CEA campaign thoughts

Posted March 14th 2012

Here's my reaction to CEA's single-player campaign, now I've spent quite a bit of time on it.

Introduction

As an avid campaign player of the original 'Halo: Combat Evolved', henceforth referred to as H1, the prospect of 343 Industries' pimped-up tenth anniversary refashioning for the 360 - 'Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary' - naturally had me curious. Rather than trying to re-imagine the campaign to give a completely new take on it, the remake was to closely follow the bones of the original, basically having H1 running underneath, so its gameplay would be preserved. I was quite happy with that. If things were going to feel like the original, there was a chance I could enjoy it just as much - this time in widescreen aspect ratio - and get some enjoyable new combat experiences via the addition of skulls.

Actually though, when I say "feel like the original", we have to remember that there wasn't just one version of H1. I play PAL H1 but CEA was to be based on the NTSC version as you'd expect. This alone meant that the gameplay would be somewhat different, such as the needler and pistol firing at higher rates, and MC moving faster but being more fragile when it comes to falling. As a PAL player then, 343i's line about the gameplay being exactly the same as before rang a little hollow. Not that I was too worried about that. The NTSC experience could still be pretty close after all, and one can acclimatize.

When I heard that the weapon sounds were going to be redone however, I have to say that my heart sank somewhat. It also seemed that some of the weapons would be modelled on those in Reach, rather than being closely based on the originals. The covies too would apparently be based on the Reach models, quite a blow against preserving the nature of the original game I thought, but at least I was relieved to hear that all the original voicing was to be retained. A few other things concerned me as well, but there was nothing to do but wait and see how the final product turned out.

So what do I think of it now I've got it? I've divided my thoughts into various topics, and basically I'll be commenting on anything which stood out sufficiently strongly for me. At the end I'll try to come to an overall conclusion.

Note: I've been using a standard definition widescreen TV with headphones, and the game was installed onto the 360's hard drive. Whether anything here would be different using an HD TV I don't know.

Problems with detail

A key element of the remake was of course to upgrade the graphics, to exploit the far greater handling capacity of the 360 and make the game look as if it were a modern title. That said, the game also lets you play with the classic graphics if you want, so things look like they do in H1 aside from the altered HUD and reticles and typography. You can even switch between the two modes on the fly using the Back button, a commendable feature which lets you make the comparison between old and new.

Just about everything appears much more detailed now. We're not just talking about texture changes, we're talking about more complex surfacing. For example, where H1 depicts part of a cliffside with a single large polygon, the new graphics of CEA will instead feature some irregular sculpting, giving a much more interesting and realistic look. Natural scenery seems to be more vibrantly coloured too, though I wouldn't say that always works in favour of realism. The remodelling isn't just for the natural scenery though, it also goes for artificial structures, vehicles, personnel and other objects. Inaccessible distant scenery is much more detailed, and off the coast of the Silent Cartographer island you see land which wasn't even there before. Skies too are much more lush.

In some cases things actually look a bit over-elaborated to me - too 'busy' - as if the people in charge felt they had to fill in every last square foot of surface with more detailing. One place I notice that is in AOTCR on a lot of the artificial surfaces. Too many lines for my liking, and in some cases the greater detailing can make it harder to pick out the more important things, like enemies. I also feel the same way about some of the natural scenery. Combined with the sometimes unnatural vibrancy of the colouring, which I think is at its most extreme in the second level, the effect can look a bit over the top. Nothing too major though.

Detail pop-in flaw

Sadly, the extra detail is apparently too much for the 360 to be able to properly cope with - or else the developers just didn't implement things well enough. You'll often see surface detailing appear after you're looking at something, especially if you're moving through the level fast. The delay is most usually less than a second, but can be as much as about three seconds. This mostly seems to happen with artificial surfaces, and can be seen soon after you start the first level. Run to the door and maybe some of the detail won't be there for a moment. Do a 180 to look back into the room and a whole bunch of elements can detail-pop, including a massive grating on the floor just in front of you.

One particularly noticeable example is at the end of the first bridge in AOTCR. If you go around the final bit of wall to stand at the open exit door, then do a 180 to look at the wall behind you, that wall may initially be an almost featureless grey before any detail appears. If you do a 180 again, you may then see detail appear down the exit passage. You can even keep doing 180s to see pop-in repeatedly, though detail will probably stabilize after a few looks. You can experience this sort of behaviour in lots of places. Later in the level when I emerged at ground level into the final outdoor area, even the snow lacked texture. Detail popped into the scene progressively over the course of maybe two seconds. As I speed through AOTCR I see pop-in again and again, especially on doors.

Another bad example is when you get to the extraction manifolds in The Maw. Seems like almost every time I reach those things, their surfaces are initially smooth and blurry, and it takes a second or two for the detail to be added. If you keep going back and forth using the door, you can see this repeatedly, and the detail can take up to about three seconds to appear. Actually The Maw may be the worst offender for detail-pop. Blasting through the level at speed, it's as if I'm seeing it at practically every turn.

POA is likewise very bad for this, and the large finned cylinder things (three of which are seen past the first airlock) seem particularly prone to it. Their surfaces are often fuzzy when you first see them. Meanwhile, in the outdoor section of The Truth And Reconciliation, 343i have provided a more detailed Covenant cruiser overhead, except that when you glance up to take a look, you often won't see the detail for a while. And then… POP! Aha, there it is. These are just a selection of the examples you'll see. And in case you're wondering, I didn't notice any improvement after installing the game on the hard drive.

Detail pop-in isn't limited to scenery either. On occasion I've swivelled to tackle a nearby Elite and his armour is lacking detail for a moment. My own armour often lacks detail, as seen just after I've been killed or when I board a vehicle. I've even been missing detail on my rocket launcher when I hoist it onto my shoulder.

