As we approach Xbox’s tenth birthday, we speak to the team remaking Halo: Combat Evolved, the game that defined the machine itself.
Halo: Combat Evolved
Originally released on November 15, 2001, as an Xbox launch title.
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary marks ten years of Halo, features updated graphics, enhanced story-telling features and more.
Tells the story of Master Chief, a SPARTAN II super-soldier, on a mission to discover the location of the Covenant’s homeworld.
Was to be released as a Mac and PC game before developer Bungie sold to Microsoft in 2000: it shipped for its originally intended platforms in 2003.
The new edition was announced alongside Halo 4 at E3 2011.
There’s a charming element to the obsequiousness of the Halo fan, their stoic deference to the franchise exhibiting itself as rose-tinted memory, loving community and unending dedication to play with the later games. There’s no braying about the competition. These are old timers, not children, and some have been playing Halo for a long time.
Halo lovers are truly that. The original shipped ten years ago and became a defining title both for Xbox and console shooters in general, surpassing the perceived anomaly of Rare’s GoldenEye to forge a brave new path for the American games industry. Halo has a well-deserved place in entertainment history.
The Bungie classic changed the lives of many. Its fans will be fans forever, and the one thing they’ve asked for since time immemorial is a Combat Evolved remake. 343 Industries, the Microsoft unit set up in 2007 to manage Halo after Bungie made the decision to move onto projects and platforms new, knows it’s time to pay the piper.
“Why are we doing this game now? November 15 is the tenth anniversary of the birth of this franchise, and the fans have been asking for this game for a tremendously long time,” says 343 executive producer Dan Ayoub, raising his voice against Microsoft’s gamescom booth.
“Now we’re at the ten-year anniversary it makes sense; now is the time to give this back to the community. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a while.”
Remaking something as hallowed as Halo isn’t without its difficulties. 343 decided to play it straight; the central content itself remains untouched.
“The core goal of this game is to relive the experience of what it was like to play Halo ten years ago,” Ayoub says. “Everyone remembers the first time they played Halo because it was such a magical, unique experience. It was a game that felt like no other, and it really inspired ten years of console shooters.”
Ayoub and 343 have included parts of the original Halo engine in their quest for authenticity, but were mindful that any special edition released into today’s market had to look and sound the part. A new graphics and audio engine has been layered over Halo’s ancient code to bring it up to date, and having these two tech systems running in the Anniversary Edition allowed for Classic mode – at any point during the campaign, at the touch of a button, you can swap the graphics between old and new.
We see producer Dennis Reese play seminal Halo level Guilty Spark. He flicks from new textures to the old code to show off the substantial change. In the original engine the draw distance is hugely lower than in the modern build, and the textures are surprisingly retro.
“The core goal of this game is to relive the experience of what it was like to play Halo ten years ago. Everyone remembers the first time they played Halo because it was such a magical, unique experience. It was a game that felt like no other, and it really inspired ten years of console shooters.”
“A pretty stunning difference,” Ayoub notes. “I like to say it’s ten years of gaming evolution. It’s really amazing. What’s fun is that you can go back and forth as many times as you want at any time during the campaign. It’s a truly magical feature, not just for Halo fans but for gamers in general.”
Back in the new engine, Reese opens fire and Ayoub waxes about the new audio effects, saying 343 has taken the original orchestral audio and rerecorded it so it sounds “even better today”. It’s hard to argue.
Online co-op, 3D, kitchen sink
There are other, major upgrades. Achievements have been added – meaning this is the first time you’re going to be able to get 360 awards for the original Halo – but most important is the ability to play co-op over Live. Halo had split-screen co-op and LAN-play, but sharing the campaign with a friend online was impossible. Now it isn’t.
Another addition is stereoscopic 3D. We get a quick look and it’s fine, with plenty of depth into the screen. The gun seemed blurry, but maybe that was just me; we weren’t wearing the glasses for more than 30 seconds.
The team has made some “very specific modifications, level-by-level in some cases” to make the 3D work, Reese says.
“In a lot of cases it’s to make sure the weapons look right, to make sure the environments sit right in 3D. You can adjust the level of 3D within the controls. We’ve done what we can to make it as good a feature as possible.”
Don’t expect to be wearing giant glasses for the rest of your Halo playing career, however.
“I don’t think that 3D is representative of one of the goals for the franchise,” Ayoub adds. “This is something we wanted to do for Anniversary because we wanted to make it special with as many cool features as we could.
“It’s yet another feature we have to help that sense of immersion and really help this game feel like more than just a simple remake. I like to say that this is the season of remakes; people are just taking their games and putting them in HD. Halo fans deserve better than that. We wanted to do more than just a simple remake, and that’s where Classic mode and all these other features came from.
“We really wanted this to be a celebration of ten years of Halo.”
We also see the terminal additions. Terminals first appeared in Halo 3; they’re points in the game where backstory is told through a motion graphic interface as opposed to the text boxes of the first two Halo games. Anniversary Edition has fully featured terminals throughout.
We see one which shows the rise of man from monkey to space. View them all and you’ll get some “hints,” as Ayoub puts it, as to where 343′s going with Halo 4.
Multiplayer will have six maps and an additional Firefight level. You’ll be able to play with Reach owners that have the same maps, a feature helped by the Reach engine being used for online play.
More feature announcements will be made before launch.
A love letter to the fans
Which all adds up to an unashamedly special special edition. You can’t short-change Halo.
“All of this is about being a love letter to the fans,” says Ayoub.
“We’re very passionate about this, and we wanted this to be more than a simple remake. Everything about this is celebrating our heritage and the ten years of Halo for our fans, right down to the price tag of $39. We wanted this to be a feature-rich product that was something everyone just wanted to get, and enjoy, and start playing again.”
Bungie had no involvement in the birthday edition at all, making if the first true Halo product to ship without any touch of the original developer.
“This is a 343 title,” says Ayoub. “We worked with a couple of partners. Saber Interactive worked on the campaign, and Certain Affinity was on the multiplayer. They’ve been a great partner for us. They worked on the Defiant map pack, which was really well received, and Max [Hoberman, Certain Affinity's founder - Ed] and his team has a long history with the Halo franchise. But yeah, this has been entirely 343.”
And that’s bound to bring griping. Ayoub’s resigned to the fact.
“I think that any time you touch a classic you have to expect criticism,” he says. “We made a very conscious effort that this would play exactly the same as it did ten years ago, and that philosophy meant warts and all.”
Bugs haven’t been fixed and the Library is still the Library. This is the game you played with layers of extras heaped over it. It’s the only realistic way Halo could ever have been remade without ruining the memories of its devotees.
A balancing act has been accomplished, though, and the team believes the Anniversary Edition has more than the power to woo the hardcore.
Says Ayoub: “Classic mode is a great example, right? That’s for the person that played this thing ten years ago, who can switch back and go, ‘Oh my God, I remember this. This is so awesome.’ As we were making this game, it dawned to us that if you’re an 18 year-old player, you were eight when Halo came out and you probably never played. To those people, the graphics are a barrier. They’re, like, ‘I don’t want to play this. It’s old and clunky.’
“So I think there’s an opportunity with the new players as well, with the new audio and the new visuals, to experience the game for the first time. A lot of them may never have played Halo; there’s a whole population of gamers that started playing with Halo 3. We think that the addition of those new graphics, and things like that, is a great way to get people that never had a chance to play it to see why the game is so special.”
Halo CE Anniversary Edition ships for Xbox 360 on November 15.