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Friday, December 2, 2011

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (8.3/10)

Over the course of writing all these reviews, I'm increasingly reminded that there are some noticeable absences from my gaming resume. With the current trend of re-releasing games from the previous generation of consoles with shiny new HD graphics, we have been given a sublime opportunity to replay some true classics. The God of War Collection allowed us to replay Kratos' adventures, and with the new God of War: Origins Collection, now the entire saga is available on PS3. The ICO and Shadow of the Collection (something I'll finish up soon), gives us the chance to play (or re-play) two games that regularly appear on reviewers "Top 10 Games of All Time" lists. Recently, there was also a Metal Gear Solid HD Collection released, which is something I'll have to pick up as well when I have the time (and money); I never played any of those either.

However, of all these classic titles now available again (or for the first time!) for our gaming pleasure, the one I've been most excited about is without a doubt the remake of the original Halo: Combat Evolved. I jumped on the Halo bandwagon with Halo 3, and have played and enjoyed these games immensely (with the exception of Halo: ODST, which sucked). Now I, along with the rest of you, have the opportunity to go back and play not only a truly classic FPS, but one of the forerunners (inside joke!) of the modern online gaming experience.

For me, the highlight of playing Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary was the chance to see Master Chief's story begin. It actually takes place just after Halo: Reach ends. The faceless Master Chief is a Spartan, the last of a group of cybernetically enhanced soldiers. Humanity faces a threat never before encountered: a ruthless race of aliens known as the Covenant who are intent on taking control of the newly discovered Halo rings. These structures aren't natural formations, but rather massive hoops so big they have their own atmosphere. On board the ship "Pillar of Autumn," Chief is thawed out of cryo-stasis to join the fight. Naturally, he is the only one who can get the job done. With their ship hopelessly damaged, Chief takes the computer AI Cortana, sticks her into his helmet, and they all crash land on Halo.

At first, their mission is simple: help find and protect the rest of the survivors. However, before long they discover the true nature of the rings, and what their purpose actually is. Those who know the canon already know about the Flood, but for me it was interesting to see how it all began. Plus, there are hidden terminals for you to find that have some awesome CGI videos... but do they just tell the back story of Combat Evolved, or are we seeing hints at Halo 4? Stay tuned....

Anniversary is the original Halo game remade with a shiny HD graphics engine... but that's really the only change that has been made. Everything else from the original release is as it was, just prettier. You can even hold down the "Back/Select" button and it will revert to the original Xbox graphics. My, how far we have come! Still, it's not all flowers; a lot of the design is full repetitive, dark corridors that still all look the same. The cutscenes are also made over. But to be honest, it doesn't really look like a lot of effort went into them. They seemed very jerky, with some laughably bad lip-syncing. Still, considering what awaits you should you revert to the original graphics, the difference is night and day.

The Halo series is known, probably more than anything else (with the exception of the super hot, scantily clad AI hologram... oh yeah, and the Chief himself of course), for re-defining the FPS genre. While things have come a long way in the intervening ten years, the fact that Anniversary still boasts some intense and frantic action even by today's standards shows just how mind blowing it was way back when. When you're out in the open and vehicles come into play, things become an exercise in strategy mixed with mad dashes from cover to cover. Of course, I still suck at driving the Warthogs, I've never gotten the hang of those damn things! In the halls and corridors of Halo it turns even more hectic as you never know what you'll find around the corner. Late on in the game the action is virtually non-stop, no matter where you are. Sweaty palms are common to say the least!

However, if there is one thing about playing a nicer-looking-but-otherwise-completely-unchanged game is that it's still a ten year old game. Things have come a long way in ten years. I was constantly noticing little things... things that the industry as a whole have left behind. The simplistic level design is one such example. Sure, there are some wide open areas, but most of the game smacks of old-school corridor shooters: a maze-like construct of similar looking areas. It's easy to get turned around. This is exacerbated by the fact that there aren't really any objective markers to follow, meaning you can spend a significant amount of time backtracking. That doesn't include those areas that you have to backtrack through anyway. Checkpoint placement is inconsistent at best. Sometimes dying will set you surprisingly far back... a frustrating realization to say the least.

The AI, both ally and enemy, are apparently untouched, and still as good as they ever were. That's saying something for the time it was made: it has aged well! All of the classic weapons are present (as you would expect since this is where it all began... duh!), including the infamously over-powered pistol. As fun and intense as the gun battles can be, at higher difficulties (including the legendary "Legendary Difficulty") it's nuts! Still, for the most part, Anniversary serves as a living reminder that the industry has, in fact, learned from its mistakes in the intervening time. And let's be honest, if they had remade Halo: Combat Evolved with the intent to fix these issues then it wouldn't have been the same game, now would it?

Regular readers know I'm not a huge fan of online multiplayer, but the Halo games are one of the few series I actually enjoy playing online with friends. This new Halo remake brings back most of the classic multiplayer maps from the original, but it's all run through the Halo: Reach servers. It's a blast. A co-op mode was also added, a welcome addition. It's definitely fun (not to mention being worth a laugh or three) to try and take on the Covenant with a friend!

In the end, I came away with mixed feelings about my time with Anniversary. On the one hand, it was great to see how the saga began, to see Master Chief and Cortana start their journey. While I understand that Anniversary isn't true to the original multiplayer experience (something to which I have no frame of reference), I had fun playing online using the Reach engines. However, the other side of the coin is that inescapable feeling that you're playing an old game. Not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but an old one. A lot of the basic design is very dated, and that's putting it politely. Switching back to the old graphics is both scary, eye-opening, and thrilling, all at the same time. And as I said before, it provides perspective... the fact of the matter is that the gaming industry has, for the most part, evolved on its own, leaving some of those outdated models behind. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is still absolutely worth your time whether you're new to the experience or reliving a classic, but for me I appreciated said perspective more than anything. It's a good time to be a gamer. I can't wait to see what the next ten years brings!


Score = 8.3 / 10

P.S. Now we can only hope that they will decide to remake Halo 2. As I understand it from true Halo-ites, this is the definitive Halo experience.

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