When I first played Halo: Combat Evolved on the original Xbox, I distinctly remember feeling as though it was the closest thing to a PC-inspired first person shooter on a home console.
I couldn’t believe that Bungie (whose previous game was the tepidly-received Oni) had actually managed to map the genre’s specialised controls so efficiently to anything other than a mouse and keyboard.
After completing Halo, with the exception of a couple of local multiplayer sessions I did not play the game again until its PC release, which ultimately I did not enjoy.
I felt as though the original Xbox version was the game which conceptually brought the PC FPS to the console market, whereas its later PC adaptation felt like bringing the (then) much-maligned console FPS to the PC market.
I couldn’t tell you whether this is because it was a bad port, because the genre having advanced during this time or whether my own tastes were changing as I got older, but these two experiences with Halo: CE have left me with an interesting relationship with the overall series.
Prior to the recent release of Halo: The Master Chief Collection for Xbox One, I had played Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST, Halo: Reach and Halo 4 but of this list had only completed the first, the third and Reach.
I cannot say for sure which games I enjoyed or which I did not, similarly I cannot recount the story-beats, the set-pieces or the combat encounters.
In short, I have little-to-no attachment to the series, just memories of vague opinions and recollections of déjà vu between titles.
This sense of neutrality towards a series is rare for me, and is why I didn’t pick up the 2011 Anniversary release for Xbox 360, but four years later Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary has been released again, in the form of one quarter of the The Master Chief Collection.
Being drawn to the game because of the publicity (good and bad) as well as the controversy surrounding the technical performance of the much-anticipated compilation, it seemed as though now was a good opportunity to revisit the series and to see how compelled I felt to continue playing after an hour with the campaign.
On launching Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, the game starts with the traditional sci-fi introduction of a ship floating through space followed by brief scenes showcasing the crew at work, this serves as both a lore dump and a brief introduction the setting.
I couldn’t help but feel that, while significantly improved over the original Xbox release, the character models, faces and animations looked outdated, the scenes of outer space looked bland and static (and occasionally skipped frames) and the special effects (fire, thrusters etc.) looked unimpressive.
All that said, the implementation of light and shadow impressed me. My first impression of the visual aesthetics led me to the conclusion that the game I was playing was a product of its time, albeit one with a fresh lick of paint. Still, when later introduced to new environments based outside Halo: CE Anniversary made me revise this opinion to a degree.
Notably throughout the hour, one thing from start to finish which didn’t feel like a product of the past was the sound design.
With the exception of a couple of infrequent pieces which came across to me as a little bit shrill, the score as a whole was excellent. Weapon audio, special effects and enemy sound cues were also exemplary and although a few snippets of the voice acting were a little bit cheesy and generic, the characters that mattered were marvellous to listen to.
From launching the game I had partial control within a couple of minutes, I then engaged in a short movement tutorial lasting a couple of minutes giving me full movement control (enabling me to move through a number of set-pieces towards a cutscene) and by the six/seven minute mark was let loose with a gun.
The first level of Halo is based aboard a spaceship (UNSC Pillar of Autumn), fighting an invading alien force while en route to escape craft. All-in-all, very linear and the level felt like a series of copy and pasted corridors but I still enjoyed it, and managed not to get lost.
Within the 30 minutes I spent on the ship I became confident with the controls, an interface which at first felt unfamiliar compared to modern genre staples such as Call of Duty and Battlefield.
I quickly learned (or re-learned) the importance of moving and found myself always taking advantage of melee, weapon switching and player-character Master Chief’s ability to quickly move and hide to regenerate his shield. I was also surprised to rediscover that darkness and the use of a torch are a thing in Halo: CE.
The second level is set on the titular Halo itself, an artificial planet of sorts (I think). What set it apart from the Pillar of Autumn for me though was the fact that the environments are larger.
However I soon realised that the critical path through this second mission was no less linear than the first and although the level itself was expansive enough to warrant exploring, I found that there was no real incentive to do so, though the freedom of movement was enough to ensure that – without any consistent waypoint marker – I would occasionally wind up lost.
As such I didn’t manage to finish this level before my hour was up, I progressed through a series of encounters, obtained a vehicle called a Warthog (a sort of weaponised, military grade buggy), got lost in an underground complex for a while trying to look for a switch and died twice – once through misjudging my own ability to absorb fire from multiple enemies and once through driving my newly acquired Warthog off of a ledge.
In conclusion, my hour with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary was, with reservations, a fun one. I found the moment-to-moment gameplay the biggest draw for me, the story hadn’t taken off at this stage and in my opinion the design failed to hold up against modern first-person shooters.
Spending an hour with this re-release has made me consider that I might get more enjoyment playing the campaign in co-op, where the combat encounters can be tackled more intelligently.
Also, that the things I do like about Halo (combat, vehicles, movement and wide, open environments) can all be found together in the multiplayer component.
An hour in there might even sell me on the series.
We covered Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary back in issue 17 of the podcast: http://caneandrinse.com/issue-seventeen-halo-combat-evolved-anniversary/