Sunday, December 04, 2011
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (Xbox 360) Review
Just over 10 years ago, the Xbox console launched to the world and Microsoft took its first steps into the crowded console gaming market. Xbox LIVE was still a year away and Microsoft really needed something to draw gamers to the big black box, something that would really set it apart from Sony's dominant PlayStation 2. That something was a little killer app called Halo: Combat Evolved.
Today, the Halo franchise is a household name, but back in 2001 shooters saw very rare success on consoles and were still the domain of PC gamers. I was also PC gaming at the time, knee deep in Diablo II: Lord of Destruction as I recall, and I not only missed out on the Xbox but also on Halo: Combat Evolved. This all changed shortly after I picked up the platform in the Fall of 2004 and my love for the franchise has persisted ever since.
While there were other shooters available on consoles, most notably Rare's efforts on Nintendo's N64, Halo: Combat Evolved really pushed things forward in ways that hadn't occurred before. The game's controls, one of the biggest challenges for a console shooter, felt solid, smooth, and responsive. It featured an excellent story driven Campaign with excellent enemy AI, spectacular vehicle sequences, and indistinguishable transitions from interior to massive exterior areas. While it didn't have any online gameplay, players could System Link up to four Xbox consoles for 16-player local Multiplayer, or play Split Screen Co-Op Campaign with a buddy.
Simply put, Halo: Combat Evolved was insanely innovative for its time and laid the ground work for many more shooters to come.
In celebration of its 10 year anniversary, 343 Industries has re-released Halo: Combat Evolved for the Xbox 360 as Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. This updated version of the game comes on a single disc and features the original Campaign in its entirety, what you played then gameplay-wise is exactly what you'll be playing now. If you're looking for Armour Abilities, Vehicle Boarding, regenerating Health, etc. you won't find those here (and admittedly I do miss Sprint), however the same excellent, fast passed first person shooter action from a decade ago is just as fresh and fun today.
The updates come primarily in the form of a graphical overhaul. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary features completely re-skinned and updated textures for ever part of the Campaign, including the Menus. Master Chief and the human character models, be they Pillar of Autumn crew members or Marines, all look fantastic. The Covenant, as well as the game's vehicles, have been re-skinned with their Halo: Reach counterparts which provides some better visual continuity from the last adventure to now. Some of the colours have changed, Elite Zealots are once again Gold instead of that silly Maroon colour from Halo: Reach, but the upgraded textures still look fantastic. In fact, Stealth Elites appear even harder to see now and they don't show up on your Motion Tracker. You've been warned!
In fact, as you're playing you can actually change the visuals from Classic to Updated on the fly. By default the game uses the Updated visuals, and while you can change this in the Main Menu, you can actually press the "Back" button mid-gameplay to see just how far things have come in 10 years. During my playthrough I did this all throughout the Campaign and was stunned by how much better the environments, characters, and lighting looks. In fact there's so much actual grass added in to Chapter III, "Truth and Reconciliation" that on occasion it actually obscured my vision through my Sniper Rifle's scope! Overall, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary doesn't look as good as Unreal Engine 3 based games or even Halo: Reach, but it still looks exceptional and you'll instantly see how great things are when you start toggling the graphics.
The Cinematics have also been remastered in Updated mode. You can not toggle the graphics using "Back" during the Cinematics, so if you want to see how they looked 10 years ago you must adjust the option in the Menus prior to playing, but the Updated Cinematics have also had their character animations revised. Basically many of the characters move more subtly and with less "cartoonish," low poly jumpiness, and this helps add some more realism to the story's presentation. Cortana's lip syncing was pretty bad though, but this is a minor quibble.
Also of note, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is the first native Xbox 360 Halo shooter that actually perma-saves my Brightness setting, which was always an annoying little bug in Bungie's prior three offerings. Subtitles are also available for the first time now, making it easier to understand some of 343 Guilty Spark's ramblings in "The Library."
The Campaign's audio has also been updated overall. The voice acting is the exact same as 10 years ago, however some of it I found harder to hear this time around, but the sound effects and music have all been remixed and re-recorded. I suspect that many of the weapon sound effects and such were pulled from Halo: Reach, and the music was rerecorded and sounds very nice. If you wish though, you can switch back to the classic audio via the Menu options again.
As I mentioned, the gameplay is just as you remembered it 10 years ago (though you can now set Crouching to be held or toggled in Options), as is the story, however there have been a few nifty and franchise-true additions. Mainly, these come in the form of Skulls and Terminals. Available with the Updated graphics _only_, Skulls are now scattered about all the Campaign chapters and are waiting to be discovered. Classic Skulls such as Mythic, Fog, and Grunt Birthday Party return, while several new Skulls have been added to the mix such as Bandana (gives infinite ammo), Foreign (can not use Covenant weapons), and Recession (ever shot uses twice the ammo).
One Terminal can also be found per Chapter, and most are pretty simple to find. The Terminals essentially tell the story of 343 Guilty Spark and are predominantly narrated by him, revealing unknown tidbits about everyone's favourite Monitor as well as providing a few hints for his motives in later games and also a glimpse at some possibilities for Halo 4. While not game defining, the Terminals certainly add more depth for true Halo fans (and for those of you who've read Halo: Cryptum, you'll understand the Terminals far better than those who haven't).
