Reverence and nostalgia are not criterion for reviews here at IGN, nor should they be. As a video game reviewer, I am often put in a position where criticism must come before such things.
That said, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is a remake of a ten year old game that ships with what amounts to a larger-than-normal map pack for last year's Halo entry, Halo: Reach. With ample refinements to game design and general usability in the shooter genre since its original release, the game, a classic though it may be, hasn't aged as flawlessly as many of us long-time fans might have hoped or imagined it would, and the map pack delivers more of an add-on feel than a true revisiting of the LAN-lost days of yore.
Halo: Combat Evolved is and will always be a landmark masterpiece of the FPS genre. The game blasted onto the scene as the killer app for the original Xbox, and not only legitimized the multiplayer FPS experience on consoles; it proved that the console FPS was the future of online play.
Halo Combat Evolved Anniversary has two separate components. The first is a full HD remake of the original campaign from Combat Evolved. This mode utilizes a brand new graphics engine, Saber3D courtesy of Saber Interactive (Will Rock, TimeShift, Inversion), to bring Halo CE into a new decade, at least visually. Additionally, there are a few added changes, including Kinect voice support, a co-op mode; however, aside from these tweaks, the campaign has been left structurally untouched, with level layouts, enemy AI, and weapon balance left the same.
343 Industries has done a fine job of adapting the original single-player game for modern audiences. This is not a lazy HD translation for a quick buck; the teams involved took great care to update the experience as well as they could.
For those few of you who might not know the story behind the original game, it follows the exploits of the Master Chief, a cybernetic super-soldier and the last of his kind, who gets hatched out of cryogenic sleep to defend humanity from the Covenant, an alliance of alien races hell bent on destroying humanity. You escape to Halo, a mysterious ring-shaped space station of unknown origin with a mission to protect a sexy AI construct named Cortana, along with the secrets she holds. You must fight Covenant forces while attempting to discover the origins and reasons behind the structure's creation and existence.
In the campaign, the level design doesn't quite shine like it did ten years ago. Repetitious corridors and sequences, particularly in the middle sections of the game, make it extremely easy to lose your bearings. Firefights are divided between hallways and open rooms, and the game has vague (if any) checkpoints for you to navigate your way through with any amount of finality. Getting lost in the campaign becomes a pretty common occurrence, as areas will run together and déjà vu will set in as repetitive corridor designs turn you around and make navigating levels difficult and even frustrating at times.
Driving around in the Warthog was never a pleasantly intuitive experience in the early Halo games, and it's easy to forget how the many positive changes and refinements made to vehicles in the series have improved handling and vehicular gameplay over the years. In Anniversary, the vehicles control like they did originally, which is to say not well. The vehicles have a generally floppy feel to them, and the Warthog handles particularly rough, fishtailing and getting itself turned around and flipped over with little course change.
In terms of hidden collectibles throughout the game's levels, Terminals ala Halo 3 have been added, with the cryptic text replaced by almost-as-cryptic short animated clips, and skulls are now hidden throughout the campaign. First introduced in Halo 2, skulls can be activated to change up the gameplay, adding in an extra degree of challenge, or simply a little extra weirdness. For example, skulls do everything from disable your motion tracker, doubly consume your ammo, and disable auto-aim, to making confetti spray when you headshot a grunt (easily our favorite skull, HORRAAAY!).
Halo Anniversary marks the first inclusion of Kinect support in the Halo franchise. The additions take advantage of Kinect's voice command features, extending to both navigation of collected terminals (voice prompts can "pause" or "play" the clips) and the campaign's gameplay as well by way of shout commands, using spoken (or yelled) words like "Grenade" or "Reload" to replace button taps to carry out the actions. You can also scan objects in the environment with an "Analyze" mode, which adds content to an encyclopedia-like Library (a nice touch for completists).
However, the Kinect features are a mixed bag. While it offers handy means to navigate terminal videos and Library content, the shouts create a slight lag between the time it takes to talk to Kinect and the time Kinect performs the action, which obviously isn't ideal in combat. When you're in a heavy firefight and need a well-timed grenade to take out a pile of enemies, that lag can mean the difference between life and death, so most will favor the standard quick left bumper tap.
