Halo old friend

Posted: November 29, 2011 in Computing, Gaming

A few weeks ago I received my copy of Halo Combat Evolved : Anniversary, which is basically the original Halo with updated graphics/sound/etc. As many who know me, I’m a Halo fanatic (I have the tattoo* to prove it). I had a habit of kicking everyone’s ass it Halo (and Halo 2) back in the day. Then there was Halo 3 (first Halo on the Xbox 360), then Halo ODST, Halo Wars, and Halo Reach. Which is pretty much mediocrity bookended with two pretty good Halo tales (Halo 3 and Reach being the pretty good tales). Bungie, the company who started and built almost everything Halo (with the exception of Halo Wars) for the last 10 years bowed out, leaving the Halo franchise in Microsoft’s hands.

So Microsoft created a new development group/company called 343 Studios (which is a Halo reference). 343’s first product is the 10th anniversary version of the original Halo. All things considered, this is a great idea. Take a well-established and loved franchise’s first outing and make it current.

So how did they do? Well, not so good. The fact is, this is a true definition of “lipstick on a pig”. Even if the original source wasn’t a pig, in the last 10 years she’s put on too much weight and she lumbers around saying “but look how pretty I am”, which in reality she’s not. Yes, the graphics have been updated, but I found myself occasionally flipping back into “classic mode” to verify that the developer actually did anything. Honestly when you see a side-by-side comparison it’s significantly better, but the seat-of-the-pants reaction is that it’s kind of crappy.

The fact is, regardless of how nice it might look, sitting under the scenes is a 10 year old game. It feels lumbering and heavy. The moments that may have been impressive a decade ago feel weak. Repetition and drawn out levels abound, which seemed acceptable originally, but become quickly tiresome and boring.

On the up-side the Halo story is still strong. A lone group of humans in the middle of who know where, pursued by an alien race intent on destroying them. They find an artifact from another time, a huge ring in space, bigger than a planet. After crash-landing our hero meets the monitor, 343 Guilty Spark, and another enemy, the flood. Our hero learns that Halo is a weapon capable of destroying all life in the universe.

At its core this is a money grab, and a missed opportunity. Halo is one of the few franchises that have their own 3D engine. Almost everyone else uses the Unreal engine (or another 3D engine), which is a very smart move. Regardless, the Halo engine is fairly mature as one could see from Halo:Reach, but almost ten years of progress was thrown away with Halo Anniversary (and it shows). How much time and energy was spent building the rendering framework to make the older engine look good?

If I were in charge, I would have kept the story. Perhaps played the original a few times and taken copious notes. Then I would have thrown away the idea of duplicating the original game. Use the newest code for Halo:Reach, but go back to the drawing board. Retell the story, but make it a new adventure too. While you’re at it, take Halo 2 and include that as part of the story. Give the fans the complete trilogy in a modern engine.

That said, I do find myself consumed to some degree with Halo Anniversary. I enjoy playing it, much like I enjoy watching certain 80’s movies. Not so much because I like playing it, but because it does remind me of the first time I set foot on that ring-world. In the end though, it’s not enough and it feels a bit empty.

*Ok, the start of a tattoo.

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