PREVIEW: Halo Combat Evolved Anniversary

The remake of the original Halo game and its release on the exact 10-year anniversary of the original release is both the end of an era and a segue to a new one. It’s not simply a lick of new paint: it will have both updated and classic modes, and it boasts new features that may garner interest, or may inspire “meh”. All up, it is likely to appeal to both fans of the original and newcomers to the Halo experience (though it is unlikely to convert non-believers). Really though, a remake like this is just as much about anticipating future instalments than generating a nostalgia effect.

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It’s hard to underestimate the influence of Halo: Combat Evolved. In Game Studies, Aki Järvinen hailed a revolution of the genre and claimed:

Planet First Person Shooter with its Quakesauruses has been hit by a meteorite called Halo. The FPS is dead. Long live the new FPS!

It received a Metacritic score of 97 and extremely positive reviews. In its day, H:CE set a high standard for the franchise, FPS games and the Xbox generally. As a killer app, it is enormously influential.

In what is now an established universe, Halo: Combat Evolved opens just after the conclusion of the cataclysmic battle known as the Fall of Reach, which was incidentally the subject of the most recent (and final) Bungie game, Halo: Reach. This rounds off the circularity of the narrative nicely. Cybernetically-enhanced soldier John/Master Chief/Spartan 117 is accompanied by Cortana, the AI who runs his power suit. Together they escape the destruction of Reach, then discover and land on the Halo ring, a massive and mysterious piece of alien technology. He must then battle both the aggressive alien race the Covenant and the organic parasite the Flood to save (you guessed it) the universe. This was just the opening narrative to an extraordinarily deep mythos guided by Frank O’Connor and evident in numerous novels, graphic novels, fan art, an animated film and an oft-rumoured live-action film.

[img_big]center,8052,2011-08-16/damn_marketing_25_copy.jpg,Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary[/img_big]

So the story-world is deep, but how does it play? Well as a definitive console FPS, H:CE was praised for its rich environments, excellent enemy AI, innovative use of vehicle combat, dynamic and varied weapons, and intuitive use of melee and grenades. It was quite simply the definitive shooter experience at the time, and it doesn’t feel dated. Though it preceded the technology slightly, it heralded multiplayer FPS gaming, through Ethernet connections on release but eventually online. If you love Halo, I don’t need to say any more: if you don’t (yet), I probably won’t convince you.

What is interesting is that Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is not merely a souped-up version of the original; it doesn’t just have higher resolution or better framerates (though of course it does have those). Rather, it has genuinely new features which command attention, even if that attention may dissolve into cynical heckling. One of the more sensible (read: no-brainer) additions has been the inclusion of full multiplayer and coop with both classic and updated maps, taking advantage of network technology that has developed in the past decade.

To begin the swanky new features, H:CEA will run on not one but two engines simultaneously. These will include the original engine and the engine used for Halo: Reach, and players will be able to snap between the remade version and “classic mode” at the touch of a button. This enables you to see precisely how the visuals have improved, from lighting effects to animations to textures, and to have a taste of old-school graphics whenever you feel like it. I’m guessing that most of us with just play it through the new engine most of the time, though.

[img_big]center,8052,2011-07-18/fists_clenched__3.jpg,Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary[/img_big]

Next (prepare to groan), H:CEA will include Kinect support. In particular, Kinect will be used for voice commands, allowing actions such as reloading weapons or throwing grenades to be activated by voice, although doubt about the functionality of voice commands may be warranted. In addition to that (and more interestingly), Kinect may be used for “Analyse Mode” which allows you to vocally tag items under the reticule which are then saved in a library with associated information about that object or enemy. This is a nice way to explore the Halo universe in-game without having recourse to a book or the interwebs. All up, it’s hard to get too excited about the Kinect add-on, as it seems a bit of a marketing exercise for future Kinect-enabled games.

Finally, H:CEA will be playable in full 3D. I won’t say much here because you probably already have a vocal opinion on that topic. What I can say is that I had the opportunity to play the 3D version, although all I could sample was the beta code and so it didn’t run perfectly. I often had two reticules and experienced a wildly disorienting blurriness when reloading or passing trees. Nonetheless, there were moments where the 3D almost worked, and the immersion was phenomenal. So if it works, the 3D may well bring something truly special to the Halo experience.

[img_big]center,8052,2011-06-07/Halo_Silent_3_New.jpg,Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary[/img_big]

On the one hand, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary will appeal to hardcore Halo fans and newcomers alike, as we can partake in a piece of gaming history that simultaneously opens and closes the circle on one part of the Halo story. It is at once the end of an era, because we know that Bungie will produce no more Halo games. But at the same time, with 343 Industries’ input into this remake, it whets our appetite for future instalments, and heightens anticipation for Halo 4. In any case, it’s another good way to ice a few grunts.

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