“The reason we’re doing this,” says 343 Industry’s Dan Ayoub to TheSixthAxis behind closed doors at E3 this week, “is because the fans have been asking for it.” It’s also true that it’s the tenth anniversary of the original Xbox Halo, and we’re pretty sure that the fact that publishers Microsoft look to make a substantial amount of money out of the game has something to do with it. Regardless, Halo Anniversary is coming, this year, and from what we’ve seen it’s looking brilliant.[drop2]As if reading our mind, Dan boots up the game and jumps straight into The Silent Cartographer. We remember showing off Halo originally using this very level – the blend of emergent AI and a real sense of scale on the sandy beaches pretty much the high point in the game’s single player campaign; a decade later and it’s still a shining example of gameplay even if there’s not nearly as many Covenant as we thought there was all those years back at the Xbox’s launch.
Nothing’s changed, of course – faded memories always make things like this seem better than they were – but it doesn’t matter: Halo Anniversary looks superb. Dan tells us that it’s the visuals and audio that have seen the changes here, the AI, mechanics, level design and physics are all absolutely identical. What this means is that the game plays exactly the same as it always did but now comes with a gorgeous fresh coat of paint – not unlike many of the other ‘HD Remakes’ that are doing the rounds.
Rather than just a simple upscale, though, 343 have redone everything. The landscapes and structures are now lush, modeled with much higher fidelity and packed with incidental details that simply weren’t there ten years ago. Working with Skywalker Sound has also meant that the effects are punchier and super crisp, the audio evidently a notch or two above the original and sure to sound just as immersive as anything more recently released, despite Halo’s first outing already running in 5.1 surround.
But it’s a few minutes in that Dan shows off Anniversary’s killer move – tapping Back, after a tiny pause, flips the game into what 343 are calling ‘Classic’ mode – stripping away the flashy upgrades and leaving you with the original visuals without taking you out of the game or having to sort through menus. It’s similar to the recent Monkey Island special editions, but naturally a little more impressive. The difference, as you’d expect, is startling, and you can make the switch at any time.
Once you see Classic mode and the new remix side by side, you can really spot the changes: animation is much improved, there’s grass everywhere, the water splashes and reflects light, and the polygon models show a gulf of quality so vast that you’ll only really want to play in Classic just to pick out the differences. Also new are Terminals (returning from Halo 3) which will fill in more of the back-story and lore, and – of course – Achievements, co-op over Live some Halo 4 teasers.
And then there’s multiplayer, Halo’s sticky feature that keeps gamers coming back day after day. Anniversary will sport seven maps (from the first three Halo games) and run on Reach’s engine (although you’ll be able to toggle Reach-specific options like backpacks) – we got a quick glimpse of Damnation and it looks superb, everything’s been re-done in multiplayer too, which is great. And all this will be just $40 when it releases later this year – for Halo fans, it’s a must have.