Amazing isn't it? Here we are ten years on from the original and with all this processing power available, and we've got a game which often waits until you've been looking at something for a while before it gets around to showing it properly. By any sensible measure then, the graphics are broken. Do developers just not care about giving you a properly immersive experience in which things are fully there when you're looking at them? It doesn't exactly help me look forward to Halo 4 if this is 343i's idea of an acceptable standard. Some folk may not care much about detail pop-in, but for me a pop-in free experience should nowadays be a fundamental; and if you have to use a bit less detail to be able to achieve that with the processing power available, so be it. Possibly this is a case of a developer putting the impact of pretty screenshots ahead of the actual in-game experience so as to help attract more buyers, I don't know. I just know I don't want to see any pop-in nonsense in any more games ever - let alone see it occurring with such pervasive and depressing regularity as here.

Detail change flaw

Another detailing problem is that as your distance from an object changes, there can be a rather noticeable sudden change in the object's appearance. Heading across the precarious bridge at the start of Halo, I noticed this right away with the large rock on the far side when it massively changed appearance. When you get to the other side, I invite you to head back and keep an eye on the large rock near where the dropship hovers. You can potentially see five sudden changes along the way. Five! As opposed to zero for H1. After you get a hog later on, the rocks near the tunnel entrance exhibit a mass of distracting changes as you approach. Truly awful. These are just a few examples; you'll see rocks changing in many places.

I've sometimes also seen some massive detail changes on enemy bodies, which (using the Back button for comparison) were actually more noticeable than with the classic graphics.

More on graphics

Lighting

Another significant aspect of the graphical change is that the lighting has been revised. The most important aspect of that for me is that some previously dark and murky areas have been made much brighter, notably in The Library which, though being a level I enjoy, was always eye-strainingly dark in H1. I'm fully in agreement with this sort of brightening to address such issues of murkiness in H1. It might be argued that the lighter surroundings make things less creepy and atmospheric in regard to Flood levels, but I think priority should be given to clarity and playability, and things are still plenty atmospheric anyway.

Oddly though, some things have got darker. Some of the rooms in AOTCR are now rather dim, as if someone turned some of the lights out, and for me that's a change for the worse. Many covies seem to be darker and more muted in colour now, and when you combine that with dim lighting they can look rather black with very little colour showing through. There are places in AOTCR where, when I switch back to the classic graphics, things look much better in terms of visual balance.

Shadow trouble

In places the game's rendering of shadows is frankly a disaster, with areas of shadow popping into visibility as you move. It somewhat negates the point of all the supposed graphical refinement when the overall view is a riot of ongoing changes. The changes are all the more sudden if you're speeding along in a vehicle. On the Silent Cartographer island there's massive shadow-pop on cliff faces as you move around the periphery or the central area. It's also rather noticeable in the level Halo, in the valley area of the second half. After emerging from the underground area and climbing up the hill, a shadow effect can be seen to sweep across the distant cliffside as you advance (the one above which the Banshees spawn later).

I think the basic trouble here is that the draw distance for shadows is too low. As you advance, additional surface gets shadowed because you've become close enough; but unfortunately you're close enough that the change is glaringly obvious! Attention please all game developers. If stuff is noticeably appearing as you advance, the draw distance was too low!

Flickery grass

Grass is rendered in considerable detail, but aside from looking a bit too vibrantly coloured, it's very 'flickery', as if insufficiently antialiased. This had already been a concern to me in some advance video footage. I'd been crossing my fingers for it to look better in the actual game, but sadly it doesn't. As you move, areas of grass become a riot of flickering, which is distracting and which certainly goes counter to realism. Looks nice enough in screenshots, but that doesn't count. Actually it's not just grass that has this sort of flicker; you see it with some other foliage too, e.g. clinging to cliffs in Halo and The Silent Cartographer.

Pop plants

Also on the subject of greenery, there are some items which have too low a draw distance and which consequently catch your eye as they pop into view (or more accurately, quickly fade into view). For example, when you get a hog in the second level, speed around the place and you'll notice dark green sproutings appearing. Oddly, the similarly sized yellowish sproutings (leaves rather than ferns) seem to have significantly greater draw distance, so there's no problem with those. Driving around in that area is also a great way to see a mass of changes in shadowing and rock detail, incidentally.

Bright snow

The snow of AOTCR is now rather bright in places, to the point where the glare is actually a little painful. One good example of that is when you're going through the windy tunnel branching to the right after the crashed Pelican. When you look towards the exit, the glare is strong enough to give things a hazy look. I'm not sure if glare was an intentional aspect of the snow revision - I can imagine people suggesting that it's more realistic that way - but I do wish it wasn't so strong.

Water effects

The water looks nice in The Silent Cartographer and Halo, but when you drive through it the splash effect is rather less successful. The splashes don't have very good dynamics. The water goes up and then seems to keep going up, to some extent, as if subject to a strong updraft. Looks wrong, though it's not going to notice much when you're speeding along. However, the splash effect goes high even when you're barely moving, which looks very wrong.

Black blood

To judge from AOTCR (I haven't checked through the entire game), the game has a notable rendering defect in regard to human blood. In shadow it looks more or less black unless you've got your flashlight on. Kind of like ink, or oil maybe. There was absolutely no hint of red when I checked, even though there certainly should've been, given the light level. I realized the trouble lay with shadow when I got to the Marines near the crashed Pelican. A few of the guys got killed and a blood patch straddled the shadow line. On the shadow side of the line the blood was black, on the other red.

Other rendering flaws

I already mentioned the detail change flaw and some shadow trouble, but there are also some other cases where appearances alter suddenly as you move. I'll list a few examples.

In the tower in AOTCR with a Banshee on top, I killed covies in the back passage, which left blood on the snow there. When I moved or even just panned my view, there was massive flickering as parts of dark blood patches intermittently showed through the snow. I've seen this sort of flickering elsewhere too.

At the start of 343 Guilty Spark, if you go to the left to take a shortcut by hopping up off a particular rock (you know the one I mean?), the water can change appearance as you approach the rock.

Advancing into the final battle area of Two Betrayals, the snow-covered branches of a few trees quickly become dark. If you later fly around the snowy area you emerged into after the underground bridge, the features below display a mass of changes, one of which is that the ice patch switches between a light and dark appearance according to distance. From a distance trees look relatively light and snowy, and without a shadow on the ground; but as you approach, a dark shadow grows and the tree becomes dark.

You likewise see lots of eye-catching changes if you steal a Banshee and fly around in AOTCR. Not that you were supposed to be able to do that, but nevertheless, in H1 you didn't get this sort of trouble.

