Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary sure is pretty. That's the first thing you'll notice when you sit down to play. The updated visuals and new 16:9 aspect ratio look great. You can switch between the old and new versions instantaneously by pressing the Back button, but most will probably replay Master Chief's inaugural adventure soaking in the high-def scenery.
The technological feat of quick-swapping between the two graphics modes without a break in play can be credited to the two engines tasked with powering the experience. "There are two engines running simultaneously," 343 Industries' Frank O'Connor told G4 at a recent Microsoft holiday preview event in New York City. Read on to see what else he had to tell us about the updated HD love sonnet to the original Halo, and you can catch his video where he sheds more light on the game with us as well.
"The original Halo engine... and a second engine running in symmetry, but independently, on top of that which is handling all of the new graphics. That's the reason we're able to switch [graphics modes] so quickly." The new engine is custom-designed to play nice with the original Halo, though O'Connor confirmed that "it uses a bunch of existing technologies." He said that the framework used to build Halo: Reach just wouldn't work with Combat Evolved, and Anniversary is designed to replicate that original experience as closely as possible.
"We're guaranteeing that this plays exactly the same, but one thing that we can't guarantee is that you won't see any differences," O'Connor continued. "This is the first time that the console game has been available in 16:9 aspect ratio, it was only ever made in 4:3, so there may be some slight differences."
The differences being referred to here are of the deep-dive variety, specialized tactics developed by players that depend on certain pixel counts. O'Connor painted an object example: "Kids are saying, 'Can i do this one grenade jump that i used to do?,' The fact is you probably can, but we've stopped guaranteeing it ever since we switched to 16:9. We could've had it running in 4:3, but ultimately people are buying this so they can have it on their HDTV."
Another example of a possible change that might come to Combat Evolved Anniversary is the fan-favorite pistol. While the overpowered little beauty will still be the same beast it always was in campaign mode, the multiplayer version might -- emphasis on might -- be changed a little bit.
"People really want it in multiplayer," O'Connor said. "The multiplayer component [in Anniversary] all runs in the Reach engine. We didn't want to cannibalize the existing player base for Reach in the middle of its lifespan, so what we did was we picked a group of multiplayer maps that would work well with that Reach stuff."
"More importantly," he added, "we're working on a title update for Reach and obviously for this that'll allow us to add some of the classic functionality and gameplay from the original multiplayer component [in Combat Evolved]. In some ways taken backwards, taken back to the sort of simpler... more elegant Halo experience."
"We haven't revealed what all of those pieces are that we're putting in the title update because, frankly, we're testing a lot of them right now. I don't want to say we'll have the original pistol back in multiplayer if some unperceived circumstance could come up during testing and it doesn't work. But right now we're pretty confident that everything we're shooting for is going to make it into the title update. We'll give that list out and sort of talk through it at Halo Fest on August 26."
O'Connor confirmed that Anniversary will include seven multiplayer maps in all, one of which is dedicated entirely to Firefight mode. "Some of them are from Halo, maybe one is from Halo 2 and people have already spotted the Timberland map from Halo PC in there."
"The choice of maps was all based on, obviously people's favorites, but also things that haven't been remade on the 360 because it would be redundant," he added. "Blood Gulch is the obvious number one go-to, but it's available in Reach and in Halo 3. There are still some surprises to announce that I think people will be pretty happy with."
O'Connor teased one of those surprises specifically, an innovation relating to the game's lone Firefight map, which is set on Halo. "We've actually been able to-- because of the stuff we've been playing with in terms of the base code, there's something that we've been able to add to Firefight."
He wouldn't go into specifics since the element is still being tested -- "We're pretty confident it's going to make it in," O'Connor said -- but it is something "that hasn't been seen before." He teased, "It's something that hasn't been in Firefight to date, and it should make it a pretty compelling experience."
Skulls will be back, as we already know, starting with the previously announced Grunt Funeral. O'Connor confirmed that all of the skulls will be new to the series, though "some of them will do familiar things."
He also talked a little bit about the terminals in Anniversary, which you may have caught a trailer for at the tail end of last week. Terminals actually date all the way back to Marathon, and Bungie revived them as fonts of textual information about the Halo universe in Halo 3.
The newly added terminals will be easier to find, and they'll feature animations and voice acting, as you saw in the trailer. Fans can even expect to see some hints of what's to come pop up in Anniversary, by way of the terminals.
"They'll definitely feed into Greg Bear's novels and there'll be some links to Halo 4 as well," O'Connor added. "I would caution people: you don't need to read the terminals to play Halo 4. You don't need to buy a book to understand Halo 1. We try to make these things self-contained as well as connected."
And hey, look at that: Forge is back too! Since the multiplayer side of Anniversary runs on the Reach engine, including Forge was an easy choice. It will, of course, be new and improved as well, at least as far as integrating content from Combat Evolved goes.
"We're putting new Forge build pieces in the maps," O'Connor said. "A good example is Beaver Creek. You want to make that map a little bit bigger, so we've added some tunnels and stuff. In the classic mode it'll be blocked off, but you can take that out in Forge. With the Forge, all the stuff that works in Reach multiplayer with work in the multiplayer component of this."
It's fitting that 343 Industries' first crack at overseeing a Halo title is this Anniversary re-release. Bungie created a fantastic platform for the studio to launch from in the original trilogy, but now the continuing story of Master Chief is in the hands of a new group of Halo fans.
"One of the luxuries we had in taking over the franchise was, we had time to actually stop and reset and say, 'What is this arc going to look like? What is the next trilogy going to look like? How can we better connect the external franchise fiction [like the novels]?,'" O'Connor said.
"We're actually in a really good place with the story. We know where the first story we ever told is and we know where the last story we're going to tell is, and we can build into that framework really efficiently."