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Field Report: Halo Anniversary

by Xav de Matos, Nov 15, 2011 12:00pm PST

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary straddles the line between preservation and reinvention, and does so with awkward balance. As promised, the game is a nostalgic look at the original game with a slick coat of paint placed atop the original engine. But, something is lost in translation. The peril I felt throughout the original campaign has dissipated. Maybe it's the game's aggressive visual makeover? Or maybe it's because I've seen the beginning and end of this story, I'm not as engrossed as I once was.

Perhaps it's something else. After all, nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

In order to preserve the original feel of Halo: Combat Evolved, developer Saber Interactive has taken the original title--graphics, physics, and all--and draped it with new visuals, adding fantastic updates to its sound and music. With the touch of a button you can switch from its original Xbox look and sound to the revamped edition. The visuals aren't on par with Halo: Reach, but the game looks better than ever. However, the shift can be jarring, in both good and bad ways.

There was a menacing darkness to Halo: Combat Evolved that has disappeared with Saber's visual update. Dark, gray corners that had invoked a sense of warning are coated with metallic steel and bathed in soft blue light. It provides the opposite effect, and appears almost inviting.

It's like the shift from Tim Burton's Batman to Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever--in one form, featuring a bleak and dark world, while dressing it in neon for another. It's not that the decision makes the game bad, but it invites a completely different experience.

A sense of wonder still exists when crashing onto the Halo ring-world and stepping on Installation 04's soil for the first time. Saber's updated visuals make these moments splendid, nearly evoking the same magic I had experienced ten years ago.

I wish I had the ability to play Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary with a fresh perspective, never having touched Bungie's original. Though I suspect many of Anniversary's owners will be long-time fans of the series--to whom the game's purchase is a return ticket to an earlier time--there are undoubtedly new players to the original Master Chief tale.

Those players are likely going to be disappointed by some of the game's design decisions. That isn't a comment on Anniversary itself, but on how much game design has evolved over the last ten years. Master Chief moves differently and wields vastly different weapons (some better, some worse) than he ever has in other games in the series. And some of the later Forerunner architecture is a chore to navigate. Still, there are some things new players should relish.

Halo: Combat Evolved still features a more open design that many other shooter franchises lack--including later iterations of the Halo series. The world invites exploration and battles can be found at any turn. It's a far cry from many of the modern cookie-cutter, QTE-riddled, by-the-numbers titles we currently get. It's not perfect, and it never has been, but Halo remains celebrated and loved.

Terminals and Skulls are scattered throughout the campaign. Skulls allow players to modify campaign play while Terminals tease what will happen in 343's Halo 4. The Terminals are certainly a cool addition for fans, but the franchise's increasingly verbose and over-the-top lore doesn't necessarily mesh well with the original game's subtle story. That said, as a Halo fan, I'm actively hunting them down for details on Master Chief's next adventure.

Multiplayer in Halo Anniversary is as a gloried map pack delivery system for a handful of maps deemed to be the "essentials" from the original games in the series. What you get are maps to play within the Halo: Reach engine, rather than a dedicated multiplayer reboot for Halo: Combat Evolved.

Anniversary also includes the ability to play in 3D and toys with some Kinect features. Kinect implementation allows players to scan items for further investigation in a separate menu, and it's not really worth the effort. Playing in 3D isn't great: the jagged edges of characters and objects become very noticeable. It would have been nice if some more care would have gone into these features, rather than have them thrown in to what amounts to little more substance than a checkmark on the back of the game's box.

After a few hours with the game, it feels like Anniversary leans too heavily on being a reminder of Halo: Combat Evolved than a celebration of its landmark release. For fans like me, it should be easy enough to forgive this decision, given opportunity to--once again--race through the Maw and escape the collapsing Installation.

Field Reports provide our first-hand experience with the latest games, but should not be considered a review.





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