Dual surfacing flaw

The game's visual enhancements over H1 come at a rather steep price because of the way they've been implemented. The trouble lies with the game's dual surfacing - visual and physical - which I'd better explain about (to the best of my understanding) before going any further.

Imagine for a moment that you're playing in classic mode, so you're seeing all the surfacing of old. Now imagine switching to the more complex surfacing of the new graphics. Some of it may actually duplicate old surfacing, but for the most part it's going to form a departure from what you saw before. In places it may extend beyond the original, while in other places it may not extend so far. But here's the thing. As far as the game is concerned, the physical aspect of things is still provided by the classic surfacing. That surfacing is invisible but tangibly still there, while in contrast the new surfacing is actually just cosmetic. It's non-physical and things can potentially pass through it, except for where it happens to exactly coincide with some classic surfacing making it seem physical. In summary then, the invisible classic surfacing provides the physicality of things while the enhanced surfacing is what you see but which is just cosmetic.

Shot blockage

Because of the dual surfacing, there's a often a mismatch between what you see and what's physically there, and this gives rise to a variety of serious drawbacks. Chief among these is that when you fire at an enemy, your shot may get annoyingly blocked by some invisible classic surfacing which happened to extend further out than what you were seeing. In practice I think this is mostly a problem with natural scenery, such as cliffs, rocks and trees, but in principal it could happen with anything. If you want to minimize this annoyance, you'd have to either refrain from shooting closely past objects, else learn the places where it's still ok to do so.

One nasty example was in AOTCR when I was heading through the pass leading into the spiral path area, just past the level's fourth Wraith. I fired a rocket at the distant enemy group heading up the path, and it went off rather too close for comfort, hitting the invisibly extending cliffside a short way ahead of me! I was not best pleased. This also illustrates how things can even be life threatening. Better be extra careful with the launcher from now on! Another example was in Two Betrayals when I'd reached the Warthog at the spiral path. I fired needles up at one of the Grunts above, whose body was almost entirely showing as he looked down, and they all got blocked by the invisible physical edge of the clifftop, extending well out from what I saw. Completely wasted my time. In the big battle at the end of Two Betrayals, I whizzed through the covie mob and clambered up on a rock from which to shoot at them. Naturally it was in my best interests to keep my head down low, so I was shooting fairly close over the top of the rock. Except, sometimes that resulted in hitting the invisible surface of the rock, which in places extended well above the visible surface. As you can appreciate from that example, this issue of shot blockage is going to be a particular problem to anyone who enjoys careful fighting in which they're trying to exploit cover to the max.

The annoyance for shooting past a particular area might only be rare if the invisible extension is only minor, but as already hinted, I've encountered places where it goes way further out from what was visible, which suggests to me that 343i simply decided not to worry about the gameplay issue arising from it. To my mind it would've been sensible to take the issue into account and try to minimize surface differences in places a player might commonly be shooting past, but I have the impression that the prettiness of the scenery was given priority over the coherence of the gameplay.

Actually, it's not just a matter of things extending further out than before. Sometimes things can be quite differently structured. One particularly annoying example of shot blockage I encountered was in The Truth and Reconciliation when I levelled my sniper rifle at a distant Shade Grunt though a big gap between tree branches. It got blocked, and when I switched to classic mode I could see why. I was aiming at one of the old branches. In fact the enhanced version of the tree had a totally different branch structure, making it a complete lottery for me trying to fire through the gaps. Arrgh!

It's worth pointing out at this point that when your line of fire is actually getting blocked by an invisible surface, your reticle won't go red. The game is apparently using the invisible classic surfacing for deciding on reticle colour, and thus you at least have a way of knowing whether it's ok to shoot. However, this does not make things ok, even if you remember to look for the red. You shouldn't have to monitor the colour of your reticle. The bottom line is, if it looks like you've got a line of fire to the enemy, you should have.

Firing through surfaces

In places where the invisible physical surfacing doesn't extend as far out as the visible surfacing, enemies can potentially shoot at you though the visible surfacing, which on occasion could be a nasty surprise. You can shoot back at them too, and your reticle can turn red even though you can't see them. As I mentioned before, reticle colour is based on the physical surfacing, not the visible surfacing.

Falling through ground

The dual surfacing has drawbacks for movement too. For one thing, you can fall to your death after stepping onto cosmetic surfacing along a clifftop or hilltop. A good example is in the grav-lift area in The Truth and Reconciliation. In H1 it was fine to go around peering over the edge, but in CEA you'd best take a parachute, just in case! This is another example where I really think the developers should've been conservative about the scenery enhancement, and should've stuck closely to the physical cliff edge. Seems pretty daft to add insubstantial ground beyond the edge. It's a cyborg trap!

More generally, when moving around, your footing is determined by the physical surfacing, but if that's significantly different from the visible surfacing the results can be unexpected, e.g. failing to get up onto a ledge or something when it looked like there should've been no problem. This is perhaps more a concern for nonstandard play so it probably won't affect the average player much, but it's a significant concern if you're into exploring and tricking. One time I made a jump to a ledge and fell to my death because it turned out there wasn't actually any ledge there!

Smacking into an invisible wall

Just as shots can be blocked by an extending invisible surface, so can you. One place I encountered this in bone-shaking manner was in AOTCR when flying through canyons in a stolen Banshee. Admittedly I wasn't supposed to have a Banshee at that point, but still. I curved close around a sharp corner and SMACK! - ran straight into the invisible physical corner, which was much further out than the visible. But there are also places you can be blocked on foot when moving around near the base of a cliff or suchlike. Talking of which…

False temptation

I already mentioned trying to jump onto a ledge that wasn't there, and there are other cases where you might see some inviting feature you fancy accessing, only to realize that it's cosmetic and maybe you're blocked from it by an invisible surface anyway. There's plenty of this sort of deception when you get down on the ring (e.g. check along the right towards the waterfall). The cliff base is way more intricate than in H1, but many recessed areas are cosmetic and blocked off. Such enhancements may look nice, but when they sucker you in and waste your time, it makes for annoyance.

