Halo: CE Anniversary

Some of you may remember, back to a day just over 10 years back, when a little console called the XBox launched. It was, at the time, a seemingly suicidal attempt to challenge the dominance that Sony held over the home console market – albeit without much relevant interference from previous juggernaut Nintendo – and to establish a new console master. The XBox had such innovative features as an onboard hard drive (only standard on PCs since they were conceived) and a more interactive BIOS that let the owner of the console do things that had never really been possible with a home entertainment console before. At its launch, the XBox boasted such titles as Dead or Alive 3… Project Gotham Racing… Jet Set Radio Future (and I don’t think this launched in the US!) annnnnnnnd a very tiny game called Halo: Combat Evolved.

Most game fans, at least those who dabble in first person shooters, have played Halo: CE. Even in 2011, ten years after CE’s launch, with a whole new generation of gamers. At the very least, contemporary gamers are familiar with the Halo franchise, which has now spawned seven games (counting the offshoot Halo Wars), as well as novels, comics, and even an animated feature which tried to delve deeper into the mythology of the Halo universe. All of that – a billion dollar franchise – was spawned by this one little, innovative title.

Before I begin my review of the new game, launched a mere week ago, I think it’s important that we take a peek at the significance of Halo: Combat Evolved, as a franchise. Until CE launched, the gold standard for console FPS games was 007: Goldeneye, on the Nintendo 64. Now, Goldeneye is a fine game, and it actually incorporates many of the same elements that Halo would later exploit to their fullest potential, but there was never any danger of Goldeneye challenging PC titles like Counterstrike. At the time, the keyboard and mouse were irrefutably better for the world of the first person shooter. Goldeneye was really the pioneer that taught us how much fun it could be to play locally with a few friends split screen and try to kill one another. But Halo perfected this art; we learned to love the 16 player LAN, with a game that had faster pacing and a shallower learning curve than any PC-based shooter title, and was dramatically more advanced than Goldeneye.

You can look back and criticize the game now. It had poor multiplayer balance (well, really, the balance was excellent, so long as everyone had only a human pistol or sniper rifle), the single player re-used a lot of set pieces and enemy models, and the lack of true multiplayer – to be fair, XBox Live did not exist at this point! – made it impossible for Halo to truly outshine fully multiplayer active PC titles. But there is simply no denying that Combat Evolved launched a franchise which is now viewed as the flagship title of the XBox and Xbox 360, and one of the most successful shooter games of all time. Even Call of Duty, the chief rival in the field, has adapted a number of features from Combat Evolved over time.

Flash-forward to November, 2011.

I belatedly remembered that Microsoft Studios, in a shameless attempt to milk more revenue out of the franchise, was releasing the 10th Anniversary edition of Combat Evolved. Bungie has released the Halo franchise, and stated over and over that they’ll release no new Halo titles. Microsoft Studios, on the other hand, spun off 343 Studios (343 Guilty Spark, anyone?) specifically to create more Halo games. This remake of the original is just the beginning, as Halo 4 is already slated to be released sometime during 2012. Many fans may be turned off by Bungie’s dissociation with the brand, and I assume most every fan is going to look with some skepticism at this Anniversary Edition release of Halo: CE. To be honest; if I’d had to pay $60 US for a copy of this 10th Anniversary Edition, there’s simply no chance that I would have. Instead, I was able to rent the game, and so guilt-free I offer the following review:

The graphics are good. They are not cutting edge, and certainly do not test the limits of the XBox 360’s hardware. In a very real sense, the graphics of this updated remake were obsolete even before the launch. They don’t compare to the visual spectacle that we see in the level and model design of, say, Modern Warfare 3. So, those expecting some kind of visual masterpiece had best look elsewhere. However, the updated graphics are so far beyond the capabilities of the original XBox (the original graphics, like many XBox Arcade titles, are available with one button press). A couple of swaps between the original graphics and the updated ones should be more than enough to demonstrate how far graphical processors have come in such a short time.

If you’ve ever waxed nostalgic for the single player mode of Halo: CE, the Anniversary edition is for you. It adds nothing. Literally; nothing. But it does take us back to a game that many of us now lack the means to play; a classic title, but with beautiful new set pieces. The control setup feels very ‘classic Halo’, right down to the speed the Master Chief moves, and the way that he jumps. This will be unsettling for players of contemporary titles like Halo: Reach at first, but you’ll settle back in without too much trouble.

As for multiplayer, the Anniversary Edition builds on Halo: Reach. It features a number of remakes of original Halo maps, including Battle Creek, Damnation, Prisoner, Hang ’em High, and the Halo 2 map Headlong. All of these maps are set in the Halo: Reach multiplayer engine, so Halo multiplayer diehards will find nothing new here beyond the maps.

Of course, the Anniversary Edition also includes Online Co-Op, so you can play the story mode with friends across the world. Don’t sell that short; Halo’s storyline has always been more involved than people give it credit for.