If you've ever played an Xbox in your life, then odds are that you've played Halo: Combat Evolved, which launched the system and captivated millions of players. But the question isn't "How good was it then?" It's "How good is it now?" The answer: It's still really, really good. The campaign tells an intriguing story full of fluid action, fierce enemies, stirring music, and thrilling moments. The overhauled visuals look great; flipping between the classic and remastered presentation modes not only makes you realize what a thorough and faithful job the artists have done, but it also makes you appreciate how well the original art design stands the test of time. Six updated multiplayer maps and one new Firefight map round out this discount package with some competitive and cooperative fun. Thus, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary provides a great way to relive the past, as well as an exciting and rewarding adventure that holds up very well in today's shooter scene.
The story of what happened when humanity first encountered a halo is still an interesting one, even if you've heard it before. It starts with a crash landing, followed by a race to discover what this strange place is all about. The emergence of the Flood and the revelation of the halo's true purpose build the momentum that culminates in the desperate deeds you must perform to avert galactic disaster. New terminals in each level trigger cutscenes that offer new perspectives on characters in the game and hints about Halo lore we might see in future games. These add some welcome depth to the narrative landscape, though they only show up when you play with the updated presentation. The campaign is an exciting ride that is enhanced by the development of Master Chief and Cortana's relationship, as well as the entertaining ally and enemy chatter that helped build Master Chief into one of the most enduring video game icons.
The fundamental mechanics of the game have also endured well. Jumping is a bit floaty, but the movement and combat controls respond with alacrity. Those who have played more recent Halo games are likely to be impressed with the range of the assault rifle and excited by the chance to wield the iconic pistol once more. Battling against the Covenant is engaging and satisfying, thanks to the enemy AI. Elites are still fierce and agile, jackals still use shields with vexing effectiveness, and even grunts can still get the best of you if you aren't careful. Covenant enemies look more ferocious and diverse with the remastered visuals, which borrow designs from more recent Halo games. The Flood are similarly updated with the grisly, antennae-rich look of recent years, but the simplicity of the classic look feels more sinister and alien. These monsters aren't nearly as fiendish in combat as the Covenant, but their swarms can be relentless and deadly if you don't maneuver smartly.
Dealing with these dual threats makes for varied and engaging combat, which helps ensure that you'll have a blast fighting your way to the thrilling final sequence. On your way there, you might be tempted to leave some enemies standing in favor of speedier progress. It can be empowering to leave your enemies in the dust, but be aware that this tactic can exacerbate issues with Anniversary's somewhat spotty checkpoint system. Nearby enemies or just speedy progress can prevent checkpoints from registering, which makes your untimely death more of a setback than expected. Slowing down in checkpoint areas can help, as can playing the campaign cooperatively. You and a friend can play local split-screen, though there is no drop-in/drop-out option. Or you can link up with a buddy online to tackle the entire adventure, though there is no matchmaking.
As you play through the campaign, you can switch between the remastered and classic presentation modes with the press of a button. The visual difference is striking, especially in outdoor areas where the remastered land, sea, and sky are enriched by vibrant details that stand in stark contrast to the flatter, more subdued scenes of the classic mode. Each remastered level is infused with remarkable new detail and abundant design flourishes, yet each still remains immediately recognizable to those who know the original well. Lighting is perhaps the most drastic improvement, transforming dim claustrophobic spaces into luminous chambers. The differences aren't merely visual; the audio has also been overhauled to make the gunfire ring out with greater impact and the signature strains of Combat Evolved's excellent score sound even sweeter.
But don't let the excellent remastered presentation stop you from playing in classic mode from time to time. Many of the areas, especially the indoor spaces, hold up impressively well, thanks to the great artistic design. It's fun to find the visual flourishes that have remained virtually unchanged, though it's definitely worth seeking out some of the new elements, including a control panel that indicates John-117 wasn't always the only Spartan on The Pillar of Autumn. Unfortunately, you can't make the switch during cutscenes, but it's delightful to be able to do so at any other time during the campaign.
Classic mode is not available in the online competitive multiplayer, however. There are only six maps, including five from the 13 original Xbox maps and one from the six exclusive PC maps. Though many of the 13 missing maps have already been remastered or reenvisioned for other Halo games, there are some conspicuous absences that fans will undoubtedly miss. The maps here have been given the same careful grooming as the campaign, so Hang 'Em High now features a gorgeous exterior view, and there are some great wintery touches in Prisoner. The multiplayer is integrated with the architecture from Halo: Reach, which means your rank and ridiculous armory accoutrements will transfer into the action. Players who own Reach can join Anniversary players online by downloading the Anniversary Map Pack for $14.99 (1,200 Microsoft points). Matches include the expected gameplay modes, though whenever you see the Anniversary descriptor, you know you're getting retro weapons without any armor abilities.
Combat Evolved Anniversary also gives players access to Forge and Theater mode. The latter lets you view replays of your matches, capture screenshots, edit clips, and then share your creations online. The former is a map-editing mode that lets you modify the multiplayer maps, overhaul maps to your liking, create your own gameplay variants, or simply goof around with the extensive abilities at your disposal. There's also a new Firefight map inspired by the second level of the campaign, which offers the same gleeful cooperative Covenant-slaying carnage that this mode has offered in the past two Halo games.
For those with the required hardware, there are two other features that mark Combat Evolved Anniversary as a modern release. Playing in properly calibrated 3D is a pleasure, but using the Kinect voice commands is more like a sideshow. Action commands like "grenade" and "reload" are unusable because of their delay, while menu items like toggling 3D or adjusting brightness simply open up the possibility for mischievous friends to meddle with your play time. By activating the analyze function, you turn your worldview into a blue-tinted blur. You can then scan highlighted elements like enemies, weapons, and vehicles to unlock encyclopedia descriptions of them in the library. This could be mildly interesting to fans that enjoy reading up on the Halo universe, though folks who don't own a Kinect will have to resort to searching the Internet to get their information fix.
Regardless of what hardware you own, Anniversary is an impressive remastering. It's worth noting that Halo: Combat Evolved is still available for download from Xbox Live for $14.99, but if you're in the mood to replay this classic, Anniversary is absolutely worth the $39.99 asking price. Though the single-player and multiplayer modes will all feel familiar to anyone who has played a Halo game before, the signature action of the series is still as exciting and expertly tuned as it was 10 years ago. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is a remarkably well-done update for a game that has deservedly earned an honored place in gaming history.