Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Comparison, Review, and Analysis

January 20, 2012

The New Visual Layer – Pt 1

Environment Realization and Style

During development, 343i claimed that Halo 1 played like it could have been a modern game. The stated goal of CEA’s new visual layer was to make Halo 1 look like a modern game. The game was re-imagined in a modern style, with more detail.

For the most part, the new layer has quite high-quality stuff. I was personally quite impressed with the handling of the ground-level snow terrain on AotCR/TB, and the swamp in 343GS looks extremely good as well. While it’s a bit sketchy, and has its hiccups, Saber’s lighting system is quite good. In some cases, the added details can create an annoyingly cluttered look; I thought the Covenant ship interiors suffered from this to an extent. However, it’s handled well most of the time. For instance, the Pillar of Autumn now has hydraulics built into many surfaces, and despite the large amount of “stuff,” it usually doesn’t dirty up the geometric makeup of a scene.

More stuff, but not horribly cluttered-looking.

Some areas have had a surprisingly large shift visual style, though. For instance, the level Halo in the original game uses a cold color scheme of greens, greys, and blues with a completely open sky to create a crisp, cold style. The new level, by contrast, has an extremely warm style, with everything shifted far to the yellows, and a warm afternoon sun shining through a layer of clouds.
Forerunner architecture has seen a massive style shift everywhere. In the original game, Forerunner interiors are stone-like, grey, and derelict. In the new, they appear more saturated and active, including many surfaces covered in bright blue line lights; many surfaces also appear very metallic. Even the glass seems to have gone from being frequently dirty and/or well-worn to being consistently clean, blue, and etched clearly with crisp line segments. These changes occasionally detract from CEA’s ability to feel somber, lonely, or ancient. The original game’s overall Forerunner style can perhaps be described as “monolithic,” and that’s just not there very strongly in the new game.
The Halo itself now has clear geometric components sticking off of its outer side. Unfortunately, these components make the Halo look a whole lot smaller; the lack of any clear stand-out geometry on the original is one of the things that made it look so impossibly huge. (I’m not a big fan of other big objects, either; the new PoA looks like it’s made out of plastic. Ick.)

One unfortunate aspect of the shinier, very HDR-prominent style is that CEA, despite having a lot of lighting variation, often doesn’t really feel like it does. There are only a few spots in the new game where flashlight use becomes relevant, which causes CEA to mostly miss out on one of the ways in which CE creates visual variety.

Style and the Little Things

Unfortunately, the new style does lead to some narrative problems as compared with the original game.

Part of the problem with reimagining something in a new visual style is that certain things don’t port well. In some cases, these things actually need to be changed drastically in order to still feel similar to the originals. In the case of a game which is trying to be extremely faithful, this can lead to occasional problems.
For a small but very visible example, take the example of blood effects. CE’s visual style enables it to go nuts with blood effects. CEA’s style, having more realistic modeling (at least on a small scale), can’t do this without looking rather sketchy. So blood effects were deemphasized. The obvious result is that it’s no longer quite so fun to go about pummeling dead elites for five straight minutes until the frame rate drops well below 1. However, it also means that the second elevator shaft on 343 Guilty Spark is no longer so clearly smeared in grunt blood (the bright blue and teal lighting throughout the building doesn’t help bring it out, either). Yeah, the elevator still descends rather than ascends, and yeah, you still get the “oh crap” music as it does so. But the visual accompaniment is no longer really there. In essence, the joke still gets set up, but the punch line is missing. And because they’re being structurally faithful to the original game, Saber couldn’t fill in this little narrative void with something else.

343 Guilty Spark’s second elevator. CEA first, then CE.

Style and Narrative Resonance

Another problem with the new visuals is that they don’t use quite as strong resonance between narrative and environment design as the originals. In the original game, the weather and time of day from Silent Cartographer through The Maw is always kept in precise tune with the narrative.

Silent Cartographer kicks off the games’ second act with a boundless sea of possibilities (Both figuratively and literally. Note that the nonlinear level design is also in on the game.) and a morning-like aesthetic with a low sun to get the day going. In the new game, the sea is extremely bounded, and the level’s blue coloration detracts from the morning-esque feel.

CEA left, CE right. Image links to slightly larger image.

Assault on the Control Room takes place after you have a clear goal; it’s much more focused (Referring to my point in the previous parentheses, note the linear level design.), taking place midday with the sun coming down from almost directly overhead, through a layer of thick but brightly-lit clouds in the original game. CEA doesn’t change much here.

343 Guilty Spark is the dusk in the narrative; the goal in AotCR wasn’t what you thought it was, and something is amiss. In the original game, the duskiness was conveyed with a very grey aesthetic throughout the level, both in the swamp and in the interiors. I thought that CEA’s swamp area, despite looking quite different, still conveys the feeling extremely well. It does it in a somewhat different way, but I thought it was an effective compromise to maintain the old feel in a very different visual style. However, I thought that the blues and greens in the interiors in CEA worked together to create an altogether too comfortable feel; it just doesn’t feel like things are awry.

The Library is early in the narrative’s night; things have gone horribly wrong. In the original game, it’s set to some dark blues (broken up by some occasional yellows and light blues). CEA uses a brighter mix of teals and yellows through reds. It looks like they were trying to make it look like Hell, and it does work in and of itself, but it’s altogether too bright to create the dark, nighttime feel that the original thrives on (I also find that the original style can sometimes make the level mesmerizing).

