‘white screen of death’. The sound was there, the game was there, but the visuals were not. I tried reloading the game, uninstalling it from the 360’s hard drive, and restarting a new save… all to no avail. The only ‘fix’ I discovered was to load up another profile.
Thankfully, I’d played a decent chunk of co-op the night before and was able to use my co-op partner’s save to play the game and continue from where we left off. On that note, for some odd reason Anniversary decided to save campaign progress to the secondary Xbox 360 profile (my co-op partner’s) and not the primary (mine). Given the game-breaking technical difficulty I encountered, I guess that was a blessing in disguise, though.
On the topic of co-op, it’s amazing how well Anniversary stands up as an example of an incredible cooperative experience. The only co-op oddity was the paradoxical cropping of the screen that cut off the bottom fifth of our weapons, making them look odd and incomplete. Cropping concerns aside, Halo was destined to be played cooperatively; despite the engaging storyline and effective dramatic beats (mostly due to the incredible score) that make it work so well as a solo outing. The way that the weapons work in regards to particular enemies almost demands an extra pair of hands. While I was a species elitist and preferred human weapons, these guns weren’t as effective against shielded foes as the alien arsenal.
And yet, when it came time to fight the Flood—an enemy type that requires different combat tactics than the Covenant—the shotgun reigned supreme. It would’ve been useful to have a co-op buddy in the second half of the Flood-filled game. Even on Normal difficulty, the enemy AI will throw curve balls at you. Turn the difficulty up to Heroic or Legendary and you’ll need to be on your toes at all times.
Given the time I lost trying to deal with technical difficulties, I had to rush through the second half of the game to get it done. And yet, despite the lost time, I regularly found myself enjoying the challenge of Halo as I got distracted with combat sections that I could have simply ran/drove/flown through. A host of new weapon sounds help to add to the overall feeling of badassery as you run and gun through a level, switching out weapons on the fly and mastering the deadly potency of the two grenade types.
I died quite a bit during my second-half speed run, but every time I came back and switched up my tactics, so too did the Covenant. And while the Flood operated on more of a zombie IQ level, their numbers and speed more than made up for their disinterest in cover and flanking manoeuvres.
One of the problems of Microsoft reviving this particularly fond gaming memory is that it highlights one major flaw of the original Halo (which carried on throughout the series): repeated level design. In fact, for an unfair chunk of the second half of the game, you’ll be revisiting environments played in the first half. This isn’t so bad when it’s the open areas that offer more combat options, but it’s intensely noticeable and more boring than not during the many samey interior locales of the campaign.
Gripes aside, by the time the credits rolled I still had a decent sense of satisfaction; mostly due to the simple yet effective way the last section of gameplay pans out. As a fan of the series (excluding ODST), I was chuffed to revisit such an iconic game which clearly had a lot of love behind it. It’s just a shame that it didn’t have some more time behind it, as it seems that the pressures of a 10-year game anniversary were more important than finessing certain areas. My treasured memories haven’t been completely destroyed, but the technical woes make this Halo remake more for the fans than anyone else.