The worst case I've noticed is in the rockslide survivor area of that level. In what I call the far area, which is a fantastic place in which to fight a rockslide megabattle, the cliff base appears to include a wide and deep section of gently sloping rock which looks extremely inviting as a place from which to fire. Trouble is, the slope isn't really there! It's just cosmetic and you run smack into the invisible physical cliffside trying to reach it. Well, I already knew it would be cosmetic as I'm well familiar with the area from H1, but a lot of other players would probably be disappointed and annoyed. There's another consequence too. You can't easily tell where the actual cliffside is, so if you want to back off from the enemy as far as you can, it's a case of running until you hit the invisible wall. That's hardly good for immersive gameplay.

Ground height issues

In some outdoor places the physical ground can be significantly higher than the visible ground (sometimes over a metre), and as such, things can appear to be well off the ground, including personnel, bodies, and scripted supplies (e.g. the first sniper ammo you come to in AOTCR, though you may not have noticed as it doesn't cast a shadow). Needless to say, this is not good for realism. In other place it can be lower then the visible ground, so things may look inappropriately embedded in the ground. Near the Scorpion in AOTCR you can quite easily see Marines ankle-deep in ice, and in Halo I saw a dead Grunt who was so deeply embedded in the earth that it was mostly just his backpack showing!

Weapons and grenades dropped on the ground seem to be treated differently however. They're not necessarily on the physical surface. Judging from my observations, they're made to rest on the highest of the two possible surfaces; the classic one and the new one. I suspect this was 343i's way of ensuring that regardless of which mode you're playing in (even if you switch), weapons and grenades won't end up hidden under the visible ground. Unfortunately however, it also means that regardless of which mode you're using, you can see weapons and grenades suspended well above the ground - namely when the visible ground for that mode is lower than the unseen ground for the other mode. Not good! Incidentally, when I say 'ground', some raised bits of artificial surface count. The tops of rocks don't though. If you drop a weapon on a rock, it seems to rest on the physical surface; and if that's lower than the visible one, the weapon can end up hidden.

Behind scenery

Another issue is that you can sometimes end up behind some visible surfacing (namely in the case when the physical surfacing is well behind it), ending up with a glitchy view. Or maybe an enemy could end up behind it. I've seen the latter happen aboard the Truth and Reconciliation. The convex corners of the ship's passages extend quite a way out from the physical corners, and when I attacked a Jackal, he was briefly merged into a corner.

Bad remodelling

Here's one particularly ill-considered bit of remodelling. In the area of AOTCR where a Wraith patrols above a tunnel entrance, there's often a Shade up there at the front, as per the randomized scripting of H1. But the front has been massively changed, recessed by a few metres. The Shade is just where it always was however, and hence appears to be practically unsupported, in contact with the structure via just its rear leg. Crazy!

Conclusion

As far as the enhanced mode goes, I count the nontrivial mismatch between the physical and visible surfacing as a fundamental flaw in the design. It leads to significant drawbacks in playability, realism and immersion, of a sort which I doubt would be considered acceptable in any normal modern release - especially the business of having your shots blocked by invisible surfaces and the routine anomaly of seeing things floating above the ground. Yet these drawbacks could've been easily anticipated and surely were, so how come 343i nevertheless went for this dual surfacing approach, rather than making the enhanced mode just use one lot of surfacing, so the visible coincides with the physical? I don't know the technicalities involved, but perhaps it simply enabled them to do things relatively cheaply and quickly. It might have been reasonable if done more sensitively so as to minimize the frequency with which players experience the various drawbacks, but it seems to me like they decided to prioritize pretty graphics above gameplay coherence, so I have to give this aspect of the venture a pretty big thumbs down. The only saving grace I can think of is that in some areas the drawbacks show up a lot less often than others.

Weapons

Combat sounds much different from that of H1 because the weapons have had all their sound effects redone. I'm not sure why 343i decided on that, as it seems inconsistent with the idea of giving people a taste of the H1 experience. The sounds of the originals lent H1 a lot of its atmosphere, and taking that away seems wrong if you're trying to pay homage to the game. Possibly I misinterpret 343i's exact aims though. Visually, it looks to me like only the pistol and AR bear a strong resemblance to their H1 counterparts. The other weapons look similar to those in Reach.

As far as weapon operation and effectiveness goes, I can't really make a comparison with H1 on a level playing field because I play H1 on a PAL Xbox, whereas CEA is based on the NTSC experience. Among other things that means I'm experiencing higher rates of fire for the pistol and needler. So even if the new weapons have the same effects as the NTSC originals, some of the effects will be noticeably different to us PAL players. Combined with the updated visuals and sounds, the result is that I don't get any strong feeling of using the original weapons. Things just aren't familiar enough for that. I look on things as being a new weapon set to play with. I'll comment on some of the weapons below.

Hand me that boosh machine

Although it's a little painful to lose the original needler's glorious shattering sound effect for the explosion - my favourite of the game - the replacement sound effect has it's own high satisfaction. BOOSH! That's how you spell it I think. Making enemies go boosh is a pleasure indeed, and the kill is also achieved more quickly compared to the PAL needler. It's interesting to feel how snappy the needling was for NTSC folk at last. The needler is certainly the most enjoyable weapon of the game for me. The needles don't stand out as prettily as they used to though, as a darker colour has been used.

Popgun revisited

The assault rifle is certainly more satisfying than the original, which for me was the one real flaw in H1's weapon set. The original felt weak even in its sound effect, but this replacement sounds good and meaty. Firing it is a much more visceral experience. I'm not sure how much more damage I'm doing with it, but I do anticipate using it more than I did before. This can safely be added to the list of things which might persuade me to fire up CEA for a spot of action.

Broken plasma pistol

Moving to something more negative, it didn't take long to realize that the plasma pistol is broken. After a bit of rapid firing it often ends up humming as if it thinks it's overcharging. You can stop it with another quick shot, but that's hardly satisfactory. It's darned annoying to keep getting this humming. Just as an example, I fought the T&R boarding battle with a plasma pistol on Heroic and got the humming at least three times; so we're talking about something that happens very frequently if you're a keen plasma pistol user. Did nobody notice it was buggy, or what? As well as that, it can't fire as rapidly as the PAL original, though I don't know whether that was true of the NTSC original or whether it's another failing of the programming. Regardless of the answer there, it makes the weapon less satisfying and less powerful. In H1 I'd generally choose a plasma pistol over the plasma rifle, but here I find myself reversing that preference.

