Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Review
To be sure, the superficial differences abound. The game caches levels to the hard drive, for example, reducing load times if and when you die. This process takes about a minute before the start of a play session — not long by any means, but just long enough to make you feel a little impatient. Whether you save any net time depends, shall we say, on your skillz.
Once you’re actually playing the game, the visual changes are everywhere. The new textures give sci-fi, technological life to flat surfaces. Human beings look more, well, human. Weapons, a constant presence in the center of the screen, appear sharp and detailed.
Halo veterans will want to comb the levels for Skulls, which once collected can be used to apply gameplay modifiers. Hidden terminals provide short cutscenes, which flesh out the Halo lore and pave the way for Halo 4. Today’s technology is also applied in the form of online campaign co-op. This is a nice addition for people who wouldn’t be interested in playing the Campaign alone, but who want to relive their Halo glory days on Xbox LIVE, while chatting with their former brothers-in-arms. This addition comes at the expense of couch co-op, however — you’ll need two TV’s, two 360′s, and two game discs to team up with a friend and take on the Covenant. Rounding out their modern feature-set, HCEA provides 3D support and Kinect functionality; the latter enables players to throw grenades, reload weapons, and collect even more backstory using their voices and bodies.
There are also lots of visual touches that simply wouldn’t have been possible in 2001. Distant horizons are now populated with majestic, painterly terrain. Grassy areas have sprouted thousands of individual tufts. Particle effects abound, visible in the dust kicked up by a hovering drop-ship, the explosion of blue blood left by a dying Grunt, and the improved rain of vomit-colored confetti that ensues while shooting up a swarm of scuttling Flood parasites.
The things that make Halo dated, however, have nothing to do with graphics. The level design, in particular, shows its 2001 roots through the wanton reuse of environments. This was clearly necessary in the game’s original iteration, in order to save disc space, but it seems incongruous now. The entire middle third of the game, indeed, is really pretty tedious, as I pointed out in a retro review of the original game published earlier this year.
While no one is suggesting that 343 should have radically redesigned the game they were intending to celebrate, Halo: Combat Evolved’s flabby midsection raises questions about the nature of remakes. How do you decide which things to change, and which things to leave alone? 343, for the most part, drew the line at a visual overhaul and a remastered soundtrack, but what prevented them from re-balancing wonky encounters, or streamlining gameplay? By focusing on new graphical bells and whistles, the studio passed on an opportunity to actually address the real problems in the original. Doing so would have provided players with a new gameplay experience, instead of an expensive, HD version of Halo that feels and plays exactly the same as it did 10 years ago.