This is not to say that Halo Combat Evolved isn't still a great game. The game's combat is tight thanks to some of the best weapon balance ever wrought in an FPS, and the action is well-paced and exciting. There is plenty to love here for Halo fans looking to come back into the experience and refresh their memory of the story, and it's certainly the prettiest option for a Halo: Combat Evolved newcomer. It's been since Halo 3 that we've had a chance to catch up with Chief, so this game is a fine opportunity to do so. The whole campaign can be played cooperatively with a friend either through Xbox LIVE, System Link, or split-screen, which is a great touch that adds some replayability to the mix.
Graphically, the new look isn't quite on par with other shooters on the market, even when compared to previous titles in the Halo universe (switching to the Reach-powered multiplayer will show this), with some weak textures and character models and twitchy framerates. However, as far as HD remakes go, Anniversary is a cut above most.
The ability to switch between old and new graphics is an interesting gimmick and shows just how far technology has come in ten years' time. Switching however is not seamless, as there is a slight half-second delay when changing engines, so it's probably not something you'll want to try right in the thick of combat.
The second half to Halo Anniversary is the Halo Reach Anniversary Multiplayer. Brought to life largely with the help of longtime Halo-partner studio Certain Affinity, this online component of Anniversary is built on Halo: Reach's excellent multiplayer component and graphics engine, and should feel immediately familiar to those who played it last year. The multiplayer even uses Reach's achievement list instead of Halo Anniversary's, which is dedicated solely to the campaign. The new multiplayer brings with it some maps from previous Halo games, composed of retoolings of fan favorites like Hang 'em High/High Noon, Headlong/Breakneck, Battle Canyon/ Beaver Creek and more from Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2.
Each map has a classic version as well as the enhanced version, leaving it up to you to play it as you see fit. There are some new modes that take advantage of Halo: CE's awesomely over-powered pistol, and the ability to turn off reticule blooming, making for an added old-school feel to Reach's framework and aesthetic. Additionally, the XP system and super-deep character customization features from Reach are all here, letting you upgrade your personal character with all manner of customizations.
For me personally, I have fond memories of hanging out with friends in a cramped dorm room and playing the game over our college campus's LAN connection, which was as integral to my college experience as any course on the principles and practices of Journalism.
All that said, this definitely is not an authentic remake of the Halo: Combat Evolved multiplayer experience that I and many of you knew and loved, at least not compared to the single-player revisions on display here. For longtime fans looking to relive their original Halo LAN experiences, and especially those feisty people who put all the work in to simulate online multiplayer via network tunneling programs like XBConnect and XLink Kai, this seven map compilation isn't a remake at all.
Instead of a full multiplayer remake, what we get is more a 'best of' of sorts, featuring the aforementioned popular maps, plus one new firefight map, Installation 04.
One could ostensibly blame this design approach on the fact that the majority of the original Halo: Combat Evolved maps have already been remade, specifically Battle Creek (remade first as Beaver Creek in Halo 2), Sidewinder (remade in Halo 3 as Avalanche), Chill Out (remade as Cold Storage for Halo 3), Derelict (remade as Desolation for Halo 2), Blood Gulch (remade as Coagulation in Halo 2, inspired Valhalla in Halo 3 and showed up as a part of Forge World in Halo: Reach), Wizard (remade as Warlock in Halo 2), Hang Em' High (previously remade as Tombstone for Halo 2) and Longest (remade as Elongation in Halo 2).
That would leave only Prisoner, Rat Race and Boarding Action to choose from (we're not even going to mention Chiron TL-34, thankfully 343i wisely decided against including it). Strangely though, only Prisoner made the cut proper from the leftover list. Really? No Boarding Action at least?
Does this suffice for the Halo: CE purists out there looking to replay through their lost Xbox youth? And does it make sense to use the Halo: Reach engine to 'simulate' CE rules? Well, it works well enough using Reach, but let's just say if 343i ever considers giving Halo 2 the 10-year Anniversary treatment and goes this 'best of' route instead of delivering a full remake of all the maps (yes, even Zanzibar), there'll be hell to pay.
The fact that the game's asking price comes in twenty dollars shy of a full retail games takes some of the sting away from all of this, but it doesn't totally make up for the lack of a true-to-life recreation of Halo: CE's multiplayer.
Saying that the multiplayer component is little more than a Reach map pack is no understatement. 343i have gone as far as offering the maps by themselves if you have no interest in the campaign; the Anniversary Map Pack is available as a separate 15 dollar (1200 MS Points) download for Halo: Reach.