One other thing, albeit only incidental. When you pick up a plasma pistol there are two green glow-spots left on the ground (from the tips), fading away within a second. Graphics glitch.

Sniper cannon

The other misfire in the armoury is the sniper rifle, which now fires with a sound effect akin to a small cannon going off. It seems an absurdly boomy noise to be coming from that rifle, and certainly nothing remotely like the sharp crack of the original. For me it makes the rifle a bit of a comedy weapon, but if you've ever wanted a gun that makes you feel like you're firing a salvo from a battleship, your luck is finally in!

Another significant feature is that the night-vision is now borderline useless because there's so much glare, something I noticed at the start of T&R as soon as I switched it on. I was like "What the hell?", because the boosted image is unbelievably bad, typically too painful to look at - and with a bit of blurriness thrown in for good measure just in case you can stand the blinding light. There's no way I'll be using night-vision in T&R now. What went wrong here? Did someone make a half-baked attempt at a revised effect and then they just forgot about it? Or is the trouble arising from the game's levels being lighter perhaps? I'm not sure, but the bottom line is, it doesn't look like I'll be able to enjoy any night-vision fun.

I'm also not keen on how much the reticle has been altered. The original tiny circle with barely perceptible dot in the middle has become a much larger circle with a very pronounced dot; a dot which annoys me a little as it obscures things.

Not so squirty

I quite like the feel and sound of the plasma rifle, though it's quite different from the original. With the original I have the sensation of releasing heavy-duty white-hot squirts of plasma, but the new rifle's fire feels lighter and more discrete, something which probably comes as much from the sound as the graphics. The whiteness is weaker, and instead there's more of a blue electrical feel to things. I'm thinking Star Wars blaster - whatever one of those is. It feels less brutal, though I assume it's actually doing just the same damage as before.

Rocket light

Have you noticed that a rocket gives off light as it speeds towards it's target, brightly illuminating the scenery along the way? That's a nice new touch, and fun to watch.

Hit effects

In H1, when you score a hit with a pistol there's a fairly strong flash at the impact spot. It's easily visible and the same goes for the plasma pistol and plasma rifle. In CEA there are still hit effects but they're far weaker, and unless you're at relatively close range it's often hard to be sure if you're hitting the target. When you see nothing and there's no obvious reaction from the target (e.g. a body flinch), you can't really be sure what happened, and it makes things less satisfying.

Reloading sounds

To me the reloading sounds generally seem like they have too much reverberation or something. It's like the sound engineers tried to pile in as much effect as they could, especially with the rocket launcher. Too overdone. But at least I've got used to it.

More on weapons

In this section I want to cover a few auxiliary issues relating to weapons, starting with the most important.

Drop sounds

When you drop a weapon, it'll typically do a bounce then settle. Two impacts. If I've surmised things correctly, the general plan for an impact is to have a sound intrinsic to the weapon itself, and potentially add another to account for the type of surface involved, though some surfaces don't have their own sound. In regard to natural scenery for example, there's a sound for snow, and an earthy sound common to grass, earth and sand. However, there are multiple failings here, making things a real mess.

One failing is that for the natural sounds I mentioned, the inclusion seems fickle each time. Often you'll only get it for the bounce or only for the settling or neither. I find it hard to believe that was intended, because it seems so wrong - a poor match to what you'd expect in real life. I mean, one bit of snow is going to be much like the next bit of snow, right? It's not going to be silent at random. Yet on the other hand, if it's a bug, how could it possibly have gone unfixed when it's so prominent? In contrast to the situation for natural ground, the inclusion of a sound for sheet metal surfacing seems reliable.

Another failing - the worst in fact - is that the earthy sound I mentioned lags way behind the relevant impact. There's such a delay that for a long time I assumed those sounds were actually just some weird bug in the game, bearing in mind also the fickleness with which they occurred, and the fact that the sound is in any case rather too loud and resonant to seem appropriate. It wasn't until I thought about the snow sounds that I decided 343i was probably trying to do something similar for grass and so on - and failing badly.

A further defect is that the needler seems to lack any intrinsic sound. As there often isn't a surface sound either, this often means silent impacts, which is completely unrealistic.

Meanwhile, the bounce sound for the assault rifle is terrible. It's like something rattling around loosely, and it neither fits the weapon nor properly matches the bouncing. Typically the sound continues well after the weapon has come to a stop. It usually also sounds like it's coming from multiple locations, as if you dropped a bunch of rattly things; so it's not even properly localized. The sound spread is at its worst when you drop the weapon while running forward.

Weapons on water

In that last subsection I wasn't really considering the case of dropping weapons in water, but there's some glitchiness going on here too. At the start of Halo, drop a weapon in the pool by the waterfall. Instead of falling to the bottom as it would've done in H1, it lies on top as if on a solid surface! Totally unrealistic of course, but it does have a great little fringe benefit. If you crouch, your head can be extremely near the weapon, giving you a fabulous close-up view. Near the deepest spots you can get your eyes level with the side of the weapon or even underneath it. Actually, if you swap while underneath, your dropped weapon can fall to the bottom of the pool.

You can likewise see weapons on water at the start of 343 Guilty Spark, but in the sea of The Silent Cartographer they sink, and also in the pools of gloop in Keyes.

Weapons caught in the scenery

Weapons too frequently get caught up in the scenery and make a heck of a racket moving around (on a sloping surface usually). It only occasionally happened in H1, but now it's quite common.

Weapon return glitch

Here's something weird. Weapons can spontaneously return to a previous position after being dropped! Try this. Move a weapon onto a rock then pick it up. When you next drop it somewhere, it may return to its previous position on the rock as it comes to rest; or if not, it could happen on some later drop, even if you're a long way off. It's as if that weapon is permanently glitched, having been on the rock. I suspect any rock will do; I've tried several. When you drop the weapon later, the likelihood of return can depend on the surface you're dropping it on. I encountered cases where I could drop it on artificial ground repeatedly without a return, yet as soon as I dropped it on natural ground, it returned.

