If you were to play a word association game with an Xbox fan, it'd probably go something like this. "Master" - "Chief". "John" - "117". "Xbox" - "Halo". Such is the appeal of Halo, one of the greatest sci-fi first person shooters of its day, and arguably still one of the best games of its kind, that it pretty much single handedly drove the original Xbox to its success, turning what was a glimmer in the eye of Bill Gates into the tens of millions selling console that we have today. All that, because of one game.
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is a remake of the original Xbox game, brought into the present day with some sparkly graphics and slightly different sound. Telling the story of the war between humanity and an alien race known as the Covenant, the game begins with the Master Chief, the last remaining relic of humanity's experimentation with creating a race of genetically and technologically enhanced super soldiers, crash landing on an alien planet, after the ship he was on, the Pillar of Autumn got attacked by the Covenant. Stranded on an alien world that's shaped like a ring, or a Halo (ah - you see what they did there?), it's up to you to explore the strange landscapes, installations, and buildings the planet holds, as you race to discover its secrets - before the Covenant find out for themselves.
It wasn't the setting that made Halo special, though. After all, it's a game that revolves around a space marine who has to defend himself against aliens - that's hardly Pulitzer prize winning stuff. And first person shooters, then as they are now, were ten a penny. What Halo did right, was that it brought the emphasis away from realism, and on to fun. It wasn't a serious, gritty, military shooter. It didn't thrive on hyper-violence - it wasn't even serious sci-fi. Halo was a game that was all about the fun - and the game that we have to thank for co-op modes becoming as much of a fixture as they are now.
Playable in its entirety in co-op, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is best enjoyed with a friend. Unlike previous Halo games, in Combat Evolved Anniversary, this is split-screen done right, with the TV divided exactly in two, rather than forcing you to play in two tiny windows with massive black borders on either side, for no reason whatsoever, as has been the case for the last three games. With levels that still seem pretty large now, it's always helpful having a second pair of eyes trying to spot the right way - especially when it comes to driving the vehicles. From the indestructible warthog Jeep, which lets your friend either ride shotgun, or man the turret, to the gigantic Scorpion tank, that can blow enemy vehicles - and enemies themselves - sky high with a single shot from its turret, the vehicles make Halo in co-op - especially when you manage to take your Warthog inside, and drive over the enemies that are trying to block your way.
Thanks to the graphical update, Halo's a lot prettier now, too. With a Monkey Island: Special Edition style ability to switch between new and old graphics on the fly, simply by pressing the Back button, you'll be able to see just how dank and dreary the original Halo looked - and how much more colourful it is now. From the glistening purple interiors of the Covenant ships, to the mysterious swamps and forests, everything feels much brighter now, and it's all the better for it.
On your travels around the ring, whether in a vehicle or on foot, you'll come across a variety of enemies that again, it really helps to have a friend to help take them out. From the one-hit-should-do grunts, who basically look like badgers with jetpacks, to the more intelligent (and trickier to defeat) Elites, who have a recharging shield, and the behemoths that are the Hunters, whose weakpoints are few and far between (tiny patches of skin show in between cracks in their armour - it's these you'll need to take out), there's never a dull moment. in fact, far from being terrifying, most of the enemies are more like pantomime baddies, with the grunts screaming and running off should you surprise them, while the Elites guttural cries of "ooga booga" when they're about to jump out on you, and evil laughs when they've killed you, make them enemies you love to hate.
Even the weapons are more fun than most games now. From the precise pistol, to the area cleaning effect of the rocket launcher, there's a great selection of weapons in between, including plasma grenades, which stick to whichever enemy they touch, and the needler, which fires pink needles that home in on enemies, making it a great weapon for beginners - especially when playing in co-op. Should you manage to stick enough needles in an enemy, they'll explode, taking down that enemy's shield, meaning a beginner on a needler can be quite the team player - great for families playing together.
And although it may sound quite violent, Halo really isn't. The enemies don't bleed red blood, instead giving out a bright blue goo; melee attacks are handled by smacking your enemy with the butt of your gun, not violently stabbing them in the neck like most games - nothing's as serious, boring, and gritty as it is now.
Each of the levels holds its own secrets, too, with at least one skull, and one terminal waiting to be found in each - often several more. Hidden in the most obscure of places, and requiring an eagle eye - and a lot of exploring to find them, the skulls unlock cheats that make the game harder, in case you're feeling particularly masochistic - from taking away the icons on screen, so you have to guess where your gun's going to fire, to making your enemies throw more grenades, or explode when they've been defeated. The terminals, meanwhile, play a series of cryptic clips that are meant to explain some of the Halo backstory, but do little more than confuse anyone who a) hasn't played the game through before, and b) hasn't read the Halo books. That still won't stop us finding them all, though, of course.
One important thing to keep in mind is that although Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary says on the box that it has "six classic multiplayer maps" and "2-16 player online multiplayer", that actually isn't technically true. The online maps are part of a single use download code (meaning if you buy pre-owned, you probably won't get them), and also, rather than downloading them for Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, they're actually downloadables for Halo: Reach - meaning if you don't have the previous game in the series, you won't be able to play competitive multiplayer. That doesn't really bother us too much, as we're more fans of co-op anyway, but still - it really should be made out on the box, not after you've bought it.
But perhaps the main problem with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, is that it reminds you how good Halo used to be, and how the more recent games have simply become a shadow of their former selves, as they've strived to embrace "realism" at the expense of what made them good in the first place. The feeling of exploring an alien planet, just you and a friend, armed with only your torches (and a big gun) is second to none - especially when you're taking in the sights from a warthog. And it's a game that creates so many moments you'll want to come back to - rolling through the arctic tundra, feeling untouchable in your tank; running past as many enemies, and trying to dodge their fire as you leg it to hijack an enemy ship; or just being able to fly around in yet another vehicle, doing as you please, landing where you please, and exploring where you please.
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is something special. If the upcoming Halo 4 is even half as good, we'll be in for something very special indeed.
Format Reviewed: Xbox 360