Halo: Combat Evolved was released for the original Xbox in 2001, and the years have not been kind. While it was a revelation for console gamers at the time it never held up to pinnacles of the genre like Half-Life or Duke Nukem 3D, and in the decade since its release shooters have gotten steadily more thrilling and exciting. Going back to to this one- well, it almost feels quaint in comparison.
Yet going back to it is just what 343 Industries, the guys behind the Halo Waypoint app, hope you’ll do with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. They’ve taken the original game and overhauled it completely, refitting it with the Halo: Reach engine, redoing some of the maps for multiplayer and adding a few useless features on top of it.
But first, let’s talk about the actual game. The combat is still very fun and enjoyable, the open levels somewhat refreshing in this age of the linear shooter. Co-op is still a blast and now for the first time you’ll be able to play it over Xbox Live with a friend. But with the exception of a few moments (the thrilling climax level in particular) the game’s flaws are more evident than ever. The “Assault on the Control Room” level in particular contains some utterly shoddy level design, with each area looking exactly the same as the last, just metal corridor after metal corridor. Designers- when you have to put arrows on the floor directing people to the exit you should know that you've created a nightmare to navigate.
Then there’s The Flood. The cheapest enemies ever. The inclusion of these zombie-like creatures completely changes the feel of the game, turning it from a smart tactical shooter into a straight up run and gunner. Gamers hated these enemies so much that Bungie was eventually forced to remove them from the series entirely.
You’ll also realize just how terrible your disposable AI soldier companions are, since you’ll be driving them around a bunch hoping they’ll aim at the aliens that are shooting you, and groaning when you realize that every single one is basically Hudson from Aliens. No one’s a professional, they’re all yelling taunts and crying out when they’re scared. You won’t care that nearly all of them die by your side (or at your hand, AHEM).
But grab a friend and you’ll have a fun time playing through the campaign and remembering just how fantastic the soundtrack is even if you’ve got many superior co-op games to play through now.
The biggest draw with Halo: Anniversary is of course the revamped graphics but the original game is only a generation old, and still looks serviceable enough. Remaking this wasn’t as big a jump as The Secret of Monkey Island or something- the game still works fine by modern standards. As in Monkey Island you can actually switch back and forth from Classic look to Remastered on the fly with the push of a button, or by talking to your Kinect (more on that in a bit). The Remastered version looks good but Halo: Reach isn’t exactly the pinnacle of modern graphics, and sometimes I had to hit the button to switch the graphics to remember which one was on.
The geometry of the levels are the same Classic or Remastered with the addition of a few new collectible items like skulls and terminals, because nothing makes a shooter better than crap to pick up. Each level has a terminal you can access that will show you a short video featuring that annoying little robot Guilty Spark as he narrates some piece of backstory. It’s really for the purists only, no one else will know or care what he’s talking about.
The biggest new feature is the Kinect functionality. Say “Analyse” during the campaign and the screen will turn black and white and highlight enemies, weapons and vehicles in orange. Say “Scan” and you’ll scan the item in so that you can read more about it later, reading about its place in the history of Halo. But why wasn’t this small encyclopedia just included as an extra feature open from the start, instead of requiring Kinect owners to go on a hunt during the game, slowing down the already slow place? Nevermind that anyone who doesn’t own the Kinect is locked out from this feature completely.
Then there’s the problem that the Kinect voice recognition isn’t up to snuff, as you’ll sometimes have to say a word multiple times for it to register it. Some of the commands you can use during the game include “Grenade”, “Reload” and “Flashlight”, but you’ll try these once and never do it again. Why? Because you’ll go “Grenade! Grenade! Grenade. Grenade? XBOX, FUCKING GRENADE!” and then it’ll finally throw it long after you needed it, and you’ll wonder why you just didn’t pull the left trigger in the first place. Even when the command works the first try there’s noticeable lag, so I’m not sure why you’d ever use it.
As for the multiplayer, it’s a map pack for Halo: Reach that contains seven multiplayer maps from Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2, as well as a new map for Firefight mode, “Installation 04”. Here is where you’ll remember why you fell in love with Halo in the first place. The multiplayer is still fast and great and these maps really are classics, although the very first time I got killed in a game the guy teabagged me. War... war never changes.
So that’s what we’re left with, a relatively pointless remake with some great new (old) maps. Even at a $40 budget title this still feels like a ripoff. While you can play the multiplayer maps off the Halo: Anniversary disc you are also given a code to download them to play in Halo: Reach. If you own Halo:Reach and don’t want to pick up this new game you can merely pick up the map pack on the XBox Live Marketplace for $15. Then if you need to revisit Halo: Combat Evolved you can find a $10 copy for the Xbox that works just fine in your 360, or even download it from the Marketplace. Of course, if you want the pretty graphics and needless updates and all those sweet, sweet achievements, you know where to go. The rest of you need only know that this shooter’s time has sadly passed us by.