Remaking movies is an inherently perilous endeavor. It's rare that the remake is critically or popularly considered the finer version of the film. There are bold, notable exceptions, like Alfred Hitchcock, with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, remake of his own "The Man Who Knew Too Much." But accomplishing that took a Hitchcock, not to mention a Stewart and Day in the prime of their acting careers.
"Remaking" games for contemporary audiences has a somewhat lower risk profile. In games, the term "remake" is used to describe slight to moderate graphical upgrades, at the very least a revision from standard to high-definition video, plus a handful of new features, most often the addition of an extra level ancillary to the main plot, or new multiplayer modes or maps. Sometimes, there's also the shoehorning of quirky tidbits that are frequently tantamount to gimmicks. The process of remaking a game doesn't have to muck around in the core of gameplay or story. In games, that sort of sweeping change is called a "franchise reboot" or "series reimagining."
The main obstacles game developers face in remaking a game are gameplay holding up to modern game design and avoiding audience perception that the remake is just a fast, cheap repackaging of a game that has already earned back its original investment a hundred times over.
On the first count, 343 Industries' Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary edition — the 10th anniversary, if you can believe it — well clears the hurdle. With few exceptions, Halo is as playable today as it was in 2001. On the second issue, though there will always be intractable skeptics and naysayers, the 343 team is obviously staffed with artists, designers and developers with an emotional attachment to all things Halo. Any disservice done to the original game is certainly unintentional, a mistake not born of carelessness or rushing.
Still, while Halo: CE Anniversary is a fine homage to a modern pop culture icon, it's not the revelatory masterwork that it was a decade ago.
In gameplay mechanics, two archaisms stand out more than others: vehicle control and shooting. The Warthog was always a pain in the ass to drive. I still remember how frustrating the transit sequence was early in the game, when you must drive a bouncing, jouncing Warthog through a series of tunnels to reach your destination. I must have flipped that damn thing a dozen times. Playing Anniversary, I only flipped it twice. The Covenant Ghost remains the best bet for vehicular combat, and the flying Banshee is as unwieldy as the Warthog; without solid ground directly beneath you, it's disorienting, too. Games from last year that I thought were disastrous examples of vehicle use in shooters I've reconsidered as paragons of control stability. Where Halo revolutionized shooter control on consoles, it left a lot wanting in vehicle control — though at the time, just the fact you could hop in a friendly or enemy vehicle and operate the thing within a shooter paradigm was pretty amazing. That is, of course, "at the time"; vehicle control is one of those roughs spots readily establishing that within Anniversary lies a 10-year-old game from a mothballed console generation.
The second most noticeable deficit in this version of Halo, directly inherited from the original presentation, is the lack of an aiming mode. Left trigger to aim has become such an Xbox 360 shooter standard I kept at it through half the campaign. Unfortunately, by default, grenades are mapped to the left trigger: At least most times I was pointing toward Covenant ground troops, not a nearby wall. In the PS3 remaster of Medal of Honor: Frontline, included as a bonus for gamers who bought the new Medal of Honor title, the developers added iron-sights aiming that wasn't in the original PS2 game. I can't say with any certainty the upgraded aiming mechanism made much difference in my accuracy, but it did to some degree improve the gameplay in delivering behavior I've come to expect. The lack of an aiming mode hardly breaks Halo — there are even some (though very few) contemporary games with aim-free shooting sequences — but if you're looking for significant changes in shooter design since Halo was released, there's a big one right there.
Speaking of grenades, you use the B button to cycle through grenades in your possession. Since the standard-issue Unified Earth Government (UEG) forces' frag grenades function so differently in combat than the sticky, blue-glowing Covenant plasma grenades, there are always scenarios coming up when you want one but not the other. Instead of being mapped to the black and white buttons like they were in the original Halo, the B button is a much more intuitive choice.
Also, the way-finding in the Halo is pure turn-of-the-century gaming. It's easy to get turned around in all that open space. Backtracking objectives are built into the game's level design, but sometimes you'll backtrack just because you lose your way. 343 Industries has billed Anniversary with "100% faithful gameplay," and that's true, sometimes painfully so. But there's a reasonable sensibility in going this route, control and pathfinding frustrations notwithstanding; though I think it's always possible to improve upon a classic, even if you succeed there's no guarantee your inventions will be perceived that way. There's more advance assurance that gamers will presume the contrary: Change even little things — like grenade selection — and developers are accused of "ruining the experience." Sure, there are a lot of players who'll tell you, "I don't care as much for a 'faithful experience' as I do a great game," but with a title like Halo, there's a rather large camp — some of whom haven't actually played the game before — who'll clamor for the stock original, wart(hog)s and all.
The Halo fiction plays out as well today as it did 10 years ago, but how can it not? These are great, classic science fiction tropes wrapped around an exciting shooter video game. With most of the game set on an artificial planet of unique design, Halo most obviously borrows from Larry Niven's beloved "Ringworld" novels, but there's also a healthy dose of Jack Haldeman in there, as well as Alan Dean Foster — his own creations, not the books he adapted from screenplays for movie tie-in novels.
Although fanatical gamers live by the creed "graphics aren't everything," in Halo: CE Anniversary, graphics are indeed a whole lot. It's like 343 Industries took apart the original Halo graphics engine, cleaned and enhanced each part, and then put it all back together. Just to prove it, they've included an options menu feature to turn off the graphical enhancements. Wow. There's a lot more going on here than upscaling and some higher resolution textures. In particular, I noticed how much better particle effects look. Most surprisingly, I also noticed how little the grass and ground cover graphics change between modes. I didn't cringe at what was there, either: The flora was damn good in the original game — better than I recall.
Anniversary borrows the skull gameplay enhancement trick from old brother Halo 3. Skulls are pick-ups that are hidden throughout the campaign levels; once activated, they behave as modifiers to gameplay. The modifiers make the game easier, more challenging or, in some cases, just plain ridiculous. For example, the boom skull increases blast radius of explosives — which works both for and against you, since the Covenant carry plasma grenades and often toss them in wanton excess as if they grew on trees. The bandanna skull is a simple infinite ammo modifier. The Grunt birthday skull … well, find it, score headshots on Grunts and enjoy.
Halo: CE Anniversary also includes some new multiplayer features. There are original Halo multiplayer maps, playable within the Halo: Reach architecture, so the modes and features are the same as those of Reach, including Theater features. You can play competitive multiplayer off the Anniversary game disc, or download the maps so you can mix them in with the rest of Reach's multiplayer content.
Co-op campaign is now playable via Xbox Live, but playing online, I found the mode fraught with network issues. Fortunately, the offline, split-screen co-op mode is excellent, and a lot of fun to play. For an older game, Halo co-op works well in split-screen, in large part because it is an older game and less technically aggressive by today's standards. There's not as much going on visually, objectives are simpler and typically more obvious, and owning only half a window on the game world doesn't so seriously detract from gameplay as it does in most modern shooters.
Halo is unarguably a classic game, representing a watershed moment in console shooter design that has influenced all foregoing shooter design, even on PCs. But is it still a good game? Do you remember the 1980s? Many of you won't, but I do, and some of you will, too. The '80s are so thick with bleary-eyed nostalgia, if you lived through your middle or high school years during the era, you'll never recall that period accurately. Music was a big, big thing in the '80s, and I've discovered the melancholy fact that old Flock of Seagulls records are better played in my head than on my iPod. Yet early New Order songs remain as rapturous today as the first time I heard them. After playing Halo: Combat Evolved in 343's Anniversary edition, I'm confident that Halo is a lot more New Order than it is Flock of Seagulls.
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