Sixteen years in, modders are still tearing apart Halo: Combat Evolved for PC and building it into something new. For the last two years, one group has been working on a huge update for a mod called Halo SPV, or "Singleplayer Version 3." It expands levels, adds new weapons and enemies, and lots of little touches, like the terminals from later Halo games that dish out bites of lore. The latest version, SPV3.2, has better-looking 4k graphics, six entirely new missions, and an overhauled launcher to make updating easier.
"Easier" is not the same as "easy," however. Unlike the piracy gray area of region-cracking that lead to Halo Online, Halo SPV is a totally legal mod that requires a legit copy of Halo to run. Since the fabled Master Chief Collection isn't out on PC yet (and wouldn't be compatible with this mod anyway), there's no way to buy Halo for PC digitally. I was forced to cruise eBay for an old boxed copy to play Halo SPV.
Before I got to SPV I had to install Halo: Custom Edition, an ancient set of modding tools still used by the Halo PC community today. Finally, my PC was ready to install Halo SPV, a mod (for a mod) for an ancient game.
For the sake of comparison, I played the first couple of levels of Halo straight from the can, no mods, no graphical updates. The game is good, but Halo has also suffered the saddest fate for any classic action game: It just feels kind of cute by modern standards. A much-younger me had his mind totally blown by the original Halo, but today-me is old and tired. Today-me has seen some shit. Here in 2019, Halo: Combat Evolved was, at best, kind of quaint.
That's why I'm so glad that Halo SPV strikes a careful balance between updating and preservation. A huge graphical overhaul rescues Halo's combatants from looking like squat, waddling Muppets. The lighting and particle effects deserve a special mention, as plasma beams, grenades, and flickering energy shields all look modern enough to avoid being a distraction.
From the first notes of Gregorian choir to running unarmed through the exploding corridors of the Pillar of Autumn, the huge improvements to graphics and lighting in Halo SPV had me hooked. I feel shallow saying those surface elements made that much difference—after all, Halo's many innovations, from enemy AI to setpieces to regenerating health, are all still there. But those graphical improvements make those other aspects easier to appreciate anew.
I'm more conflicted about some of the other changes Halo SPV makes. The team has gathered characters and weapons from throughout the Halo series and spliced them into the DNA of the original. Enemies like Brutes (Halo 2) and weapons like the SMG (Halo 2) and even pick-up gadgets like the VISR (Halo 3: ODST) have been folded into the levels I remember from 2001.
For players who want nothing more than to relive the original Halo with nice graphics and lighting effects, picking up a Bruteshot from the deck of the Pillar of Autumn is like saluting Captain Janeway on the bridge of the Enterprise. It just feels off.
On the other hand, a wider variety of characters and weapons just makes Halo, a shooter always designed to be an open-ended sandbox, a lot more fun. I only played a couple of levels of unmodified Halo, but there's just no comparison: Halo SPV is a much better game for someone who plays sci-fi shooters here in 2019, a much more engaging shooter than the antique original.
For example, in 2001 the standard assault rifle (the MA5B in the lore) looked like a long-range rifle but it tore through its 60-round magazine with an inaccurate spray of bullets, like an Uzi loosely taped to a broom handle. Halo SPV instead uses the Halo 3 version (MA5C) of this rifle: a smaller magazine, more powerful bullets, and much more accurate. If I miss the spray-and-pray approach, I pick up the SMG instead. Having all of the weapons of the Halo series to play with makes moment-to-moment combat choices more interesting. It's also easier to change tactics on the fly or just mix things up if corridor battles are starting to feel stale. Leaning into the sandbox always makes Halo better, not worse.
The highest praise I can give Halo SPV is that I had to hop onto Halo wikis to double-check that Brutes and gravity grenades and power swords didn't actually appear in Halo 1. None of the ideas borrowed from later Halo games feel inappropriate or out of place here. Assaulting a beach with dozens of UNSC Marines in "Silent Cartographer" was a stunning experience for me in 2001, and it was every bit as chaotic and breathtaking this time around—plus, I had a decent rifle to shoot with. If the graphics weren't as good and the renovations weren't as carefully or lovingly done, Halo SPV could have missed the mark.
Halo SPV and similar community remastering efforts like Skywind can brush off some of the dust and restore some of the razzle dazzle these games once evoked. Those of us who are old enough to have rose-tinted memories of 2001 will appreciate that this polished version looks as good as we remember Halo looking back then. The Master Chief Collection will be an easier, and probably prettier, way to introduce new players to Halo: Combat Evolved for the first time. But it doesn't build on the original game with new ideas that make its levels more interesting. It doesn't naturally integrate new weapons or missions.
Halo SPV is the best way to revisit this piece of gaming history. It's a shame that checking out this mod is such a huge pain in the ass—what with the trip to eBay and multiple mods and troubleshooting. It's hard for me to recommend an experience that clunky to people; plenty of comments on the SPV subreddit show that some go through the whole process only for the game to fail to run. That's also a little taste of history: Back before digital downloads and automatic updates, sometimes our games just straight-up didn't work. It was a dark time, kids. That's why we cling so tightly to the bright spots.
As long as Halo: The Master Chief Collection is still listed as "coming soon," Halo SPV is the best way for players to revisit or discover the classic Halo 1 campaign. I just hope the second-hand supply of boxed copies of Halo 1 holds out long enough for everyone to check it out.