For: Xbox 360
From: 343 Industries/Bungie/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Though "Halo: Combat Evolved's" impact has been exhaustively documented, there may be no finer point than the realization that the 2011 holiday season's best new first-person shooter may very well be a 10-year-old game with a fresh coat of paint.
At least on the solo (or two-player co-op) side, that's what "Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary" is - a pretty carbon copy of the game that launched with the original Xbox in 2001 and subsequently formed the foundation of a video game juggernaut.
Arguably, "Anniversary's" faithfulness is to a fault if you're accustomed to the advancements the series has made - from enemy A.I. to the ability to sprint, hijack enemy vehicles and dual-wield weapons - since that first game. Even visually, and regardless of a graphical revamp that brings everything up to par with the recent "Halo" games, there are allusions to yesteryear in the jerky way other characters animate and the odd turns enemies sometimes make when flanking and backpedaling.
The upside to staying so faithful? A cool trick that lets you swap between the old and new graphics at any time with a single button press. The transition is a little awkward insofar that the screen briefly fades to black without stopping the action. But as a fulfillment of curiosity and a jaw-dropping demonstration of how far graphics have come in a decade, it's a wonderful little touch. (Just be sure to use it when the coast is clear.)
As it happens, the rest of the game remains pretty wonderful as well. "Halo's" sequels and prequels have outdone it in terms of scope, design variety and level arrangements, but the tenets of those great games - wide-open battlefields, branching paths even indoors, enemies that swarm and flank as well as rush in packs, numerous opportunities for devising your own unique plan of attack - are fully intact here. It was groundbreaking in 2001, and in 2011, following on the heels of oppressively linear military shooters that routinely punish creativity in their campaigns, it still puts many of its newer, flashier contemporaries to shame.
For those who never played it on the original Xbox, the full-circle timing of this anniversary release could not be better. Last year's "Halo: Reach" allowed players to play out the story that fed into the events of the original game, so if "Anniversary" is new to you, it may as well be a sequel to "Reach" in the same way a "Star Wars" movie from 1977 is a sequel to one released in 2005.
For the returning players, each mission hides a terminal that unlocks new insights - courtesy of perennial series antagonist 343 Guilty Spark - about where the series is headed when the next "Halo" trilogy kicks off next year. The terminals are sometimes harder to find than they should be, but for the diehards, they're absolutely worth seeking out.
"Anniversary's" faithfulness isn't quite as hardcore on the multiplayer side (16 players). The game includes remastered versions of six classic maps and some match configurations that allow players to re-enact the original game's four-player multiplayer, but it uses "Reach's" multiplayer engine to power it.
At no point does "Anniversary" pretend otherwise: The game uses the "Reach" branding, includes all of its features (from Forge mode to jetpacks), and allows you to play with "Reach" players who purchase the six maps as a $15 download. The maps that shipped with "Reach" aren't included on "Anniversary," but in a generous touch, "Anniversary" includes a code that lets you download the maps for free and use them in "Reach" if you have a copy.