Halo Combat Evolved Anniversary
In a year absolutely stuffed with HD remakes, one game - just like its protagonist - stands head and shoulders above the rest. A masterclass in videogame preservation, this is a title that puts the efforts of rival publishers to shame. Both progressive and utterly faithful to the original material, Halo Anniversary is as good as it gets.
For those not in the know, the "anniversary" of the game's title refers to Halo: Combat Evolved's 10th birthday. Halo Anniversary is a remake of the shooter that almost single-handedly ensured the success of Microsoft's original Xbox, and simultaneously created a multi-million selling phenomena in the process.
And what a remake it is. Almost completely untouched on a mechanical level, Anniversary takes the original game and rebuilds it in a brand new engine, wrenching a now aging title into the current generation. More than just a HD up-res, this is a stunningly presented opportunity to see where it all began, with the addition of a fully-featured, reverential multiplayer component.
It's difficult to overstate the effect of the enhanced visuals. Upon release Halo: CE was a remarkably good looking game, but its beauty has faded somewhat over time. Rebuilding it in a new engine revitalises the experience in a more profound way than you could possibly have expected.
This is no more obvious than the game's opening. Where the Pillar of Autumn was once rather sterile and featureless, it's now alive with debris and swirling emergency lights. As the ship comes under attack, with explosions ripping through doors and decimating rooms, the drama of the occasion really shines through. Bungie's directorial flair remains intact, but the mise-en-scene is vastly improved.
The impact of the improved visuals really hits home when you arrive to Halo itself. It's an awesome sight, in the true meaning of the word. The wide green vistas of the landscape are by now a familiar series staple, but the way the ring world loops out and up into the sky is a reminder that the game's original creators were the masters of imbuing a real sense of discovery on the player. For all the bombast and spectacle of the current generation, few other games can truly transport you to another world.
And, of course, if you are a purist or just fancy reminding yourself of how Halo: CE used to look, you can always switch to the original visuals with a click of the back button.It's a shame then that the original material upon which all of this is based has lost none of its power to frustrate. After the glorious opening half, Halo Anniversaty's campaign becomes a repetitive, dull grind. So much so, in fact, that it threatens to undo all of the goodwill it had earned up to that point.
Yes, I'm talking about the appearance of The Flood. These gruesome characters mindlessly attack in huge great packs, swarming you from all sides until the screen is filled with big diseased oafs and little feathery critters. All tactics go out of the window, as does anything approaching enemy A.I. Your survival will largely depend upon how much shotgun ammo you manage to stockpile.
The flood's appearance unhappily coincides with an abrupt change in level design. Where the opening half of the campaign revels in loosely-scripted, sandboxy action in which you call the shots, all of a sudden it becomes a brainless corridor shooter. It's horrible, the exact opposite of what had made it so fun up to that point.
It's not helped by the turgid backtracking and exploration you are forced to endure. The same room shapes and designs are repeated over and over and over. It's a deliberate attempt to disorientate you with formulaic Forerunner architecture. It's probably not a deliberate attempt to make you put your fist through the screen.
What Bungie was thinking at the time, beyond just padding out the game's running time, is still beyond me. Later, you are repeatedly asked to hold your position against enemy attack while "friendly" AI Guilty Spark pops off to unlock doors. It's the laziest kind of mission design, the kind that wouldn't be so annoying if the creators hadn't shown such talent in the game's opening hours.
Just a couple of things manage to push you through. Foremost among these is the quality of the combat. It just works so well. Bolstered by an improved audio track, every UNSC gun is a punchy, powerful brute. Indeed, it's hard to identify another game that offers a pistol, assault rifle, shotgun and sniper rifle to rival Halo's. They're just brilliant.
If it wasn't for the tenacity and numbers of the Flood, you could quite happily tackle the whole game with just the pistol. That's something you don't encounter often. Plus, the little spinny flourish you do with it after a melee attack remains one of the coolest videogame affectations.
The other redeeming factor that drives you through Halo's second half is the story. Unlike the tangled narrative mess the series had become by the third instalment, Halo offers up a decent sci-fi yarn. It's got memorable characters, locations, and some cool twists and turns. Not for nothing did the game spawn a library full of spin-off fiction. You'll want to see it through to the end.
Those that are particularly interested Halo's universe can also stock up on narrative titbits thanks to the addition of terminals. Introduced in Halo 3, they were cryptic, text-based and really only enlightening after a bit of research. In Anniversary, however, they're a bit more user friendly and a whole lot more compelling.
Now when you discover a terminal, you'll be able to watch an animated short narrated by Guilty Spark. These cover the series' backstory, while - most intriguingly - hinting at possible directions that Halo 4 may take.
It's just another example of the thought and care that Halo Anniversary has been treated to, something that extends to the multiplayer. In addition to two-player campaign co-op, Anniversary's competitive and co-operative multiplayer modes take Reach's online suit as the basis and build on it with a range of re-worked classic maps from Halo 1 and 2.
These classic maps, of which there are seven, each come in original and remixed forms. The idea behind this, like the rest of the game, is to offer a look at the past while also bringing the experience up to date. The remixed original maps have been optimised to fit with the Reach engine in which they were built, taking into account the different characteristics available to players. What they can't take into account, however, is the presence of jetpacks, which change the way you approach battles entirely.
Firefight, also present, adds just one new map lifted from the second level of the campaign. Set on a cliff-side plateau and sprinkled with Forerunner buildings, it's a vehicle-based map offering you and your friends the chance to go rampaging around in a Warthog. It also features friendly Marines, a first for the series, though they don't do much. The rest of the maps are from the standard Reach suite, and as ever, there are approximately seven bajillion different options to choose from in order to tailor the experience to your tastes.
The entire package is, ultimately, lovingly made and an absolute must for fans of the series. Though hamstrung a little by the source material, it's nevertheless a lesson in how to balance reverence with rejuvenation. Halo Anniversary is a vital piece of videogame history polished up and presented afresh. Listen up publishers: This is how you repackage your back catalogue.