Halo, which launched alongside the Xbox itself on November 15, 2001, was a landmark title for many reasons. Aside from launching a new franchise and defining a system, the game also legitimized the first person shooter as a viable genre on consoles. The clever coding that enabled thumbstick-jockeys to actually hit things - as opposed to wandering around, clumsily looking at the floor or ceiling - was a watershed moment for gaming as we know it.
It's kind of a big deal.
It also had an outstanding, driving narrative, awe-inspiring music, and amazing multiplayer - even if there was no Xbox Live at the time, which meant we had to get our kicks the old-fashioned, local way.
So it should come as no surprise then that the announcement of the long rumoured remake of the franchise was met with some trepidation. Yes, we wanted to see it in high resolution, but - much like revisiting that TV show you loved in your youth (The Goodies, I'm looking at you) - we were a bit nervous about what it might look like to our older, wiser eyes.
And yet we waited. Hoping. Wondering what a dedicated Halo studio would bring to the table that legendary developer Bungie had once set, but has long since left.
That wait is over. As you read this, the game is available at a store near you - and at a budget-conscious price, at that. Is it worth even that reduced sum? Is there anything for players that have (or have not) played the original?
The answer to both questions is a resounding yes. If that's all you came here for, know this: Halo Combat Evolved Anniversary is what it says on the box. It's a remade version of a game that still plays well ten years later, and now looks the part too. It's got a bunch of cool new multiplayer stuff and will even entertain people for whom this is their first taste of the epic franchise.
Still here? A quick recap, then, so we don't leave anyone behind (something Master Chief would never do). You play the part of a super soldier in a science fiction universe where the human race is under attack. Attempting to escape a crushing attack on the planet where super soldiers were created, you discover the Halo - but you're not alone, the deadly enemy have followed your flight and are attempting to use this mysterious ring-planet-thing for their own nefarious ends...
Ultimately, this plays out as a first person shooter in which you'll alternately pursue the enemy through interior and exterior areas. There are frequently vehicles in play, many of which you can control yourself. Manipulation of these vehicles, human and alien in origin, can be a troublesome thing to get your head around and the slightly floaty physics - explained by the unique world on which you find yourself, perhaps - certainly don't help. But you get there in the end and, once you do, you'll find yourself praising the system for the combination of control and visibility it affords.
Enemies are of the scatterbrained variety, AI-wise, but clever level design ensures that they rarely get an opportunity to demonstrate their lack of smarts. The rogues gallery of foes you'll face are unique, funny, and fearsome in equal measure, and the escalating difficulty levels of the title are executed cleverly to ensure the level of challenge you want is only a game setting away.
One of the more troublesome aspects of the singleplayer game is complicated by the health system, so I'll explain that first. Essentially, you have health and a shield - two separate "health-like" mechanics that define whether you're alive or dead. The difference between them is that your shield repairs itself if you stay out of combat, while your health does not. So it's possible, for example, to be running around on 10% health and 100% shields.
Where this becomes a problem is via the checkpoint system. Every so often, as you progress through a level (which can be quite lengthy), your progress will be stored at key markers - checkpoints. Should you die, the game state is reset back to what it was when you tripped the checkpoint.
Why is this a problem? If you had low health, you'll have low health when you respawn. You died shortly after that checkpoint for a reason - you faced something tricky and had low health. That tricky thing is back where it was when you first tried (and failed) to kill it - now you must try again, with the same health (and ammo, for that matter) that you had the first time around.
Often this isn't that big a deal, as the knowledge of what's ahead can be enough to tip the balance in the encounter back in your favour. But sometimes it's not; sometimes you'll find yourself headbutting that wall over and over until you finally beat it through random chance or good fortune.
Something else which was painful to be reminded of was the repetitive nature of some of the level layouts. 343 Industries have improved Bungie's original design quite a bit, by way of lighting and so on to guide you, but you can still be deep in one part of the game and have it look exactly like another. Yes, you're - spoiler alert, perhaps - running around in a big artificial construct but then Wellington Hospital is one massive complex and I can tell where I am when I'm inside it.
Multiplayer is essentially completely separate from the core game. So separate, in fact, not even your settings carry over - you'll need to adjust your inversion preferences, for example, in both games. Essentially it’s a version of the outstanding Reach multiplayer experience - but with tweaked versions of the multiplayer maps from the original Halo.
How is that different? Well, for a start you've got an additional loadout option: armour abilities. These are permanent, class-like skills that define the role you choose to play in multiplayer. One of the best, and most likely to affect level design, is the jetpack. Yes, that's right - you can fly (for a short time between recharges). It worked well in Reach but it's arguably even cooler here, where these classic maps take on an all-new vista when viewed from above.
If you're keen on playing the new maps from within Reach itself, you can do that too. Not only is there a separately-available DLC pack for just that, but there's a code in the box for CEA - so you can buy it and then, once you've played through the singleplayer, pop the Reach disk back in and play a full version of Reach (with all of its maps) and the new CEA maps too. Nice.
The game also looks pretty damn nice and, if you didn't know already, you wouldn't pick that it was an old game that had been given a new lick of paint. It feels fresh, vibrant, and rich to explore - aside from the aforementioned repetitiveness, obviously.
Sound is another simply stunning component of the game; the score is a wondrous thing and deserves the finest stereo system by which you can dramatically impose it on your neighbours. It's backed up by punchy SFX and impressive layers of sound treatment that really bring the game to life by way of your speakers. If you're a budding sound designer, you need to play this game. It's that good.
So, to conclude. Halo: CEA is what it sets out to be. It's a reason to explore the impressive world of Halo once again (or for the first time) without the need for rose-tinted glasses. Yes, it has its flaws, but the gameplay is still tight, the controls are arguably still best-in-class, and the narrative manages to impress all over again - perhaps just as much because, in the last ten years, few have come close to it.
It has the cool retro hooks, such as the "press back at any time to see what it used to look like" feature, and it updates the original with a host of discoverable cutscenes that fill in more of the convoluted backstory.
But most of all, what it has is fun - and in spades, at that. You feel unencumbered as you explore the epic science fiction setting, and you never once find yourself cursing the controls. You're simultaneously thrilled by the grandeur of the presentation and shocked by the brutality of the level designers - how dare they force you to face off with a pair of devastating Hunters on this gorgeous beach?
The experience, beginning to end, is a thrilling and driven one. You feel like you're under pressure and must save the world and, ever motivated, you're looking for opportunities to defeat the (remarkably numerous) enemy. This driving force propels you forward to ever grander sequences and sees you stride into increasingly risky scenarios - emboldened as much by the super soldier shell in which you find yourself as by the sweeping orchestral score that surrounds you.
Halo is an experience worth repeating and CEA is the treatment that the original deserved. Highly recommended.