From MacWorld 1999 to E3 2011, Halo: Combat Evolved has a long and influential history. As the game that inspired a generation of shooter fans and proved once and for all that first-person shooters have a home on consoles, it has rightly garnered the adoration of many. The much-clamored-for HD remake of the seminal shooter has finally been revealed, and we spent some quality time checking out the visual upgrades, the revamped multiplayer, and the new content that 343 Industries is carefully applying to this venerable title.
Our demo began with a scene that anyone familiar with the Xbox original will remember. At the beginning of the level titled "The Silent Cartographer," Master Chief is inserted onto a beach alongside a squad of UNSC marines. Though he immediately comes under fire from a Covenant fire team, you can't help but notice the distant arc of the titular halo sweeping skyward in the distance. It looked appropriately distant yet surprisingly crisp. The nearby scenery has a similar aesthetic. Islands, boulders, plants, and grass all had a sharpness that looked quite vivid. This visual liveliness gave the action a feeling of immediacy, yet it also felt a bit odd when compared to more recent entries in the Halo series. Our demoers pointed out that this was still an early build of the game, and we were ready to attribute the strange sensation to the game's unfinished state. That is, until 343 Industries unveiled one of the coolest features of Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary.
With the press of a button, our demoer turned back the clock. Almost instantly, the landscape was transformed. Water that rippled with the passage of waves and sparkled in the sunlight became a flat, blue sheen. Grass and rocks that caught our eye with rich textures and careful shadowing became dull and stolid. And even our allies, whose detailed armor glinted during their battlefield maneuvers, became polygonal and boxy. As it turns out, the strange sensation we'd felt earlier was the contrast between the natural upscaling of our memory and the actual upscaling undertaken by 343 Industries. The ability to switch the visuals on the fly was something 343 Industries merely experimented with until it became clear that it was one of the team's favorite features. It was certainly one of the most intriguing parts of our demo; one that will serve as a nostalgic pleasure for some and a history lesson for others.
Of course, our demoer couldn't spend all his time observing the scenery, and once he started disposing of the Covenant, things proceeded apace. Grunts, Jackals, and Elites all appeared to boast improved textures over their original looks--no imports from later designs were in evidence. Another Pelican soon delivered a Warthog for our driving pleasure, which once again afforded a vivid contrast in texture and modeling. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary may not reach the visual heights of recent Halo games, but it definitely appears to belong in the current generation.
In addition to graphical upgrades, 343 Industries is adding terminals to this Halo experience. Originally introduced in Halo 3, these hidden stations conveyed backstory and history that filled out the Halo universe in interesting ways. The terminals added to Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary will be less out of the way, we were told, to better allow players to learn about the history of the first Halo ever encountered. Though we couldn't see an actual terminal sequence, we were told that these glimpses into the past wouldn't be merely written history. Instead, they apparently involve artistic and auditory elements. The one we saw was merely a prototype, but it featured the unmistakable voice-over of 343 Guilty Spark, the floating AI construct who addresses Master Chief as "The Reclaimer" and provides incongruously chipper (and frustratingly vague) exposition about the true function of Halo. The one we saw merely served as foreshadowing for events we already knew came later in the adventure, but 343 Industries alluded to the fact that accessing all the terminals might reveal hints about the freshly announced Halo 4.
And though Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary features two-player campaign cooperative play either via split-screen or over Xbox Live, it couldn't show its face without competitive multiplayer. Seven remastered maps will be making an appearance in a multiplayer mode that runs on the Halo: Reach engine. (As a technical side note, the campaign runs with two game engines simultaneously: the original Halo: CE engine with a remastered graphics engine layered on top). The ramifications of running on the Reach engine aren't merely aesthetic (though the revamped Damnation map looked significantly better): The multiplayer will feature the armor abilities that debuted in Halo: Reach. 343 Industries is working with Certain Affinity on the multiplayer mode, the developer who collaborated on the Defiant Map Pack for Halo: Reach. Furthermore, players who own Halo: Reach will be able to install the Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary maps from the disc to their hard drives and access them directly from the Halo: Reach menu, which is indicative of 343 Industries' goal to satisfy both current and old-school Halo fans.
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary certainly piqued our nostalgic interest, yet it looked to deliver an eminently playable experience. There was a lot more we wanted to ask, but 343 Industries played it coy with details about extensive tie-ins to Halo: Waypoint, changes to the campaign that allow you to play levels as originally delivered or as "remastered versions" (did someone say Library?), and ways to tweak the difficulty of the campaign levels (if you're thinking skulls, you're on the right track). Be sure to watch the interview above for more on the game and check our E3 2011 live stage demo for a look at the game in action. A little shindig called HaloFest promises to deliver more information later this year as the November 15 release date approaches. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary will retail for $39.99.