Back in 2011 there was entire decade separating the FPS genre from the release of the original Halo, but it didn’t feel like it. Part of this was the way the years naturally fly by, but this phenomenon can also be attributed to the way that Halo feels more like a part of modern shooters than games released just a few years earlier. Legitimising the console FPS, pioneering now standard mechanics for the genre, and playing a crucial role in establishing Microsoft as a contender in the console market, it’s hard to overemphasise how much Halo changed what came after, and this updated release of Combat Evolved not only acts as a pleasant reminder of exactly why the original Halo was such a big deal, but stands up as a great game in its own right.
Combat Evolved Anniversary represents the series stripped back to its basic components without the many alterations we saw the series undergo since its debut, and not to get too meta but that means that unlike in a conventional review there’s not a lot I can tell you about what fresh things this game brings to the table, instead to analyse Anniversary you’re almost forced to analyse what makes Halo work at a basic level to begin with. One of the strengths that shines through most clearly is the level of variation both within the game, and between the game and many other shooters out there even today. This starts with the weapons.
Halo has its Assault Rifle and Sniper Rifle and all the other guns you’d expect to find in a standard FPS and these hold up well, but weapons like the Plasma Pistol which can be used to fire regular rounds or one long charged-up shot, or the Needler which fires projectiles into enemies which accumulate to create larger explosions are the kind of thing you only find in Halo. The guns don’t just operate differently in the way they fire either, every gun has its own sense of speed and handling. Plasma weapons in particular sometimes feel like they lack impact, but the aiming is always fluid and the weapons are all distinct. In addition, the two weapon system keeps you trying new weapons on a fairly regular basis, switching to fresh guns as the ammunition in your previous ones is expended. The design of the enemies takes a similar bent.
While many popular shooters before and since have required you to simply headshot an enemy or pump as many rounds as necessary into their character model, Halo has been adept since its first moments at providing a stable of adversaries which keep you fighting in different ways. For example, the Jackals can’t just be shot in the head, they require you to first shoot their shield-carrying hand or find a way around them, and the Flood Infection Forms don’t just attempt to melee attack you or shoot at you but explode into a series of smaller enemies when they get the right opportunity.
The game exudes this sense of variety not only because it has so many different things to show you, but also because for at least the first two thirds it has an uncanny sense for when exactly to change things up and unveil something new. Exactly when the high of being presented one new enemy, setting, combat layout, vehicle, weapon, or piece of music begins to wear off the game drops something else equally as fun in your lap to keep the tempo up. This is all filtered through level design which most of the time manages to land somewhere between moving you forward and giving you room to be strategic about how you deal with enemies, and pacing which frequently maintains that theme of adventure the game thrives on. In fact in some ways this first game is far more thematically consistent than later entries into the series. The original Halo is about awe and discovery, and as Master Chief and the UNSC uncover a fantastical alien world and the truth behind it, you relive that experience of discovering what Halo was for the first time. The moment-to-moment emotions of the game also owe a lot to the original Martin O’Donnell soundtrack which has been remastered for Anniversary, and is as exciting as ever from the driving main theme to the unsettling ethereal music of the game’s more horror-like sections.
Of course the biggest change Anniversary makes from the original is its graphical overhaul. The game is modelled and rendered with new lighting effects, more detail, and richer textures. You can see a little pop-in and some imperfect animation here and there, but this sharper, more fleshed out graphical approach manages to build off of the wonderful environmental and enemy design of the original game to create places, people, and objects which are gorgeous to behold. It also makes previously duller and poorly lit areas of the game like The Library more visually interesting and less of an arbitrary hassle to move and fight through. You can switch between these upgraded graphics and the original visuals in just a few seconds by pressing the Back button, both allowing you to feast on Halo as it originally was at your own leisure, and providing a point of reference which makes you appreciate the enhanced graphics all the more. Another major set of additions to the game are the new hidden Terminals which provide cutscenes to fill in some of the Combat Evolved backstory. These clips can sometimes drag a little, but they’re surprisingly well-produced and help provide some connective tissue between Bungie’s Halo and the story 343 lays out for their trilogy. There are also optional Skulls and Achievements packed into the game which offer something a little more to the completionist player.
For everything this game does right however, in a title as old as this you’re inevitably going to find some wrinkles, and going back to Combat Evolved it becomes clear that while the large majority of its ideas are not outmoded today, the series did have some trouble finding its footing to begin with. Firstly, there are areas where the level layout breaks down and it’s hard to get a clear sense of direction. Waypoints will occasionally pop up on your HUD indicating where you need to haul ass to next, but the game also has a habit of piecing together areas by copy-pasting the same or similar rooms and corridors over and over. This is a pretty questionable level design practice in itself, but one of the specific problems it creates is that you can easily find yourself losing your bearings as you try to fathom where exactly you need to be for the next alien shootoff or story beat. The point at which the game hits a true glut of problems however is around the two-thirds mark, a little while after the Flood show up.
At a point in the level Two Betrayals a lot of the new scenarios the game starts introducing feel like cheap ways to kill you and create a war of attrition, rather than providing challenging combat scenarios that can be approached in truly engaging ways. In more enclosed spaces Flood start showing up with one-shot weapons like Shotguns and Rocket Launchers which are hard to spot among the mutant masses of these alien undead, while more open-out spaces present their own problems. For one thing the game is left wanting in the mid-long range weapon department. There’s the Sniper Rifle and the Pistol, but you can only pick these up so often, and the former is slow and has a limited magazine size, while the distance to which the latter remains accurate is by no means limitless. When you’re repeatedly finding yourself in vast, open canyons with no real way to fight on the scale the game demands you do you start to yearn for weapons like the Battle Rifle and DMR which became a staple of the Halo games from 2 onwards. Whatever weapons you’re carrying you’re also likely to run into trouble facing off against vehicles in these kinds of areas.
Driving vehicles like the agile Ghost or the rough-and-tumble Warthog is great fun, but most of the time you’re staring down an enemy vehicle they’ll either be firing at range, able to get shots in on you while you don’t have the means to do the same to them unless you’re in a vehicle of your own, or up close and in your face which means they can run you down in an instant. All the while their considerable resilience means you have to do serious damage to them before they can be destroyed. Difficult enemies aren’t bad enemies, but you need feel like there’s some strategy you can reasonably employ to take an enemy down, instead my heart just sank every time I passed through an automatic door, saw a Banshee looming down on me, and prepared for a continual cycle of dying to it repeatedly until I’d manage to get rid of it or slip past it by some fluke. On higher difficulties it can also be a nuisance to have your shield meter buried away in the bottom-right hand corner of the screen, as opposed to the top-middle where it remained from Halo 3 onwards. This may not sound like much, but when you’re playing on Legendary difficulty and there can be just seconds between having full shields and being dead, it makes a difference.
In addition to the main game, the Combat Evolved Anniversary disc also includes a multiplayer option which consists of the multiplayer mode for Halo: Reach restricted to a map pack of seven remade Halo 1 and 2 levels. This isn’t a review of that map pack or of Halo: Reach’s multiplayer, but suffice it to say that the remade maps fall in line with a lot of the game’s content to present something visually impressive and nostalgically resonant.
All in all, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary stands up as one of the most polished rereleases a game has ever received. With its flaws all the more pronounced now that there’s been over a decade of tweaking and improvement to the Halo formula this isn’t the kind of game I’d recommend for a newcomer to the series, but whether you’re a fan of Combat Evolved itching to return to the Master Chief’s original battles on that alien ringworld or you’re a Halo enthusiast eager to see where it all began, there’s a lot to love in this resurrection of one of the most beloved sci-fi shooters.