Review: Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary

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You’ve come a long way, Cortana.

In the last ten years, gamers have elevated Halo to (pardon the pun) Legendary status as of one of Xbox’s most successful franchises. Originally starting life as an Apple-exclusive, then-developers Bungie helped define Microsoft’s original Xbox, and in doing so, have made sci-fi FPS lovers salivate at the mention of Master Chief’s name.

And we don’t even know what the dude looks like!

With Bungie’s departure from the series, new, Microsoft Studios in-house developers 343 have some pretty big shoes to fill. Before we get to see if they’re up to the challenge with Halo 4, they’ve taken us back to the series’ roots with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary.

The big question here is this: is Halo: CEA for you? Yes and no.

We’re at a lovely point in gaming where the average age of an Australian gamer far exceeds the 10 year birthday of the original Xbox. Therefore, it’s quite likely that most gamers reading this review can remember when the original Halo was released ten years ago. If you’re in that camp, you’re going to love Halo: CEA. The “Classic” and “Remastered” feature is a sight to behold; hitting the “Back” button on your controller will deposit you in the game as it appeared ten years ago, or in a mode that places gorgeous HD textures over the original Halo code. Simply put, it’s the most innovative way I’ve seen an old title remastered.

You will find yourself — or should, at the very least — stopping in areas just to look around in the old and new modes after you’ve cleared out enemies. It’s a simply breathtaking experience.

Halo: CEA is not a new version of an old game completely rebuilt from the ground up. This is good and bad. It’s obviously preserving the quirks and flaws of the original title, which experienced games will appreciate; Warthog jumping as fun as ever. It also makes things seem…a bit weird. When the remastered NPCs start moving in cutscenes in jerky, non-fluid — and ultimately, strange — ways, you can’t help but get ripped from the narrative. Remastered characters circa 2011, moving circa 2001, is distracting in any time period. Additionally, in some instances, the new textures go a bit funny, and characters clip through objects as if they’re not there. These small problems in a system this robust are ultimately are worth “suffering” through.

The remastered mode has extra features that weren’t present in the original title, including new hidden skulls and terminals. The terminals are 343’s way of honoring Bungie’s past work, and also provide a glimpse into the future with what’s to come in Halo 4. Both the skulls and terminals are worth tracking down; just remember, if you’re in “Classic” mode, the items don’t appear.

Voice commands through Kinect are handled through a title update that needs to be downloaded from Xbox Live; ultimately, the Kinect commands are kinda fun, but mostly useless. Shouting “grenade!” or “reload!” is problematic when you’re playing, as there is a slight lag from your command and the output, which may mean your death, and you may have to repeat yourself if Kinect doesn’t quite understand. Why risk that when you can just hit “LT” to throw a grenade yourself? The Kinect commands that do prove useful are the ones controlling general settings — saying “classic”, “remastered,” “brighter,” “darker,” “more constrast” or “less contrast” aren’t time-critical, and end up saving you the trouble of pausing the game to mess around in menus.

The Library mode, accessible only through the Kinect update and with content that only populates from shouting “analyse” and “scan” on enemies, weapons, and vehicles in-game — there are 45 objects in total — is a nice addition. After scanning items during play, the Library is a resource to check out character models and information; it proves to be a great little Halo encyclopedia for those who want to learn more about the universe. Its only flaw? Once you’ve scanned in a model for, say, the Elite Major, you can only view its remastered character model in the Library. I would have loved to have been able to switch back and forth between classic and remastered models.

Something that might excite some gamers and infuriate others is that the campaign is DAMN hard. I completed Halo: Reach on Legendary mode, solo, without breaking a sweat; that will not be so in Halo: CEA. The game preserves a difficulty from the games of yesteryear.  Patience and persistence will (eventually) pay off on those higher difficulty levels, but gamers used to modern titles might get very frustrated very fast. Checkpoints, something that I seemed to get every twenty metres in Modern Warfare 3, are few and far between in Halo: CEA. If you’re struggling on Legendary, go into the new co-op play mode and do the whole “one gamer holds back as a spawn point” trick.

Additionally, the health pack mechanic hasn’t been changed. If you’re newish to the series, think of the functionality of the ODSTs in Halo: ODST. If the Master Chief gets hit too much and loses his shield, subsequent hits take away his health, which doesn’t replenish without the aforementioned health pack. Those new to the series that may have jumped on from Halo 3 or even Halo: Reach might find this gameplay mechanic to be a challenge. Hang in there, guys — you’ll get the hang of it.

Briefly touching on multiplayer — it’s handled in the Reach engine. We’ve reviewed Reach and its multiplayer before. Though, the re-addition of the magnum and its three-headshot kill into gametypes, and the ability to play on original and remastered past Halo maps is certainly a treat.

Ultimately, it’s a game that’s stands the test of time…or at least, the test of ten years. There are some mechanics that are 90% polished; they’ve obviously been tweaked in Halo‘s sequels and could have been in this release too. I approve of the decision to keep the game as true to the original as possible…but I can also see arguments where a Halo: Reach-isation of the title would have been a great way to celebrate the franchise as well. This is what we’ve got, and frankly, I’m not too disappointed by that.

Halo: CEA is a great trip down memory lane for veteran gamers, and a great way to bring in new players to the title that started it all; especially at a price point of around $60 Australian. Great job, 343 — now hurry up and get Halo 2: Anniversary out the door so your can prove your own worth with the hopefully amazing Halo 4.

Also, Bungie — thank you. Love your work.