Monday, 23 January 2012

"Halo: CEA": Review

by Alex Hill


Halo: Combat Evolved has not aged as well as I thought it would. Playing it again, it's clear to me that it was good for its time. It was the next stepping stone after the Goldeneyes and Perfect Dark of the N64 era... Wait, can games about shooting people in the face have their "Renaissance"? Halo said goodbye to all of that, and while the series focused on making the immediate "game-feel"(as Egoraptor once put it) more fine-tuned, it sacrificed just about everything else to get to where we are now:

A screeching, prepubescent cesspool, the graveyard of creativity in video games.

343 Industries decided to test the waters of their new-found charge by going back to the game that made Bungie the luckiest hacks in the business. By 2001 standards, Halo: CE did contribute something. It further demystified the First-Person Shooter for consoles, a genre which many thought could not be done without a keyboard and mouse. Perhaps they were really saying "should not".

A simple concept, bolstered by the promise of a very deep-reaching mythology. We didn't learn a whole lot about the aliens, or the Flood, or their ancestors and motivations. But through the environment, the soundtrack and the character "343 Guilty Spark" (Tim Dabado), it cleverly tricked me into thinking there was more going under the surface, and that the immediate gunfire and explosions were a small part in a much bigger series of events. A star among the night's sky. I resented Halo 2 for reducing this awe and mystery to an over-theatrical political struggle. Sometimes it's more fun to wonder.

Both of these screenshots have more colour than Reach.

The best new addition to this old horse isn't the updated visual clarity, or the orchestrated soundtrack(both of which are impressive in their own right). There are now hidden "Terminals", short expository movies that take place from Guilty Spark's point of view leading up to the game, while dropping hints about where this series is going. With one perspective exception: a Terminal which shows us the agonizing last moments of a pretty decent guy.

It's obvious they wanted to preserve the game and present it as it was, leaving the upgrades as an option. While there is something to be said for preserving history, I wish they'd included some of the more recent additions modern FPS games have enjoyed. Like having onscreen text that's readable, or being able to choose ahead of time which part of the stage you'd like to jump into. I never had a problem with the copy+paste mentality of the Halo levels, in fact I enjoyed playing them. I just didn't realize until recently how long the stages were. Not until I had to marathon through the whole damned thing just to get to that one spot I was looking for.

Maybe they could have retconned this guy some personality?

And while being shot through walls in Reach is infuriating on its own, I'm not sure I'd call it an improvement to spontaneously explode without warning, which happens far too often here. Seriously. No enemies, full shields and health, just walking from one place to the next and them KABLOOM. "You're not swearing enough...", I'm sure the game would say, " now you die for no reason."

In any case, this iteration at least had a plucky confidence to it that later entries lack. It's hard to tell how 343 Industries will handle this franchise. I've always felt it showed more promise than its reckless guardians would allow. It's like watching a child taken from an abusive parent's custody. Maybe after it takes some time to recover and gets used to its foster parents, that green doofus will surprise us.



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