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Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary review

The Chief returns to PC.

(Image: © Microsoft)

Our Verdict

The definitive edition of Halo: Combat Evolved, assuming you’re willing to sidestep a wonky remaster.

Need to know

What is it? It’s Halo.
Expect to pay £7/$8 for Halo or £30/$40 for the entire Master Chief Collection
Developer Bungie, 343 Industries
Publisher Xbox Game Studios
Reviewed on GTX 1060 6GB,  AMD FX-4130, 8GB RAM
Multiplayer? Up to 16 players
Link Official site

Halo: Combat Evolved is back. 16 years after Microsoft brought the Xbox flagship to desktop, Bungie’s big green army man returns in the latest release to Halo: The Master Chief Collection. The old soldier’s coming on a bit—missing features taken for granted in the last 20 years of FPS design, with a 2011 paint job that’s looking rough. Even so, Halo holds up remarkably. In packaging it with all the amenities of a modern PC release, 343 Industries have arguably delivered the definitive edition of Master Chief’s debut.

See, Halo is still an effortlessly smart shooter. Every Covenant nasty you face has a unique quirk, from shield-bearing jackals to Hunters—massive iron brutes that require a bullfighter’s finesse to defeat. It might not be as labyrinthine, but there’s a Doom-like quality to Halo’s level design—each new hallway testing your skills against a new arrangement of foes. 

Likewise, every gun has a purpose. Well, almost every gun. While human weapons fit neatly into their roles (shotguns, snipers and rockets have obvious use cases), alien guns are a little less consistent. The Plasma Pistol’s ability to break shields in a single hit makes it a necessity on higher difficulties, but Rifles and Needlers struggle to find a use.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Then there’s the pistol. Halo 1’s starting sidearm is practically legendary, pounding out deadly-accurate headshots that can down foes in a hit or two. Like Halo Reach’s DMR, it has the unfortunate effect of throwing weapon balance out the window, especially on PC. Why use anything else, when you can point-and-click your way to victory with the very first gun in the game?

Later games would add more elements to the pile—more baddies to throw in your direction, quirkier weaponry added to the arsenal. But there’s a delightful simplicity in Halo’s combat puzzles; a simplicity shared by the brutal corridors and wide expanses of Halo’s levels. Blocky cliffs and simple textures betray its age, but Halo still hits that sharp tone of wondrous unease. Firefights are punctuated by long stretches of silence, leaving you alone with the ambient hum of an ancient world. Ancient aliens are a worn trope, but not even later Halo games could paint a world as enduringly 'old' as the first.

While the real horror doesn’t start until the late game, Halo warns against complacency from the start. The ringworld’s forests are lush, but startlingly lifeless. Every minute spent above ground in dazzling sunlight is matched by a trip into Halo’s interior—a sterile maze of corridors, antechambers and bottomless pits accompanied by the echoes of machinery older than you’d ever care to guess. Every fight waged against the Covenant paints violent scars on structures that have very visibly stood untouched for millennia.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

I suppose it’s time to address the elephant in the room. Halo returns to PC as Halo: CE Anniversary, an updated version of Sabre Interactive’s 2011 remaster. Anniversary’s 'corrections' are something of a sticking point for long-term Halo fans. Every last model and texture has been completely redone to be more detailed, every level packed with fancy new lighting and particle effects.

The level where the parasitic zombie-like Flood are introduced—once a masterclass in building tension—is utterly sapped of tone by the saturated new visuals.

On the odd occasion, it works. There’s a particular beauty to watching the sun glint off a dropship’s bow as it descends into a sun-dappled valley. Natural landscapes, generally, tend to get off more lightly. Bungie’s original environments had a sparse appeal, but they were exceptionally blocky affairs. But Halo’s quiet ambience is lost in Sabre’s everything goes approach to remastering. 

Brutal, barren structures that could have once been made of concrete are now a mess of metal and lights and holograms. The level where the parasitic zombie-like Flood are introduced—once a masterclass in building tension—is utterly sapped of tone by the saturated new visuals. As both visual modes use the same collision meshes, you’ll frequently find invisible walls around Anniversary's trees, which lack the girth of their 2001 ancestors.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Rough as the visuals are, I wasn’t prepared for the shock of Anniversary’s reworked audio. The new gun sounds put into sharp focus how well Bungie nailed the nebulous sensation of gun feel.

Halo does, at least, keep Anniversary’s neatest trick. With the tap of a button, you can swap between remastered visuals and Bungie’s original art. At 60 FPS, and with the widescreen and field-of-view support the Gearbox 2003 port never offered, those old assets get the job done. This release does, unfortunately, carry through some of the 2003 port’s missing effects. For the most part, they’re hard to notice—just don’t look up during Assault on the Control Room.

Combat Evolved’s multiplayer makes it through entirely untouched by Anniversary’s meddling. It’s all here, including the new maps, weapons and vehicles included in the 2003 PC port. What it’s lacking is mods. Halo’s best maps, for my money, were created for the highly-moddable Custom Edition that shipped free alongside Gearbox’s release. The Master Chief Collection doesn’t have much in the way of modding yet. What it can offer instead is a more complete multiplayer picture. The Gearbox port is a hassle to pick up these days, and it’s packed with servers dead-set on playing Blood Gulch 24/7.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Within the MCC’s matchmaking ecosystem, I’ve gotten to play games on maps and modes I’d long written off. I’m usually the first to lament the loss of dedicated servers, but damn if it isn’t just fun to get a full round of Oddball running on Damnation.

That’s really the appeal in seeing Halo return to PC like this. Packaged with the rest of the Master Chief Collection, it’s an easy way to hop in and see what all the fuss was about 20 years ago. If you’ve spent the last 20 years moulding Halo PC into a custom content chimaera, it’s a harder sell. What Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is offering a clean slate.

The Verdict

Halo: Combat Evolved

The definitive edition of Halo: Combat Evolved, assuming you’re willing to sidestep a wonky remaster.