It’s no secret that Halo: Combat Evolved shaped the 21st Century shooter. Just one year before Halo’s launch, Perfect Dark was the finest example of a console FPS. It says something that a decade later, Halo remains as playable as it was in 2001; while Perfect Dark feels like it should be locked away in the 90’s Nostalgia-closet right alongside Spice Girls and Rugrats. Halo still feels fresh because most contemporary shooters still have it to thank for elements we take for granted nowadays. Recharging health, the grenade-button, and being limited to two weapons are just a few highlights in Halo’s legacy.
The announcement of Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary at E3 this year surprised no-one, it was an apt time for a remake, and it would ensure Xboxers aren’t left with a Spartan-free year before the launch of Halo 4 in 2012.
I was recently given a behind-closed doors demonstration of the game that, while hands-off only, gave me some insight into the finer details of the remake. Like previously announced by 343, Anniversary’s campaign does not run on the Reach engine, but on a modified version of the original Combat Evolved engine. This is either a disappointment or a relief depending on your level of nostalgia for the original. 343 Executive Producer Dan Ayoub was quick to justify this decision to me, arguing that it ensures the game feels the way it did back then, but I’m personally skeptical.
Halo’s AI, enemy numbers, and general combat model has improved greatly with later iterations. It was almost a shame that Reach’s impeccable combat was wasted on a campaign that, while entertaining, did not match earlier Halo games in terms of pacing, narrative and atmosphere. Playing through Combat Evolved’s campaign, which for my money is the best in the series, with Reach’s near-perfect combat would have been a dream come true. As it is, animation, enemy-behaviour, as well as the number of enemies will be identical to that of Halo:CE. It seems, ironically, combat has not evolved.
Having said that, using the old engine does allow for a rather cool, and much-touted, feature: The ability to switch between the old and new at any point. In classic mode, the game looks exactly like it did ten years ago, albeit running in lovely widescreen. But at the touch of a button, foliage, sharper textures, shaders, and other snazzy effects are painted into the world.
This was beautifully shown off in the demonstration, where I was presented a personal favorite level: 343 Guilty Spark. Starting off in classic mode, the demo took us through the opening stages of the murky swamp, which looked good… or so I thought until it switched to the new graphics. Suddenly glowing, “Avatar-esque” foliage was everywhere. The rather unconvincing, jarring fogginess of the original level was replaced by a smooth haze, and the once-flat textures popped with new detail and strengthened color.
Halo:CE:A looks good. Not just in comparison to the original, but by the standards of the competition. Sure, the polygon-count and texture-resolution of the environments might not quite match the most technically advanced of games, but Halo’s ever-brilliant art direction makes up for that tenfold.
The final, and perhaps most interesting point of the presentation was the terminals. When playing in the new mode, one will be able to access terminals that function much like those of Halo 3, relaying exposition to the player. However, the terminals in Anniversary have a crucial difference: Instead of scrolling blocks of cryptic text (that would frustratingly disappear before one finished reading it), the terminals now present slickly-edited videos. I was shown the first one of these terminals, which depicted The Monitor warning The Pillar of Autumn crew to not approach Halo, then, as he assumably discovers humans are the descendants of the Forerunners, welcoming them. According to Dan Ayoub, these terminals will also hint towards events of Halo 4, something I’m sure fans of Halo’s fiction will appreciate.
There are too many remakes nowadays. From HD re-releases to “ultimate” editions of already-released games (I’m looking at you, Capcom), I’m sure we can all agree there’s too little fresh blood in the mainstream tier of videogames. Despite this, it’s hard to complain when you’re getting an oldie (a decade is old, right?) as good as Halo, refurbished as well as this. I wait eagerly for November 15th.