Combat Evolved Unevolved

I’m replaying Halo: Combat Evolved because it’s a great game and I haven’t played it in ages. The game holds up incredibly well, mostly because a lot of what it does has since become standard. The dual-stick controls that Halo codified have become standard in everything from Stray to God of War. A limited weapon loadout that you can swap on the fly with what you find’s become standard too, as has the dedicated melee button and recharging health. The game’s great.

The game is also twenty-one years old now and though it doesn’t look bad by any means, it definitely doesn’t hold a candle to more contemporary games. So for its tenth anniversary rerelease the game got a graphical overhaul. Textures and some models were updated to bring it more in line with the then-recent Halo games, all while retaining the classic Combat Evolved gameplay.

It looks great — and it’s fantastic to see familiar levels like the Silent Cartographer displayed as glorious as they feel. But things still feel off; as much as the remastered graphics may say otherwise, the game is still one designed for 2001. That’s not bad, it just means that there are different rules.

The maps in the original Halo were designed with limitations in mind. Polygons used up precious memory as did high-resolution textures. Lighting was nowhere near as complex as it would become and particles of all sorts were harder to work with. So the designers got creative and used different techniques to create a space that’s alive, visually interesting, and navigable. 

These screenshots are from Assault on The Control Room. Classic Halo’s on the left, the new graphics on the right. New Halo is obviously a lot prettier; the details of this Forerunner tunnel are gorgeous. It’s shiny, there are greeblies everywhere, and it looks like fantastic sci-fi.

It’s also incredibly busy. There’s a lot going on, a lot of details and a lot of lights. The way you’re supposed to go is still fairly clear, thanks to there being a distant light in the corridor, but there’s so much else around it that your eyes are not as easily drawn to it. The outcroppings in the corridor are busier too, obscuring the route and overall adding more distractions. Video games’ levels don’t have to be Rembrandt in their use of chiaroscuro, but light does play a key role in guiding players through levels. 

Video games, perhaps more so than just about any media except maybe CGI animation, are inherently tied to the technology they use. A game like Metal Gear came about because its platform couldn’t render high-speed action. Space Invaders’ aliens getting faster as they got depleted was due to a hardware quirk. Gandhi is nuke-happy in Civilization because setting a value to a negative number accidentally maxed it out. As tech has gotten more impressive those limits have been lifted and so the language and functionality have changed. Reskinning something, pretty as it is, doesn’t always end up well. Photorealistic Super Mario Bros. wouldn’t look right, not without making a whole bunch of other changes too — at which point, it becomes a different game. Remastering games to bring them in line with modern ones is an odd challenge — but an important one since games, like any other forms of art, should remain accessible even after their platforms are long gone.

For Halo, though, the Master Chief Collection does a good job of it, and hey, I can play Combat Evolved with the old graphics and it handles just like I remember it. That’s good enough.

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