It's been a year of remastered and remade video game classics. From the stereoscopic reinvention of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for Nintendo 3DS to the subtler overhaul and HD-ification of Sony's classic Ico and The Shadow of the Colossus games, players who like to cast a wistful backwards glance at games of yesteryear have been in for one retro treat after another.
Xbox enthusiasts finally get their turn to revisit the past with 343 Industries' remake of Halo: Combat Evolved, the game that catapulted Microsoft's first home console into the spotlight. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is a scene-for-scene high-def redo that remains so faithful to the original that the developers were able to include a novel feature that allows gamers to switch between the shiny new candy coating of the remake and the original's 10-year-old graphics at the tap of a button.
But as true to its source as it may be, you can still expect plenty of minor tweaks and upgrades.
Secret video clips – memories recorded by 343 Guilty Spark, halo's ball-shaped artificial intelligence – are waiting to be discovered by players who explore every nook and cranny of the ring world. These are the only pieces of new narrative content, and run the risk of going unfound by those who simply zoom through the campaign.
Less likely to go unnoticed are the new graphics, which are light years beyond what was possible when the original game was released. The outdoor areas of the halo are now alive with fluffy cloud formations, sparkling water, and denser foliage while its innards glow with exotic and detailed alien devices. It's not quite on par with the graphical showmanship of games like Batman: Arkham City, but it looks every bit like a modern game.
Even more impressive is that it also plays like a modern game – this despite the fact that the interface and mechanics have been left pretty much unchanged, save for the addition of a handful of optional Kinect voice commands (you can now say "grenade" to throw a grenade or "change weapon" to switch between your two guns).
The controls are tight and responsive, and our allies and enemies are shockingly intelligent. Elites are viciously aggressive and unpredictable killers, while the weaker grunts that follow them are smart enough to know to flee if their captains are dispatched. Even the game's weapons – including the famous magnum, which is just as gloriously overpowered as you remember – feel in synch with modern shooter expectations.
That the core experience still feels so contemporary is a clear testament to both the brilliance of the original game and the influence it's had on the first-person shooter genre over the last decade.
That's not to say every element of the game has aged with similar grace. The often repetitive, cookie-cutter alien environments – which begin in Assault on the Control Room and only get worse as we progress through to Library – prove at least as annoying as they did back in 2001. And the Flood...well, they're still the Flood; bereft of personality and frustratingly kamikaze-like in conduct.
Of course, as has always been the case in Halo games, the campaign is only one half of the experience. The other is multiplayer. And while the original Halo didn't facilitate online play (save for those adventurous few who employed mods to connect with similarly tech savvy players), it did offer several enormously entertaining local multiplayer modes. Indeed, whether it was just me and a couple of friends playing in split-screen mode or the frequent LAN parties I attended that saw multiple TVs and Xboxes moved into the same room, multiplayer sessions were a highlight of the Halo experience.
Sadly, 343 Industries has completely omitted these local competitive modes. In place of local multiplayer we're given a robust online multiplayer experience powered by the same engine used by Halo: Reach, which means you can expect to see the series' more modern sandbox-y elements – think bubble shields and jetpacks – as well as features like the Forge, which facilitates basic map editing.
The servers were empty every time I tried to log on during my pre-release evaluation, so all I could do was wander about empty levels, many of which are recreations of popular multiplayer maps from Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2, such as Hang 'em High, which is set inside an alien facility on the ring world, and the canyon wall-enclosed Beaver Creek.
These proven maps are sure to deliver plenty of online fun, especially for die hard fans of the franchise's newer instalments.
Having played many of this year's remakes, I've slowly come to realize that to compare any of them to the games upon which they are based is probably folly. To do so implies the desire to recapture the original experience, which is impossible. Aside from the simple fact that we already know how they end and what to anticipate along the journey, we must also take into consideration that when we first played these games we were younger and had different expectations and desires regarding our interactive entertainment.
Best simply to appreciate these new releases for what they are: High-tech trips down memory lane.
Halo: Combat Evolved
Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: 343 Industries