Two Betrayals is the long middle of the night, and it’s where the narrative gets focused again; in every way, it’s a symbolic and literal mirror of AotCR, going through the same area, but in the othe direction, under opposite time of day, and now completely alone. In the original game, it uses dark blues and teals, with a bit of purples and maroons mixed in by Covenant objects. CEA’s Two Betrayals is annoyingly bright compared with the original level, and the purples don’t feel as elegantly mixed in, but it mostly works.

Keyes is the horror level, toward the end of the night. And in the original game, the night is symbolically and literally darkest before the dawn, as emphasized by the segments on the ground. CEA’s segments here are also fairly dark, but I think they could have been much more so; there’s not even much need for a flashlight in the new game.

The Maw is a new morning, complete with a morning-like yellowish color scheme to emphasize that point. Both the original game and CEA seem to be in agreement here. Though I do think that the barren post-apocalyptic look of the completely flat original plains is more powerful than CEA’s more complicated setting, which looks unfortunately cartoony during the level’s opening cutscene.

The Halo

I was quite unsatisfied with the presentation of the Halo in CEA’s skyboxes. I’ll start by explaining with an example.

The level Halo is what really introduces the player to the Halo. And CE’s skybox is designed entirely around this idea. The ring in the sky is constructed from a sharp texture with a lot on visible color and brightness contrast, which makes it stick out boldly against the soft, deep field of stars. There are clouds, but they keep their distance and serve as framing devices, only coming into contact with the ring once it has been allowed to extend down far enough to give the effect that the horizon itself is wrapping up into the sky. Calmly glittering water and a clear sun effect add texture to the scene without calling too much attention away from the ring. Threshold and Basis frame the scene as a whole from far right and far left, respectively. But the ring stands out, is a clear centerpiece, dominating the horizon and cutting a thin and clear path up through the entire sky.
CEA’s skybox doesn’t really do this. The water doesn’t peacefully glitter; it instead has some flat-looking waves everywhere except where the sun reflects off the surface, where it glitters powerfully and calls half the scene’s attention to itself. The thick clouds to the left and right encroach closer on the ring and destroy the horizon effect. Meanwhile, thinner clouds cover the ring. The star field in the background is extremely sharp. And the detail on the ring itself is much less crisp and vibrant, with almost no color contrast, an effect which gets especially bad high in the sky, making the ring look flat. Here we have Halo’s big chance to make a “first” impression, and it’s sitting flatly on its background while hiding amidst a bunch of visual clutter.

CEA left, CE right. Image links to slightly larger image.

These complaints are in a sense largely systematic, and apply everywhere. As polished as the new Silent Cartographer sky is, I was appalled at how enclosed everything feels. The boundless ocean that wraps up into the horizon in impossible vastness is now just some small lake surrounded by a bunch of hills and which happens to have a weird thingy floating there in the skybox.

The new representations of the ring are beautiful, and certainly pleasant to look at, but I don’t find them to be even close to as awe-inspiring as the originals.

Other Skybox Complaints

As I noted before, I really like how Assault on the Control Room and Two Betrayals look from the ground in CEA. That said, I’m not impressed with the skies from the air. In the original game, soaring high would immerse you in an animated fog that gets thicker as you go higher, obscuring the top of the sky. It keeps you from gauging the top of the canyon, and thereby makes the artificial barrier less jarring, and it does it while looking and sounding gorgeous; diving in and out of the sky in a banshee is probably one of my favorite things to do in the original Two Betrayals. Meanwhile, soaring in a banshee in CEA has three issues. First, the top of the canyon is a concrete and visible objective, causing the artificial barrier to feel a bit more real and restrictive. Second, the surfaces at the top of the canyon, especially in the first chasm, cut off horribly; it looks like totally unfinished modeling, and the texture popping is disgusting. And finally, since the view of the moon is so clear on Two Betrayals, it feels like you should also be able to see the ring and possible Threshold, but from high up you can tell that the whole sky is nothing but the moon and a bunch of flat color. The levels look great from some spots, but have horribly frayed edges.

CEA first, then CE. Note that youtube’s compression wrecks the original sky fog. Later in the review, I show a bit of AotCR sky fog, which resolves a bit better.

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3 Responses to “Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Comparison, Review, and Analysis”

  1. Ben said

    Well presented amigo!

    Some might say those differences are negligible, but I agree with you argument completely.

    Halo Combat Evolved had a charm and uniqueness to it that cannot be manipulated or re-created.

    I have some other views and opinions that I could express about CEA, but that’d be going way off topic.

    A 5/5 analysis, backed up with strong evidence.

  2. Ryan said

    Very precisely analysed!

    I agree on every count, while these discrepancies may be negligible to newcomers to H:CE, the overall tone and functionality is greatly affected.

    Very good review.

  3. Zerox said

    Being a fan interested in small details, I looked forward to seeing the new Flood and was dissapointed. They are slightly touched up models ported from Halo 3. The armour is totally different to the other Elites in game, especially considering aspects were changed between Halo 3 and Halo Reach (particularly considering the Elites you fight are slightly touched Reach models). The model has not really been changed, just some colouration. I suppose the whiteness is perhaps to show the paint has worn off? If so, it also removes a previous Flood problem from Halo 3, where even an infected red coloured Elite would mysteriously gain blue armoured legs as it became Flood.
    The same issue occurs with the marines, though is slightly less noticeable. Still frustrating though.
    I don’t mind (and personally quite like) the ported Reach models as the graphic level is rather similar, however, I think porting outdated Halo 3 models (graphically and canon wise) and not bothering to change them significantly strikes me as worryingly lazy, especially considering what this remake embodied for 343.

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