First person shooters these days are all about manoeuvring yourself through absolute chaos. This is primarily Call of Duty’s fault, but only because those games have always been (and continue to be) exceptionally well made. It’s always thrilling when the traditions of blockbuster action cinema are used to rattle you, but the downside to this ethos involves (among other issues) an abundance of concrete pathways and inexplicable deaths. What’s remarkable about returning to Combat Evolved ten years on is not that it feels old; it’s that it feels completely new. With the arrival of each new Halo sequel it was always easy to proclaim that Bungie had matched or nearly matched the achievement of their debut FPS, but just a few brief minutes with this (even in its original Xbox incarnation) is enough to ultimately show you that this conclusively wasn’t the case.
Incidentally that tool, which allows you to flip between the raggedy original Xbox version and the new upgraded one, is a faultless marvel. Even if you initiate it in the midst of a hectic battle your enemies will remain in exactly the same place, and the juxtaposition is only jarring visually. If you played this ten years ago, it’ll no doubt be used intermittently throughout the campaign in order to instigate a potent blast of nostalgia, and for newcomers it’ll serve as a very surprising gauge of just how far technology has progressed in the past decade. But what’s most enjoyable about experiencing Combat Evolved now is observing both how influential it was at the time, and how superior it still is. Ten years ago, the AI and the level design both laid a couple of influential touchstones, and it’s still in question as to whether either of those yardsticks have even been touched in subsequent years.
The AI is still endlessly astounding, and on reflection Halo’s parade of sequels and prequels appear to have only dumbed it down. On the Heroic and Legendary difficulty tiers, the Covenant constantly charge you, bar you from using cover to replenish your health and dive away from grenades no less than 90% of the time; rendering all projectiles essentially useless until you’re restricted by tight corridors or have successfully played the stealth game. If you try to rush one of them in order to tag them with a sticky grenade, they’ll often react as if they know exactly what you’re up to. If you compare Combat Evolved to something like Halo Reach there’s definitely a bit less variety in how your enemies react, but that diversity feels as if it only dampened the ferocity and unpredictably of Combat Evolved.
What’s certain is that it makes for a stimulating change of pace after spending so much of this year waiting (as usual) for countless heads to pop out from cover. Combat Evolved’s other big innovation was the way that it flawlessly created the illusion of an open world. Playing through it for the first time, you always felt as if you were creating your own pathways through the Halo, even though Bungie were discreetly ushering you towards your objectives like a band of virtuoso puppet masters. Countless FPS games released in Halo’s wake have tried to orchestrate this same mirage – its own sequels most notably – but it has still never been done quite as effectively as this. Waypoints are scarce and the environments are immense, and the sense of reward that you get simply from getting from A to B is uncommonly vast.
Despite this openness, Halo still recreates the unfettered sensation of forward momentum. It’s still an action game after all, and the combat is still as brilliantly idiosyncratic as ever. An overpowering lunge of a melee attack, grenades that are arguably the most important part of your arsenal and the brawniest pistol in the history of videogames; nothing feels quite like being in control of a glorified super hero like Master Chief. The Library may still be a repetitive and infuriating grind and the decision not to include the simultaneous four-way co-op of Halo 3 and ODST is frankly inexplicable, but otherwise this is a exceedingly effective redux. To say the least, videogames do not tend to age very well and the fact that Combat Evolved still packs such an almighty punch is a testament to what remains a true, thoroughbred classic.
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is available now for the Xbox 360.
Watch the Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary launch trailer here: