This review contains Halo spoilers.
Halo changed everything. Overnight, Microsoft’s first attempt to break into the console market was suddenly taken very seriously and, more importantly, Bungie’s first person shooter revolutionised the genre by offering a compelling story, the now standard twin stick controls, recharging shields, two gun loadouts and a deep, rich atmosphere that still powers recent titles in the ever growing franchise.
Combat Evolved was a staggeringly brilliant piece of software, and it’s hard to believe it was all a decade ago.
But here we are, ten years later and like an old friend you rarely see, Halo welcomes you with open arms like it was only last week – the bridge of the Pillar of Autumn; the first time you see a Grunt; hiding under a waterfall as a drop ship hovers over; watching marines fall to The Flood via that flashback – it’s all still magnificent and, as muscle memory takes you around still familiar corridors and across expansive plains that you know every corner of it’s hard not to be excited about what’s still to come.[drop]It’s because Halo’s so full of standout moments that replaying Master Chief’s first adventure is a pleasure from start to finish. There’s not a single section – Library aside, perhaps, and a little backtracking – that doesn’t flow beautifully, supreme examples of pacing and level design that current games can’t even come close to and that still, all these years later, represent some of the finest moments in videogaming. The Silent Cartographer, as you’d no doubt be aware if you played the original, remains a splendid way to spend an hour.
It’s the way battles feel so individual, so distinct, so perfectly pitched that makes the game stand out from the crowd. No other console shooter can boast such unpredictability, each encounter with an Elite – especially on the harder difficulties – a superb, chaotic array of smart AI and almost balletic grace like nothing else. Lesser enemies rely on more intelligent ones, they flank, pack hunt, adapt to cover and use weaponry like you’d expect a human to, and it’s a joy to see this every single time.
But of course, if you’re reading this you probably already know that Halo’s rather special. Saber’s re-imagining, the developers having ramped up the graphics, sound effects and music, is, thankfully, considerate to the original source but also confident enough to show off some of their own flair. Halo fans won’t find much to complain about, that’s for sure, and the best bit – they’ve not touched anything that might have spoiled the positives I’ve written about above.
First off, and most evident, is the graphical update. From the very first shot it’s obvious that a huge amount of care and attention has been given to keeping the style consistent to the original – the environment is largely identical in terms of structure, but every single texture, object, character and weapon has been updated. Not always for the better, but overall its a solid reimagining. The lighting’s much improved, that’s for sure, and there’s masses more detail in everything – some areas, like the first encounter with the light bridge on the second level, look almost completely different.
Skipping back and forth between the revamp and the original (it’s just a tap of ‘back’ to toggle, albeit with a slight black-screen pause when the action continues) shows just how much has changed: humans look significantly better, long range detail is bumped up and everything is much sharper. The framerate’s the same as it was, mind, Saber’s version sitting around 30fps (and occasionally lower) and the original version is missing the close up texture trick and some lighting effects that were present on the Xbox.
It’s great to see the old school version finally running in widescreen, though.
Sound is universally better, the re-recorded weapon audio frankly stunning, the new music optional but definitely worth a listen. It’s all literally a skin stretched over the top of the old version – the animation, AI, speed and physics are all identical – but then which Halo fan would want any of the game’s key features messing with? It’s clearly not the best looking game on the 360 (it’s not nearly as technically pretty as Reach, for example) but the art design still shines through, and the game remains a triumph.[drop2]Although split screen is still in for co-operative, the mode is also available over Xbox Live and joins a comprehensive array of multiplayer options that otherwise use the Reach engine, and thus feel distinct and somewhat disparate from the main campaign mode. The competitive game consists of a number of classic Halo and Halo 2 maps updated for the new technology and which variations of each for the new additions that Reach brought to the table. Forge and Theater are back, and the game includes a code to download the maps, new to this Halo, for Reach owners.
Other new features, aside from the HD makeover and multiplayer, include Skulls (that modify the gameplay, like they first did in Halo 3), 3DTV support and Terminals, which are video segments from Sequence that better flesh out the Halo canon (and tease quite a bit of Halo 4). The 3D is actually quite good – it’s clearly putting extra pressure on the 360 given the drop in resolution (indeed, the machine even stops upscaling to 1080p, dropping the maximum down to 720p) but it’s worth having a look if you have the tech as the extra depth is well used. There’s some odd clipping with the depth calculations, but it’s easily the best example of 3D on the 360.
There’s also slightly bizarre Kinect support, which allows players to bark commands at the screen to perform actions like scanning objects and then interact with them in Library mode, which is Kinect exclusive. Will it sell more Kinects? Probably not.
As it stands, Halo Anniversary Edition is basically the game you thought you played ten years ago. The visual upgrade is appreciated, the sound brought bang up to date and – thankfully – the real meat of the game is exactly the same as it always was. And that game is a true masterpiece, one of the most endlessly replayable first person shooters ever created and one that everyone should play – if this is your first time through then obviously a lot of what Halo does has been done since countless times, but even without a fondness for the original you can’t fail to appreciate what Bungie did ten years ago.
- Fancy visual update for the Anniversary version
- Lovely new sounds
- Still brilliant AI
- New easter eggs and collectables for fans
- Some visual issues with the framerate and texture loading
- Classic version isn’t a perfect port
Halo deserves all the acclaim it gets, even today. It’s hard to explain exactly why it’s so revered, but I just tend to think of it like this: no other FPS had me glued to it not just for the first time through, but the fifth. I don’t think everything about the remake is perfect, but there’s enough in it to warrant a second purchase for even the most hardened fans – the first time you hear the gun on the Warthog spin up, the first shotgun blast, the first time you take down a Hunter – gaming nirvana.
Update: mistakes were made in the appraisal of the game’s framerate due to technical issues with TV settings. The game runs at 30fps 99% of the time, apologies for that.