Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary

Post-Launch Review
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (XBox 360)
Developer: Bungie (original) / 343 Industries (Anniversary)
Released: November 2001 (original) / November 2011 (Anniversary)


Chased by the aliens known as the Covenant, the human ship Pillar of Autumn crash lands on a mysterious, ancient alien ring-world called Halo. Cybernetically enhanced soldier Master Chief and the artificial intelligence Cortana search for Halo's control room, hoping to use it against the Covenant, but Halo holds dangerous secrets...

At Launch

Halo received overwhelmingly positive reviews with scores averaging 97%. It was considered to be one of the best shooters and one of the most important games ever made and credited as the source of the XBox's success, setting a new standard for multiplayer gaming, as well as being praised for exceptional combat, vehicles, and enemy AI. However, criticism of level design and environment repetition were common.

Post Launch

There were a bunch of updates that I won't bother to document since it's been so long. 
The most important update was the release of the Anniversary edition ten years later, which updated the graphics, music, and sound to 2011 standards without changing the gameplay, and included the ability to toggle between the original and updated graphics/sound at will. Reviewers were impressed with the improved graphics, especially in outdoor areas, but had mixed feelings on the lack of changes to gameplay. Some were pleased at the preservation without risking revisionist screwups, while others were frustrated that the game's weaknesses were still present, made more frustrating with the passage of time.

Halo is a game that's always seemed perfectly suited to me - a science fiction FPS - but that I never played because I didn't think it was worth buying an XBox for a ten-hour game when I'm not interested in multiplayer. But now that I have a 360 and the main series games, it's finally time!

Even with the graphical and musical updates, Halo is showing its age - but that doesn't make it a bad game.

I like how you're just thrown into the middle of some kind of war and you have no idea what's going on. Your ship, the Pillar of Autumn, has blind warped away from someplace called Reach, and it sounds like things were really bad there (they'd have to be, for a blind jump). But the Covenant are already on you (they must be the bad guys because they're shooting at me) and things are gettin' crazier.

Often Halo feels a little slow or sparse compared to more recent shooters. Environments sometimes feel too big for the number of enemies around, leaving me wandering around looking for the guys I know are there because I'm not allowed to move on yet. Other areas get repetitive with the same rooms being reused over and over without giving me space to forget about them - room, hallway, same room, same hallway. Sometimes I got turned around or felt like I was going backwards, which got even more confusing when you turn around and literally go backwards through half the levels you've already played.

Combat itself was solid. There's a good variety of weapons and some neat variations, like the needler - basically a slightly homing assault rifle with delayed-explosive bullets. More interesting was the different AI on each enemy type. The little guys are cowards, running away if they or their allies take damage. The jackals use shields and are a little craftier. The big guys will actually dodge around and use cover, and the biggest guys are just tanks with missile launchers and shields. And the Flood just rush you like the zombie aliens they are, which could get real stressful in high numbers.

Shields feel too weak, though, and I think I'm going to have that problem through the whole series. For the last-hope-of-humanity badass super soldier, my shields feel like paper. And there are an awful lot of one-hit kills - grenades, rockets, certain corpse explosions, and plasma swords are all insta-kills (especially frustrating when you run into invisible plasma sword guys). I don't enjoy cowering behind cover when I'm supposed to be playing the role of a power-armoured super soldier. I'm told that this is explained/justified later in the series, but that doesn't make it fun. This fragility made some parts seem really difficult, and even though I don't like controllers I can't solely lay the blame there because I left auto aim and cursor following on, which made things easier.

The story was also competent - fairly competent, but well told. Humans are chased by evil conquering aliens, find ancient artifact which might be a weapon, turns out it's super dangerous and must be destroyed. There are a few more details, but that's the gist of it. Two things stood out to me, though. One is that 343 Guilty Spark, and more so Cortana, had a lot of personality and emotiveness for AI characters, and Cortana and Master Chief develop a closer relationship than just guy and computer. The other thing that stuck out to me was what I found to be the most interesting story element - that the Pillar of Autumn barely escaped a major attack on Reach, and the Covenant is apparently looking for Earth. Why? What's going on? These are intriguing details but aren't explored here. Fortunately I know the sequels and spinoffs delve into it.

I had some minor miscellaneous complaints. Checkpoints sometimes felt uneven; it took me a while to figure out that many are based on clearing enemies rather than position in the level. The warthog felt sluggish and annoying to drive.

Oh, and the music was good, especially the tracks with vocals and cello.

I'm realizing as I write this review that it isn't very in-depth. I guess that's because I feel kind of neutral about Halo. It had good elements, it had bad elements, so it kind of washes out and gives me an impression of passability. It is an acceptable, playable game, with nothing in particular that stood out to me. That said, I can see this first game as the groundwork for more interesting stories in the sequels, and this neutrality is almost certainly due to the fact that it's a 14-year-old game with a fresh coat of paint, and I've seen the innovations that spun out of the original before I actually played it.

Recommendation: sure, I guess.

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