Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: 343 Industries
Halo. Those four letters and three chords are more than just a game. It's a potent symbol of Microsoft's success, a global franchise and a banner behind which millions of gamers have rallied. We've had anime films. We've had novels. We've had years of monolithic expectations, hype and nail-biting anticipation for each new title. It's more than just a game. Halo is a phenomenon.
Strip all that away, however, and Halo: Combat Evolved is just a game. A game that stood the test of time as a benchmark for exceptional design, and demonstrated once and for all that first person shooters don't just work on consoles - they can truly excel. The Anniversary Edition gives us a compelling new excuse to return to Installation 04, but can the new bells and whistles justify a whole new purchase?
If you're a fan of all things Halo, the answer is yes. And also irrelevant, because you're probably playing it already. Otherwise, the decision about whether or not to buy becomes much more difficult... and much more divisive.
First things first: Halo has held up. Just in case you don't know (somehow), Halo chronicles the adventures of a cyborg supersoldier marooned on a mysterious ancient ringworld, who has to rally surviving human forces and unlock the installation's secrets before hostile alien forces can secure it for themselves. On a raw gameplay level, the campaign emphasises player freedom over cinematic hand-holding, providing a perfect mix of tense corridor crawling with enormous open areas. It's a playground of destruction that challenges you to pick up any weapon, hop in any vehicle you can find and constantly change your tactics to combat impressively dynamic artificial intelligence.
Enormous three-way battles and entire islands beg to be explored and exploited, and each level - even each checkpoint - provides a completely different experience each and every time you play. Halo evokes a sense of scale that, frankly, most subsequent shooters have failed to match. Age hasn't dulled Bungie's brainchild one iota; it feels just as exciting, just as rewarding and just as relevant as ever thanks to its unimpeachably tight mechanics. Online cooperative play and an epic remastered soundtrack courtesy of the Skywalker Symphony Orchestra sweetens the deal yet further.
Halo Anniversary is much more than a remake. 343 Industries has lovingly, painstakingly rebuilt the experience using the original engine; recreating each and every classic battlefield from the ground up. Hitting the Back button allows you to switch between the new visuals and the original engine, showing what an exceptional job they've managed to do. The Silent Cartographer island is a verdant paradise surrounded by shimmering waters. The Control Room is thronged by crisp snow and detailed rock formations. The original still holds up surprisingly well, but the new version fills out each empty and sparse area with sumptuous artistic flair. Apart from woefully poor facial animations and some jarringly cartoony art direction from time to time, it genuinely looks fantastic.
Unfortunately the same can't be said about performance. Texture pop-in and slowdown is rife, even if you decide to install it to your hard drive. More worrying, though, is that running it on an older Xbox 360 model can lead to game-breaking crashes that wipe out several hours of progress. Whether you suffer from these issues comes down to the age of your console and the condition of your hard drive, but it's a serious bugbear that stops me from endorsing the product as comprehensively as I'd like.
The much-vaunted Kinect functionality is elegant and beautiful in its irrelevance. You won't need it, but plugging in a sensor allows you to control practically anything with slick voice commands - right down to changing weapons, reloading, switching between graphics modes and even messing about with the contrast levels. You'd be surprised at how useful this feature becomes in intense firefights. By far the best new feature is the analysis visor that allows you to summon a thermal imaging HUD overlay. Shouting 'scan' adds enemies and characters into a detailed encyclopaedia to peruse at leisure. It's how Kinect should be integrated into traditional games: extra depth and accessibility that doesn't compromise the core experience.
So the original campaign is as outstanding as it ever was, except twice as beautiful and complimented by solid Kinect support. 343 could have stopped here... but in their desperation to launch as a boxed edition rather than an inexpensive download, they decided to bulk out the package with a few multiplayer options. This, sadly, is where the package starts to unravel.
Playing to our nostalgia is a dangerous game. Many of us were expecting a raucous throwback to the good old days of classic one couch one screen gaming, but entering the multiplayer mode whisks you away to a lonely compartmentalised lobby built around the Reach engine. Six original Halo maps and a single firefight level have been rendered using the newer tech... and though an anniversary gametype adds three-shot pistol kills and you can use your existing profile, it just feels like a stripped-down, bare-bones version of the year old game. The lone Firefight level doesn't make much sense by itself (especially since you'll have to sit through plenty of loading screens just to access it), and vexingly, Blood Gulch is nowhere to be found. This will not stand.
If you were expecting the complete Halo experience, prepare for a crushing disappointment.
On the other hand, these new maps actually make sense when amalgamated into the Halo Reach experience proper. New copies contain a download code so that you can run the content directly from Bungie's final fling - and when complimented by Reach's enormous range of different modes, the classic levels add a new lease of life to the long-running multiplayer suite.
If the Anniversary Edition had launched at a premium RRP, this would have been an instant deal-breaker. There just isn't enough content to warrant a £45 purchase. However, since most retailers were eager to sneer at the £35 price bracket (many launched below the thirty pound watershed), I'm inclined to look more kindly on the complete package.
- Halo's singleplayer campaign is still peerless
- Excellent graphical overhaul
- Surprisingly solid Kinect integration
- Performance problems and inexcusable crashes on older hardware
- Half-hearted multiplayer options
- Questionable value at RRP
The Short Version: Halo stands tall as a timeless and superior shooter, and the Anniversary Edition lovingly brings the seminal campaign up to current generation standards. Fans and newcomers alike will relish the genre-defining singleplayer experience, but the flimsy multiplayer options and performance issues mean that I simply can't recommend it at full price. Be sure to find a decent deal.