"Halo fans deserve better than this," declared Dan Ayoub, executive producer at 343 Industries, Microsoft's new studio dedicated entirely to flagship franchise Halo. Ayoub was referring to the recent spate of HD remakes which simply slapped on a coat of high-definition paint and threw the result towards store shelves. With the upcoming Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition, 343 is looking to ensure it's a "celebration of 10 years of Halo".
We've already witnessed the new engine at work - a modified version of Reach's which can also be switched out on the fly with Combat Evolved's ten year-old tech for the misty eyed - but now we have another visual upgrade to get excited for; 3D. Yes, if you have a 3D display you'll be able to slap on a pair of glasses and play Halo HD in three dimensions. But is this all enough?
But before Ayoub and fellow 343 producer, Dennis Reese, were quite ready to show off the new 3D support, they demonstrated the all new Terminal inclusions in the Anniversary Edition. Terminals turned up in Halo 3, abandoned Forerunner libraries of knowledge that filled us in on the first Forerunner-Flood war that led to the creation of the Halo installations. Previously, Terminals had been purely text-based affairs, but for the Anniversary Edition 343 has created a wealth of animated content for intrepid fans to find.
Ayoub demonstrated the first Terminal you can find, firing up a stylish vignette preceding your crash-land arrival on the first Halo ring, where the maniacal AI caretaker, 343 Guilty Spark, detects the incoming Pillar of Autumn and its pursuing Covenant fleet. 343 is unimpressed, until he scans the UNSC vessel and finds Master Chief in cryo-sleep. "A Reclaimer," he muses in a sing-song voice. Cue instant applause.
It was an impressive scene, sure to delight fans of Halo lore. We asked Ayoub who was involved in creating the shorts, and he revealed a Vancouver-based animation studio provided the visuals, while 343 developed the story in-house. We can expect at least one Terminal per level, suggesting a considerable amount of animated content stored on the Anniversary Edition disc.
343 Guilty Spark
343 has already shown off the new engine at work on fan-favorite level, The Silent Cartographer. The ability to switch back and forth from the new HD engine to Combat Evolved's is impressive - the game runs both sets of code simultaneously - and 343 had brought an all new level to GamesCom to show just how drastic the step forward is from legacy to contemporary code.
343 Guilty Spark is one of the most important levels in Combat Evolved, a vital turning-point in the story when both the UNSC and the Covenant discover the true purpose of the Halo ring and the deadly secret its hiding. Landing in a murky swamp, Ayoub began the demo in Combat Evolved's ten year-old guise. Awash with fog and low-res textures, it's dated visually but still very atmospheric.
With the press of a button, however, Ayoub fired up the HD engine, and every jaw in the room dropped. The new engine really ups the scope, removing the fog and transforming the swamp into a far larger, more foreboding place. Immense tree roots arch from the ground, abandoned flares fizz in the dark, casting dynamic light. It's impressive, even by today's standards, and proof 343 is taking this particular HD remake very seriously, indeed.
As if that wasn't enough, Ayoub and Reese then passed out half a dozen 3D glasses. They told us to tap the button atop the visors, instantly darkening the lenses. "You probably know what we're about to show you," chuckled Ayoub, as he dived into the menu and set the '3D Display' tab to 'On'.
And, in the blink of an eye, we were watching Halo in 3D. It adds a real sense of depth to the world, with your weapon and the environment occupying their own very separate planes. Ayoub revealed the team at 343 had "modified" assets such as weapons and character models to fit within the new 3D world, and the result was subtle if very convincing.
One caveat with the 3D feature, however, is that you have to have the HD engine activated for it to work. The Anniversary Edition will not play in 3D if you are running the Combat Evolved engine. When questioned on whether 3D would also feature in Halo 4 - 343's other big project - Ayoub was noncommittal. "We're not really talking about that," he said, mentioning that its inclusion in the Anniversary Edition was intended as a reward for loyal fans.
Welcome Back, Reclaimer
We walked into the Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition showing a little skeptical, but walked out very impressed. True to their word, 343 is working very hard to ensure it is more than a mere HD port. And, with all due respect to Microsoft, Halo has yet to see a cash-in or botched job yet, so we should probably show them a little more faith.
As we closed our notebooks and retrieved our bags, Ayoub told us to look out for 343 and the Anniversary Edition at PAX Prime this weekend, where they'll be showing off new multiplayer maps and, most excitingly, the oft-rumored Kinect support which will be given a full on unveiling. We also scored a few Xbox LIVE codes granting our Avatars an exclusive Energy Sword accessory. Sweet!
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition hits store shelves on November 15th, 2011