I haven't done a full exploration but this return glitch can also occur after dropping a weapon onto something other than a rock; e.g. a ground light at the very start of AOTCR, the sloping debris littering the pyramid structure at the end, and the light-bridge in Halo. So if you ever drop a weapon and find that it suddenly vanishes, it may well have returned to some earlier place which glitched the weapon. When I checked H1 there was no sign of the return glitch, which didn't surprise me; so it looks like being something introduced with CEA. One of the oddest aspects is, why on earth would the game even have a memory of where a weapon has been?

In normal gameplay this glitch seems unlikely to rear its freaky head (given the extent I've observed so far), but if you've done something unusual such as getting spare weapons onto a rock to then use as a shooting platform, it could be annoying to subsequently find that your weapons are prone to returning to that location.

Hitting scenery

As a purely aesthetic issue, the new covie weapons don't cause such pretty effects on scenery when you happen to hit it. In H1 the plasma pistol causes a quickly fading large green glow on many surfaces - very nice indeed - and the plasma rifle does something similar in blue. But in CEA you just get small dark marks with a quickly fading orange core. Boring! Similarly, an H1 needle tends to leave a nice big black mark, but in CEA there's only a very small mark.

Grenades and melee

Grenades and melee likewise have new sound effects, and while the plasma grenade presumably has the same effect on things as before, its scary new bang makes me want to avoid being near the blast more than ever! Someone described it to me as being almost like a nuke going off, and that seems a pretty fair description.

Plasma grenade shortcomings

Plasma grenades are predominantly a dark blue on the ground, which can make them harder to notice, and which is certainly less appealing than the old shiny multicoloured appearance. Ok they've got bright spots on, but those aren't very clear until you're fairly close. When you throw a plasma it remains dark. There's some lightness too but that's all within the discharge effects flickering around it. This makes it hard to see the trajectory with any precision; your eye catches those effects rather than the grenade itself. Contrast that with H1 where the grenade was like a diffuse glowing ball.

More seriously though, when you tag someone the grenade often isn't very visible on them. That's partly due to the darkness, but also it sometimes looks like it's gone inside them to some extent. Quite possibly it has, courtesy of the dual surfacing flaw. Often I throw a plasma and I'm initially not sure if it's hit the target, and have to wait for confirmation from the subsequent enemy reaction. And if I did hit the target, I usually can't be sure where it attached. The upshot is that tagging is a lot less fun, and in particular, the comedy aspect is considerably reduced.

Frag grenade fuse

I don't have so much to say about frag grenades, but I notice that when you throw one, you get sight of an orange-tipped fuse sticking out. That tends to catch my eye and briefly makes the grenade reminiscent of some sort of cartoon bomb. The fuse also tends to cause a thin orange streak across your view, which to me looks more like a graphical defect than something intended.

Blast mark defects

There are shortcomings also with the black blast marks left on a surface by grenades and other weaponry. Blast marks ought to last a good long while then fade slowly enough not to be very noticeable (if they have to fade at all), but that's not the case here. The worst offender is the plasma grenade; in fact it's curiously anomalous. After only about 10 seconds there's a very sudden fade, the bulk of which occurs over about 2 seconds, though in full it maybe lasts about 4. It's far too noticeable and is sudden enough to actually be eye-catching, which is bad of course. The mark is actually the same as used for a frag, rocket, Scorpion or Wraith blast, yet those have quite different behaviour. They last a full 3 minutes before beginning a fade which takes around 20 seconds. The 3 minutes is good but the initial part of the fade is relatively fast and noticeable, albeit not as jarring as with the plasma grenade. All in all, poor work.

Melee

As for the new sound of melee, you tend to get a rather loud squelch sound, mixed in with considerable noise from MC's swiping arm I think. It's quite different from the crisp whack of H1, and although it's ok I definitely prefer the crisper version. As with reloading weapons, I have the feeling that the sound people wanted to squeeze in as much effect as possible, and it's too much.

In the outdoor darkness of The Truth and Reconciliation I noticed something unpleasant about melee when used on Jackals or Elites. When a shield fails, the flash effect from it causes a severe darkening of your view for a moment. Things quickly return to normal, but it's still annoying that you can't see properly for a while. This didn't appreciably happen in H1 by the way.

Vehicles and Shades

A variety of points relating to vehicles and Shades now.

Dismount discontinuity

I'll start with something that made me fairly wince with pain when I first saw it. I'm talking about the dismount discontinuity. In H1, when you dismount from a vehicle or Shade the camera transitions smoothly and gracefully from the third-person view to your usual first-person view. In CEA however, the camera crudely snaps to the new view - a painful visual discontinuity and a travesty of the original game's aesthetics. Dismounting is now a jarring experience every time. Oddly, when you board a vehicle or Shade there isn't a discontinuity; the camera transitions smoothly as in H1. So I wonder what went on here.

Dark appearance

The big thing I notice about the new vehicles, including the Pelican and covie dropship but perhaps Wraiths not so much (until wrecked), is that they tend to look rather dark, with less colour coming through. And before you ask, yes I've paid attention to the game's video settings. Obviously it varies according to the lighting, and perhaps the lighting is partly to blame here, but at times vehicles have an almost silhouette like appearance, especially when seen in a snowy environment, and especially Ghosts. It's kind of frustrating not to be able to see them in greater clarity. The same remarks go for the new Shade, which has lost the old magenta colour in favour of a dull plummy red.

Who stole the smoke?

I'm annoyed to find that Ghosts and Wraiths no longer smoke up as they incur damage, and as such, you can't really tell what state they're in. This lack of visual feedback makes it relatively unsatisfying to shoot at them. Why on earth would 343i omit the smoke? Banshees are ok at least, though the final explosion is some sort of blue plasma affair as opposed to the much prettier classic orange fireball.

Hog issues

The Warthog has some serious issues with its engine. For starters the sound seems to fade out sometimes when you swerve or bump into something. It'll go quiet for a second or two then fade back in again. Not sure if this is a bug or intentional, but it makes the hog sound like a pretty sickly machine, forever in danger of puttering to a standstill.

