Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary hands-on preview

No dual-wielding. No Bubble Shield. No Jetpacks or spike grenades or Arbiter. Combat Evolved Anniversary is hardly the Halo for the Xbox 360 generation. As longtime gamers, we’ve grown out of its antiquated ways. Young bucks won’t want to deal with its dated design. 343 Industries didn’t bother to fix anything wrong with the original Xbox masterpiece. Instead, it’s as faithful to Halo CE as possible. Never mind nostalgia. Never mind new graphics. Never mind the elitist, old-hat Halo haters. This game is as important as it’s ever been because it refuses to stray from itself.

The most immediately apparent feature for the celebratory Anniversary release, which launches a decade after the original Halo astonished us, is its redone graphics. For a while, the Halo CEX (X, as in ten, as in years, as in… oh, you get it) visuals just looked like another Halo game. It didn’t sink in how much effort the 343i team poured into the art overhaul until we pressed the back button — the new game fades away and washes away the newness, revealing the original game running underneath it. We thought, “there is no way any of us were dumb enough to think, at any time, that Halo: CE looked good, right?” This speaks volumes about the game, really. Seeing what was next to what it’s become is jarring – the enormous level of added detail to the world gives it an entirely new life.

A murky forest with a fugly fog filter from 2001 becomes a wet, clear, colorful area that pops with more personality than we thought we’d ever see from Halo CE. The grooves carved into the walls of a structure seem far more believable than the bland, flat gray lining of its original interior. Even the old art, which defined the vibrant palette of the Halo franchise, is disgusting and dark compared to the spiffy new look.

That color managed to pop when we were wearing 3D glasses, which typically dampen or darken whatever we’re looking at. The 3D effect itself is subtle enough not to annoy, and interesting enough to elicit a few oohs and ahhs along the way. The edges of objects look a little rougher than the typical 2D, but it’s hard to deny, even at its worst, that HCEX is one of the best-looking, well-handled HD remakes we’ve seen yet. It’s convincingly new. HCEX evades age with aggression, and its gameplay keeps pace.

We wound up turned around and not knowing where to go a couple times. The enemy encounters were a tad easy and straightforward. The AI is all over the place. The assault rifles bullets spread too far and the pistol is a superpowered slaughtering machine. It’s hard to climb certain hills. Somehow, though, and maybe it’s just the nostalgia blinders, these flaws felt right. It’s hard to understand why something so blatantly unlike what we’ve grown accustomed to works so well. We suspect the overload of me-too blockbuster shooters has just drained our souls dry at this point. Stepping away from the overwhelming amount of online multiplayer shooters to something far simpler is more refreshing than expected. That, and that this is the game that shaped a generation and would become the envelope-pushing beast we all know it to be.

We can only discuss a Halo CE remake for so long before we wind up just talking 2001, but this is exactly what 343’s aiming for. This is as faithful a redux as we’ve ever seen, sometimes sacrificing quality in favor of perfectly, genuinely recreating something that doesn’t hold up at all. Skull modifiers (the usual stuff we’ve come to expect) throw curveballs at players to ratchet up the difficulty, though, if you really feel the urge to throw a wrench in its gears.

Purists can have it their way, newcomers can bridge the decade-long gap. Given how well Halo holds up as a cheap Games on Demand download, anything 343 can do to make that exact experience better is just gravy. This is easily, unquestionably, obviously Halo CE at its best — and it has online multiplayer. Man, finally.

Aug 26, 2011

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