Little other nods to the expanded universe have also been thrown in. For example, around the cyro rooms on the Pillar of Autumn you'll now see readouts that were monitoring not only John-117, but also Linda-058, showing her as flat lined, and if you've read the novels you'll get this reference perfectly. Little inclusions like this really show the attention to detail that 343 Industries have packed into this re-done package and how they're trying to tie all facets of the franchise together.
One interesting little bug that's found its way into Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary involves clipping and was seen in the original game when played on the Xbox 360. Sometimes when you blow up an enemy their weapon or a piece of their corpse will clip through and get "stuck" in a wall, causing the impact sound it made upon hitting the wall to constantly and quickly repeat and stutter; the closer you are to the clipped item, the louder the sound. A minor bug to be sure, but worthy of mention.
I also had it happen once where, on board the Truth and Reconciliation in Chapter III, a squad of Marines did not want to follow me past a certain cargo bay, which was clearly an AI glitch as replaying the Chapter had them behaving fine. During this playthrough I was also unable to use the button on the second level of the Hanger to call in reinforcements from a Pelican. Again, not game breaking but definitely worthy of note.
With Halo: Combat Evolved, Multiplayer was restricted to System Link and Split Screen, but with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary the original retro experience finally comes to Xbox LIVE in a form. I say in a form because yes, the Campaign is finally available online via two-player Co-Op, however competitive Multiplayer is done via Halo: Reach. Seven Maps are included with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, and from the game's Main Menu you can launch Halo: Reach's multiplayer allowing you access to the new maps only. If you want to play from Halo: Reach directly, you'll find a downloadable token in the game's case that allows you to download the maps as a Map Pack for Halo: Reach itself. Once loaded, you can play in the Anniversary playlists that allow you to experience the six versus maps (five of which are remakes of popular favourites from Halo: Combat Evolved and one is a remake of "Headlong" from Halo 2) and also a new Firefight map called "Installation 04," which is taken from Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary's second Campaign Chapter.
I've had the opportunity to play on three of the six competitive maps, and they play great and fit right in with the rest of Halo: Reach's line up. Yes, they're older style design despite the visual upgrades but they still feel just fine and have been fun to play on. "Installation 04" adds in AI allies for the first time in Firefight history. Garrisoned on top of a Forerunner structure are several ODST allies who will fight with you and also occupy vehicles to help fend off wave after wave of Covenant opponents. In truth, the ODST allies tend to serve more as a distraction than actual assistance, but they are a nice and welcome touch and they can actually help if they mount up in the map's Warthog or stationary Turret. A Mongoose is also available, and a Covenant Banshee or two will be flying around the map taking pot shots at you and the ODST's. "Installation 04" is a great open Firefight map and is my favourite new addition to the Multiplayer locations.
Achievement wise, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary features 44 Achievements of varying difficulties all related to the Campaign and Co-Op Campaign. Many are straightforward but there are some really challenging ones present. Keep in mind that Halo: Combat Evolved was developed back when games were actually hard on tougher difficulties, so Legendary Difficulty really is Legendary despite the effectiveness of the game's Pistol. You'll also note there's no Achievement for completing the Campaign on solo Legendary this time around, and there's a reason for that.
Halo: Reach also has several new Achievements added due to the new maps. If, for whatever reason, you do not want to purchase Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary but you want the new maps, they're available via the Xbox LIVE Marketplace as the Halo: Reach "Anniversary Map Pack," available here for 1200 Microsoft Points. You know my stance on Multiplayer map packs by now, so I won't hit you over the head with it, but think of it this way: $17.40 for a Map Pack or $39.99 for the Map Pack and a complete Single Player and Co-Op Campaign experience...
I'm extremely pleased with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. The Campaign has not only held up exceptionally well over the last 10 years, where it's gameplay and story are still of high quality today, but it's easily the most fun I've had with a video game since I fired up Mortal Kombat back in April. The visual upgrades are absolutely great but it's really the core game that's such a blast. The new maps are fun and add further variety to Halo: Reach, and really, unless you can't stand the slightly older game design, there's no reason why any fan of the franchise shouldn't own Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. This budget package truly is a labour of love on behalf of 343 Industries and it clearly demonstrates how they don't make games like they used to.
Here's hoping we get to see a Halo 2 Anniversary released in a few years so that the entire franchise can be native to the Xbox 360 console, as that game would be fantastic with visual upgrades.
Update: A few days after publishing this review, I realized I had forgot to mention the Kinect integration featured in the game. In truth, that's because I completely forgot that Kinect is, well, featured in the game.
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary does not use Kinect out-of-the-box, and in order to have the Xbox 360's latest peripheral function you need to connect to Xbox LIVE and download the game's Title Update. Once updated, and if your Kinect sensor is connected, you can then use it to reload your weapons by saying "Reload."
You can also use it to access the game's Library from the Extras menu. The Library is a collection of information you've obtained on Covenant foes by looking at their corpse and saying "Scan." The game will then scan them and add a page detailing that species' info to your Library.
Now, I don't have a Kinect sensor and clearly, I didn't miss this simple integration one bit, and you certainly don't need Kinect to enjoy Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. In truth reloading via the Controller would be faster since you can press a button quicker than saying the word, and any info contained in the Library can be found online, so really, Kinect adds nothing special to the mix.