But wait, it gets worse. When I set up a rockslide megabattle and drove amongst a mass of angry covies, the engine sound quickly faded out, and as I drove off to safety it remained absent for several seconds. I repeated things and the fade-out happened routinely. The engine gave every sign of being able to continue silently indefinitely, but it generally returned when I swerved or bumped something, or eased off the gas a while (but the return could be messy, like the engine was coming and going for a while). Perhaps this trouble is linked to the general case of fade-out I started with, but evidently the mass of covies was a key factor. Were the multiple audio sources too much to handle or something? I don't know. What I do know is that I never had this problem in H1, and it's a potential fun-spoiler for the megabattle.

On a matter of graphics, the tyre tread usually looks almost stationary when you're speeding along, unlike the motion-blur appearance you get in H1. The tread pattern just edges slowly forward in a jerky way.

One other issue is that when driving the hog with a Marine doing some chain-gunning, the controller vibration caused by the gunning is uncomfortably severe. Bad enough to be distracting and make me want to avoid it.

Quieter Banshees and Pelicans

In my view the CEA Banshee already suffers badly enough from being rather ugly compared to its elegant H1 counterpart. But what I find less forgivable is that it's also aurally inferior due to a very muted swooping noise. Originally the swooping noise added considerably to the atmosphere and it was beautiful to listen to. No longer. I'm also not too impressed with the new scuffing noise for when your wing tips rub against scenery. It just sounds too soft and doesn't convince me.

Pelicans too have a much quieter and blander sound effect - think 'airborne vacuum cleaner' - though at least that doesn't grate with me so much since you don't actually fly them.

Wraith shots

The graphics for a Wraith's plasma shot flying through the air are comparatively dull compared to the beautiful effects seen in H1. Definitely not a case of enhanced graphics there I'd say.

Funky Shade fire

I rarely board Shades as I basically view them as death-traps, but I notice that the plasma fire now gives an attractive wave-like distortion effect on impact. Nicely done, and it can also look good when Shade fire is coming your way and is intercepted by cover. Incidentally, you can see a similar but smaller distortion effect by shooting a control panel with various weapons - just in case you didn't notice.

Covies and Flood

I'll start this section with a big "Hurrah!" that covies move like they do in H1, and we've thereby retained the best covie animation of the series. I wish they looked like the old covies too, but this bunch is rather different. I can live with that but there are a few aspects which grate a little. Perhaps the biggest is that they're just not as colourful, and in dim conditions it can be hard to see much colour at all. Indeed, there's often a certain blackness to them, making it hard to even see much detail. Gold Elites are scarcely gold any more. They're basically pale with a weak orange tint. Hunter armour is blue-tinted and it does look good, but it's quite different from the strong blue of the originals. They also have armour down the front, so you don't see the orange of the stomach any more. That doesn't stop a pistol round putting them down as usual however, as if the armour wasn't there.

A few Elite differences

I said covies move like they do in H1, but to be more precise we're talking about NTSC H1 there, which I haven't played - so I can't be sure the movement exactly duplicates that of NTSC H1. The reason I mention this is that I've noticed how an Elite chasing me with a sword is able to cut me down even when I'm running at top speed, something which usually wouldn't have happened in PAL H1. He'd just keep missing by a fraction, swipe after swipe. Have NTSC players always had that trouble then, or has CEA boosted the speed of sword Elites a little? I don't know, but I'm going to have to think twice before fooling around with those guys in future!

Another issue is that after an Elite goes into rage mode, he often doesn't die from the next bit of damage - e.g. a thump or a shot. Again, this was unexpected behaviour to me as a PAL player, and frankly it robs me of some of the fun I'm used to; fun which comes from knowing he'll go down. But maybe it's what happened in NTSC H1? One other thing is that when you score a hit on a cloaked Elite, he doesn't fade into visibility. I don't like that. I prefer being rewarded by being able to see him for a while. It makes for more interesting and enjoyable gameplay that way.

Altered Grunt line frequencies

From the advance publicity I was glad to hear that although weapon sounds would be redone, voicing would not. That meant the same old hilarious Grunt lines, hooray! But when I started playing, it didn't take long to realize that things were most definitely not the same. Over and over - dominating the proceedings in fact - I was hearing a death cry I didn't recognize. The 'baby-wail' death cry, as I came to think of it. It seems to get used about a third of the time, according to some testing I did. I assumed it was new, but Captain Spark told me he'd heard it a few times in both the NTSC and PC versions of H1, and later a UK pal managed to find the relevant sound file in the PC version. So it's not a new line, but it would seem that 343i has changed the frequencies with which various lines are randomly selected. Another frequency change soon became apparent. "Feet don't fail me now" used to be rare but is now quite common.

Adjustment of the frequencies might have been harmless enough if done with care, even though I can't see any point in doing so, but it's been done in a cack-handed manner which has given one particular line annoyingly high frequency, and it wasn't even a line you heard to any significant degree at all before. The net result is that the Grunts have a noticeably different aural character, a very unwelcome change for me.

Dull blood

Covie blood has taken a turn for the worse I'd say. In particular, Grunts had light blue blood but now it comes out as a more intense blue which is much harder to spot when you score a hit from distance, so you don't have such satisfying visual feedback. It also just plain doesn't look as pretty on the ground, where it becomes a dark inky blue in weak patches - very dull. The orange Hunter blood too is a real disappointment on the ground. In dim conditions there's barely a hint of orange - maybe none at all if your flashlight is off - so it's nothing like the enjoyably lush orange splashes of old, which decorated many a scene. In fact, pretty much all covie blood on surfaces now just looks like dark ink.

Same old gurglers, more or less

As for the Flood, they feel much more familiar to me than the new covies and I felt quickly at home shooting them to pieces all over again. The carriers go pop in a pleasingly gaseous way, making a noticeably different sound but one which is good in its own right. The spores look fine and likewise explode nicely. Can't say I've had a real close look at the combat Flood as they're kind of irritable and tend to need killing pretty quick, but mentally I have just the same image of them as in H1.

I have some concern about having seen bits of Flood debris removed before my eyes in The Library, but it hasn't been too serious so far and I've seen similar in H1 anyway, so that's probably going to be ok.

