Monday, June 11, 2012

Xbox 360 review: Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary

Before releasing their first full game in the Halo series, 343 Industries revisited the original Halo: Combat Evolved, updating the graphics and soundtrack to bring it up to speed with current-gen games. The result is Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, a game which seeks to both appease fans of the original Xbox blockbuster and tide the community over until the release of Halo 4. Halo: Anniversary is nowhere near as bold an undertaking as previous entries in the series, but it is a project that required careful attention from the team at 343 Industries, lest they screw up one of the most popular games of all time and anger the fanbase.

The story and level design remains entirely faithful to the original Halo: CE, save for the obvious graphical facelift and the inclusion of terminals and skulls. As with Halo 3, the skulls must be collected from various hidden locations throughout the game, and can then be used to alter aspects of gameplay, such as the amount of ammo found in weapons and the disabling of Master Chief's radar. The terminals behave somewhat differently, however, as they feature fully animated sequences chronicling 343 Guilty Spark's time on Alpha Halo following the disappearance of the Forerunners but prior to The Pillar of Autumn's arrival. 343 Industries stated prior to Halo: Anniversary's release, these terminal videos hold ties to the story of Halo 4, but to what end exactly is something that remains to be seen.

As for the bulk of the gameplay, Halo: Anniversary controls significantly less smoothly than any of the Xbox 360 releases, but holds up fairly well for a game originally released in 2001. Splash damage radiuses are often inconsistent, while grenades have a significant delay before detonating. The Assault Rifle's range is decent, and it serves as one of the best long-range weapons next to the needler and sniper rifle. Vehicles tend to slide around while Master Chief is trying to exit them, which can be an annoyance when attempting hairpin turns or pinpoint accuracy on the higher difficulty settings.

As stated earlier, the graphics have seen a massive overhaul. There are so many fine details worked into every environment, from the Forerunner architecture and the inside of the Covenant ship Truth and Reconciliation. Halo: Anniversary is easily the most stylized and artistically-driven of all the Halo games released to date, and these two elements make the entire experience incredibly visually pleasing. In reality, the graphics are not as impressive as many current-gen games - Halo: Anniversary actually falls somewhere between Halo 3 and Halo: Reach in terms of its overall presentation. The dialogue is the same, and the marines will utter cheesy dialogue at times, but it all sounds much clearer than on the original Xbox. The soundtrack takes to the classic tunes, with a new twist for each. The Installation 04 theme has a very tribal sound to it, which is fitting, and the Honest Negotiation Suite has a powerful driving horn part that is followed by some gorgeous vocals. Meanwhile some of the other tunes are a bit more subtle and, as a result, are not quite as instantly memorable.

343 Industries has included the original Halo: Combat Evolved as a bonus for those who insist on playing the game as it originally was. The graphics can be changed at any time during the campaign with the press of the 'back' button on the 360 controller. While it is fun to switch back and forth a few times to see just how far the series has come since its debut, there is one feature of the updated Anniversary graphics that truly stands out - the lighting. Many of the environments in the original Halo are so dark that visibility ranges from low to nearly-impossible-to-see-anything. It's a nice inclusion for nostalgia's sake. But when navigating the underground tunnels of Alpha Halo, the new graphics are practically a requirement.

The original Halo's multiplayer element has been removed in favor of six multiplayer maps and one firefight map as re-imagined in Halo: Reach. All of the included maps are carried over from Combat Evolved, save for Headlong and Timberland, which originate from Halo 2 and Halo: PC respectively. It's a smart move on the part of 343 Industries, as sustaining the Reach multiplayer base means they do not have to compete with themselves. The maps can be played from either the Anniversary disc (where only those maps will be accessible) or from the Reach multiplayer (where they stand out as some of the best maps in any of the playlists). Also included is the Library, which catalogues any vehicles and species players scan in-game while using the Kinect. It is a feature that is entertaining for a brief while, but seems to be aimed primarily at players who are largely unfamiliar with the Halo universe.

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is not a groundbreaking title in the wildly popular series. The campaign is fun to revisit, but serves as a reminder to just how far the experience has come since Master Chief first set foot on the ring world. Halo: Anniversary was really only ever intended to present an updated version of the original Halo, not a grand reimagining. And to that end, it is quite successful.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)

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