We’ve heard it before whenever people talk about HD remakes but when Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary executive producer Dan Ayoub explains,“Halo Anniversary is a labor of love,” he really, really means it.
“We didn’t want to an HD version, throw it into a box, and call it a day,” Ayoub continued during 343 Industries’ Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary panel at PAX Prime 2011. The developers wanted to make the game, due out on November 15 (10 years to the day since the release of the original Halo), not only felt exactly the same as it did a decade ago, but that it also wasn’t simply an uprezzed version either.
To achieve this delicate balance, 343 layered together the groundbreaking controls of Halo with the graphical capabilities of the Halo: Reach engine to create an experience that is simultaneously nostalgic yet current. One of the key features designed to drive this point home even further is the classic mode option. At any point in the game, you can tap the back button and instantly see what the game looked like in its original form.
The first time the producer running the demo of “Well Enough Alone” (you might remember it as the dark, swamp level) switches from the barren, blandly fogged surroundings of the original to the richly detailed and pulsating luminosity of the Anniversary version, the crowded theater erupted into cheers and applause, and rightfully so. The updated level packs the same visual punch you’d expect from a Reach level, and this is one of the big takeaways that Ayoub and the rest of 343i hope players have when they play the game.
“I like to refer to this as 10 years of gaming evolution at the push of a button,” Ayoub explains. And it’s absolutely true. To see what artists and designers are able to achieve with today’s technology compared to 10 years ago is nothing if not inspiring, and to have instant access to that original work, especially for aspiring developers, serves as much as a design lesson as a history one. (It should also be said that during one portion of the demo, the driver jumped back from the Anniversary graphics and the crowd laughed in unison at how sterile and empty the original setting actually was. Expect to have a lot of these “Whoa!...HA!” moments when you play through the game yourself, especially if you are a longtime fan.)
In addition to overhauling the graphics, 343 also remastered the sound design, eliciting the help of the Skywalker Ranch to retool the audio to make it as satisfying to modern gamers’ ears as the graphics are to their eyes. Speaking of eyes, Anniversary also supports 3D, but, as Ayoub made perfectly clear, it’s not necessary; it was included as a bonus to people who have invested in 3D televisions and are looking for a way to put it to good use. In fact, Ayoub insists that Anniversary’s 3D is a bit sharper than standard 3D solutions because, rather than simply using a pre-made 3D program, the team actually developed their own for the game that not only fits more organically with Anniversary's tech but that also allows players to tweak the settings to their liking.
Another major new addition to Anniversary designed to primarily enhance the overall Halo experience are terminals. 343 announced the inclusion of terminals back at E3, but now we have some more details that should make Halo lovers even more anxious to relive the first game all over again. For starters, unlike their text-based Halo 3 and Halo: ODST counterparts, the terminals in Anniversary are now fully animated sequences. Through these terminals, players will come to have a deeper and better understanding of the events leading up to and beyond Halo, while still telling the same core story players remember.
During the presentation, we were shown the first scene from the first terminal you find in the game, which features everyone’s favorite floating orb Guilty Spark coming online to warn Master Chief, and humans in general, that they aren’t allowed to proceed onto Halo itself, until of course realizing that the Chief is most likely able to handle himself on the unforgiving and Covenant dominated space ring. It’s a funny little moment, especially given how the relationship between Guilty Spark and Master Chief develops over the course of the series.
Of course, the reason Halo has become the phenomenon that it has today is multiplayer, so it’s hardly a surprise that Anniversary will include numerous additions, improvements, and enhancements to take the beloved Halo multiplayer experience to the next-gen level. Anniversary’s multiplayer offering includes six maps, all faithfully recreated based on their original designs (with Reach tech of course), but each map has also been re-engineered to feature new areas and elements that fit organically within the original designs but make them stand up to the scrutiny of modern gamer sensibilities. As an added bonus, devout Reach players will be able to import the maps from Anniversary to their hard drives and play them straight from Reach without having to swap out discs.
Halo Anniversary also includes a new Firefight mode that, for the first time, lets you play alongside AI controlled squadmates in place of previously required human teammates. The more friendless-friendly offering is set on a new map, Installation 04, one of Halo’s most memorable locations. For more info, be sure to check out our HCEA hands-on multiplayer impressions.
In spite of the technical challenges and tight schedule the 343 devs faced bringing Halo Anniversary to life, the drive to please fans, new and old alike, was clearly always hugely motivating. But it was also posed a rather unique problem since, as Ayoub pointed out, the team was constantly wondering, “How do we make this compelling for the 18-year-old player?” With a tinge of sadness and pain, Ayoub explained that “For some players, they were eight-years-old when Halo came out,” and as those players have grown up they have come to expect a certain kind of experience from a AAA shooter, especially one that carries the Halo name. As if simply releasing an HD version of Halo was inherently stressful and demanding enough.
Like Ayoub said at the start, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is a labor of love, “right down to the price point of $39.99.” It might not be Halo 4, but come November 15, Halo addicts will have a shiny “new” toy to hold them over in the meantime.