If there’s one thing to be learned from Halo, it’s that nothing’s quite as terrifying as evil popcorn. If there’s another lesson to take away, it’s that remasters can risk eroding what makes a game stand out. Because while Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition has rightly been criticized for being soulless, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary was making those mistakes a full decade earlier.
That’s not to say Halo: Anniversary Edition, now a part of The Master Chief Collection, is a technical trainwreck. It isn’t. Granted, I did fall through the scenery once, but most of the time that I took a header into the abyss it was because plasma grenades don’t have a friendly fire setting.
But returning to and replaying Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary after an extensive absence, I became acutely aware of how 343 and Saber Interactive’s visual overhaul missed some of the original’s charm. 2010’s version of Halo looks much prettier and an awful lot less angular than the 2001 original, but from its NPCs through to its otherworldly locales, it feels a little homogenized.
If you played the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas remaster and ran into Old Reese before Rockstar and Grove Street Games patched the game, you may have picked up on how he went from being “old” to “just some guy.” Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary’s friendly marines suffer from a similar issue that makes them less distinctive. To their credit, 343 and Saber let you switch between the original and remastered Halo graphics with the press of a button, but in turn, it makes it that much easier to spot the changes that don’t work in Halo’s favor.
Early on, for example, I found myself gazing into the haunted face of a UNSC marine, sporting a distinctive battle scar. Why was he so haunted? Because, as Halo begins, the captain and crew of the Pillar of Autumn are on the run. They’ve just seen the human colony of Reach fall to a vastly superior Covenant force, and for all they know, Earth could be next.
Even the character models themselves support the notion that humanity is in deep, deep trouble. They’re equipped in what looks like riot gear, compared to the full body armor sported by the Covenant’s Elites. But the moment I tapped the button to alternate visual settings, the mood changed completely.
Suddenly, his scar vanished, as did his gaunt appearance, replaced by a well-equipped marine who, apart from his futuristic weapon, wouldn’t have been out of place in a Call of Duty game. He wasn’t actually physically larger, but the bulk of his equipment gave that impression. I’d gone from looking at a man who was still ready to fight despite the death of countless friends, to gawping into the bland face of Dave Generic, Professional NPC.
Likewise, Captain Keyes looks significantly less steely with the new graphics, but the changes don’t end there. The remastered edition of San Andreas was until recently criticized for dispensing with the fog, making everything too crystal clear. Rockstar and Grove Street Games again would have done well to learn from the Halo remaster, which also dials up the lighting to ill effect.
For my first foray in 10 years, I’d made the decision to play Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary with the original graphics, so one of the ring’s dimly lit underground complexes was every bit as chilling as I had remembered. Dispatching enemies as I went, I found myself staring into a purple chasm, unable to shake the sensation that something was lurking down there, ready to snatch me off the platform and drag me down.
Swapping to remastered graphics changed the story entirely. The room was bathed in light, and I could see every single detail of the walls, which extended down into the pit. Granted, the old purple glow might have been implemented for technical reasons, but now there was no mystery and my feelings of awe and mild terror disappeared. The new view was pretty to look at, but it definitely dialed back the atmosphere.
It’s possible I’m biased, since the original Halo was “my” Halo. But I can quantify why some of these changes do Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary no favors. And there are plenty of remasters / remakes that have accomplished exactly what they set out to do, such as Shadow of the Colossus. Granted, that title is easier on the eye in the first place, but its new incarnation retains the spirit of the original.
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is still a blast to play though, and 343 and Saber were wise to include the ability to experience the original. It’s another lesson Rockstar and Grove Street Games would have done well to take to heart. Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition replaces the original versions on all digital storefronts, except through Rockstar’s own launcher.
The existence of Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition and Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary highlight the big problem with remasters and, indeed, remakes. Sometimes, games are such a product of their time and the technical limitations of their platforms that, when they’re ported to a new platform, something’s lost in translation.
Take Silent Hill 2, for example. The Silent Hill Collection was pretty abysmal, but that was largely because Konami managed to lose the original master. If it were being remastered today, what would you seek to preserve? The fog and the film grain do wonders for its atmosphere, but as it turns out, trying to run them at a high resolution looks “off” – in an emulator, at least.
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary’s version-switching was a welcome hangover from its development. It might not be practical to add that feature to every remaster, but Rockstar and Grove Street Games have done the stark opposite in depriving players of the original experiences altogether by delisting them, to say nothing of the fact that the new versions are inferior. That’s a decision that will stick with them, at least until Grand Theft Auto VI comes out anyway.
Would Halo fans have made more noise if Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary didn’t give them a choice between the original and prettier-but-not-as-atmospheric version? Quite probably, and that’s a choice Rockstar has failed to appreciate.