Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Review: The Master Chief Collection - Part 1 - Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (2001) [2020]

Note: The original game was Halo: Combat Evolved and released in 2001 by Microsoft. In 2011 they released Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, a remake with enhanced graphics and features for consoles. In 2020 a PC version of Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary was released as part of The Master Chief Collection. The latter version is reviewed here.
 

So many games were being released in 2001 at the time the original Halo: Combat Evolved released that I had to perform a sort of triage and make decisions about which of them I was going to play at the time. I had a Halo demo (remember game demos?) and it presented a gaudy and colourful alien shooter that to be honest at the time didn't seem to be much 'evolved' from the likes of Unreal Tournament. I elected to instead play Return to Castle Wolfenstein as my "story shooter" and Aliens vs Predator 2 as my "multiplayer shooter". While both the Wolfenstein and the Alien franchise have continued with varying levels of success, they are far from the world wide phenomenon that Halo became and cemented the branding of the Microsoft XBox consoles for over twenty years to this day. So with the Master Chief Collection's arrival on Steam it brought a newly enhanced Halo: Combat Evolved - Anniversary to the platform and I thought it was time to begin to see what all the fuss was about.

While I don't think narratively at least Halo: CE is the first in the series, it is first in the sequence of release order so I said I'd play this series in this order as that's the way people have originally enjoyed the series. The original game established the characters of Master Chief, the genetically enhanced super soldier and his AI companion Cortana as they battle aliens in the 26th century and seek to uncover the secrets of the mysterious ring-world Halo.

I felt the story was OK overall; much more fleshed out than I expected. There were many tropes in play, crashed space vessel, mind-controlling aliens and even bizarre shift mid game from military science fiction to sci-fi survival horror for a little while that I felt was done surprising well for the time. I have no doubt that if I had played this 20 years ago, I would have critiqued it's story much better. The problem is that while I accept that there is much by way of originality here, it's likely been ripped off by so many other games, TV shows and movies in the last two decades that it feels tired now when experiencing it for the firs time.

While a story is obviously important to any game or franchise, of course it won't get anywhere if it's gameplay is weak. Halo:CEA doesn't have that issue and is more than a competent FPS game. It's weapons are varied and do feel like you're packing a punch. Sadly the enemies of limited variance do a lot of absorption before they go down in some places as you progress through the story. Master Chief can only hold carry two weapons and use them one at a time. I felt this limitation encouraged you to think tactically about the situation, what are you facing? will you have enough ammo going forward? what almost empty weapon will you pick up to replace the full capacity weapon you are carrying because it's not as effective in this situation? While doing this in a "reality" based game is understandable, I think for a sci-fi game where you're wearing a powered armoured suit you should be able to carry more weapons, and I think ultimately this design decision artificially slowed the game down because you had to stop and consider a load-out every 15-20 mins at least.

The game also eschewed a quick save/load option in favour of checkpoint saves. This would not be an issue if it saved more frequently but it doesn't. This wasn't the norm, certainly at the time of release. It's a feature I despise on games like this as it forces you to replay the same section, sometimes from a point much too far back to be 'fun' and it serves only to artificially extend the time it took to finish the game.

One thing that struck me as incredible was vehicle combat. Now the Covenant flying machines were a bit shit, but the Warthog is one of the greatest gaming vehicles in existence. It's precision and handling were better than most actual driving games and it was easy to control and shoot from perhaps even more so than the jeep in Half Life 2 or vehicles in Far Cry, both of which were released much later.

The level design was varied from cold wintery environments to lush swamplands but mostly you were in Sci-fi spacecraft/installation environments and this was all good as it fit into the main story. Level design at the beginning and the end were great but there was a section in the middle where you often had to fight your way into an installation - then turn around and fight your way out again. Basically the same level in reverse that's still designed for funnelling you in the opposite direction when you're going backwards and was frustratingly disorienting. It felt a bit cheap as again it was artificially inflating the time in game with non-unique experiences.

The sound design was top notch here from the enemies to the weapons. While clearly not there was one particular enemy that sounded like a Half-Life head-crab but that might have been my own ears playing tricks on me. Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori's sublime score would become one of the most celebrated in gaming history and echoed through this and much of the Halo titles as the franchise evolved, winning significant praise, awards and accolades. 

Final Verdict: I think the good elements outweighed the bad and while I admit it is just a bit too late to fully enjoy it as it was meant to be, the graphical improvements of Halo:CEA make this very consumable to enjoy in the modern age.

Stats: Playtime 10.3 hours through Steam @ 4K on Windows 10. No mods installed. No Glitches/bugs recorded.

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is available either as a stand-alone title from either Steam or the Windows Store (€9.99) or as part of  Halo: The  Master Chief Collection (€39.99).

Series Timeline:
Halo: Combat Evolved [2001]
Halo 2 [2004]
Halo 3 [2007]
- Halo 3: ODST [2009]
- Halo: Reach [2010]
- Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary [2011]
Halo 4 [2012]
- Halo: The Master Chief Collection [2014]
Halo 5: Guardians [2015]
Halo Infinite [2021]

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