The HUD

Although the new HUD is at least serviceable, it's woefully inferior to the original. The most serious defect is that the various elements don't stand out as well as they used to. That's mainly because a darker blue has been used, but another factor is that the upper elements no longer have a white border to help separate them from the background. When there's a "Hold X to swap for…" message, the weapon image is sometimes so indistinct that I have to really look closely to see what it is. Sometimes I initially don't even notice a message line, it's so easily lost against the background. Reticles don't stand out very well either, and that goes for when they're red too. As with the blue, a darker shade has been used.

Turning to some purely aesthetic aspects, let's look at the shield and health area first. In H1 the health bars nestled neatly underneath the shield indicator, giving a simple trapezoid shape overall, with those main features having non-sharp corners. In CEA the bars have been moved away somewhat and made thin, the shield indicator has been vertically squashed a bit and arbitrarily given an uneven top line, and some of the corners are sharp; plus there's the absence of white bordering already mentioned. The net appearance is fairly ugly, and these top right elements also no longer form such a pleasingly symmetric counterpart with the top left elements. A further bit of ugliness is that when you've taken shield damage the left edge of the blue (indicating the amount of shielding left) is vertical, rather than following the slant of the element. Also, when the flashlight bar is showing, it's well away from the other elements, whereas in H1 it was close, extending the trapezoid neatly.

As for the top left, again we've got something relatively ugly. In the ammo readout the text and symbolism doesn't have a common baseline, so things look uneven. The numeric text is offset towards the top, while the rest is down low. Also, plasma grenades are represented by a bizarrely small dot, inconsistent with the much better and larger symbol for frags. In regard to the ammo area, things are especially ugly if you've got a plasma weapon because the blue area looks like it's missing a chunk, on account of using a dark area for indicating charge.

When I saw the HUD in advance video footage, I was hoping it was just a temporary bodge someone had cobbled together. Some sort of placeholder affair, waiting to be made presentable. But amazingly, it's actually what we've ended up with. It's hard to imagine how the original clear and elegant design could've been butchered much worse. The lack of elegance I can at least get used to, but the lack of clarity - which makes an actual difference in combat - will continue to grate.

Status message bug

There's a bug with the onscreen status messages such as "Checkpoint… done" and "Picked up an assault rifle". They're presumably meant to just fade out from the initial blue, but sometimes they transition from blue to black, then blink out, making an ugly distraction. A couple of times in Halo the bug has lasted until after I was out of the underground area, but other times when I've started that level, things were ok.

Cutscenes

The cutscenes have been redone (voicing aside), but all is not well. Here are my main reactions.

Cutscene trigger discontinuity

My biggest complaint in regard to cutscenes is the jarring discontinuity which occurs when they're triggered within a level. Your gameplay audio cuts out (though maybe not immediately) and there's an accompanying visual freeze for a while with a blank screen, sometimes white, sometimes black. Only then does the cutscene actually start playing. It's a completely inept and graceless transition. As far as I'm concerned the game is basically broken here. But 343i didn't notice or didn't mind? Bizarre.

Poor voice sync

As for cutscene content, there's a major shortcoming in that the voicing often seems to be way out of sync with the visuals - which may be why the lip visuals appear to look so hopeless. At times, the correlation between lip movements and voicing is so loose, it's like watching a badly dubbed film. For me it's a near-constant distraction, and needless to say, it greatly devalues things.

Man, you is ugly

I also have to say that some of the menfolk get an extremely raw deal in regard to the facial modelling. Seeing the Captain on the bridge for the first time, I was staring in disbelief thinking "What the heck have they done to Keyes?" He's got a heck of an ugly and weird looking face now. But things actually got worse when the cutscene moved to Johnson in the hangar, because he's even uglier! Poor old Sarge. I don't think he's gonna be quite so popular with the ladies any more.

Goldie is a man in a suit?

One other character issue I have is in the Silent Cartographer cutscene after using the security substation to unlock the main door. You see an Elite run out and look around, and I just think this guy looks so ridiculous. One aspect of that is the over-elaborate armour which isn't even the classic gold (it's just pale), but the other is that he appears to've been motion-captured, as his movements are very fluid compared to how Elites move within actual gameplay. That makes him seem too different to a gameplay Elite. When I see this guy, it's like I'm looking at an extremely competitive cosplayer or something. It sure isn't goldie. Heck, you can't even call him goldie now, with the pale appearance.

That cutscene is possibly the most disastrous of the game, as there are other defects besides the usual trigger discontinuity. Firstly, if you trigger it while Cortana is speaking, her speech gets clumsily cut off, then it resumes somewhere later in the speech - so you don't even get it all. Secondly, you can see bodies and stuff get removed by the game - which definitely isn't the right time to do it! I can't recall that happening in H1. Thirdly, after the cutscene ends, you tend to see detail pop-in. All in all, a real mess.

Bogus AR arming sound

This is only a minor point, but as the opening cutscene starts up for AOTCR you hear the sound of getting armed with an AR, and it really doesn't belong (not least because the Pelican hasn't even showed up onscreen yet). My guess is that it's to do with some sort of technical issue, rather than being something someone specifically wanted to add.

Music and sound

New music or old?

The game's music has been redone, but to the game's credit you can still opt to hear the original music instead, via a control nonsensically hidden in the 'VIDEO' settings. The new music is actually described with the term 'remastered', but that seems inappropriate. As far as I'm aware, it was performed and recorded afresh, rather than being obtained from the original music by twiddling some dials to adjust things.

As to the result, a couple of the tracks sound rather weak to me, lacking the strength of the originals. That's especially the case for the musical opening of The Silent Cartographer, which you also hear outside gameplay, but another case is the music you get at the first bridge in AOTCR. In both cases the music falls flat in places where I'm expecting something more vigorous, be it firm violin strokes or a drum beat, and that makes it frustrating. On the plus side, I do like the unusual tense music heard aboard the Truth and Reconciliation when Marines are waiting for you to unlock the door into the second large room. That's the only new track which has stood out for me though. So in view of the limp renditions of those two key tracks I mentioned, I think I'll mostly stick with the original music from here on.

Audio break-up

There's something seriously wrong with the audio quality of the voicing, as heard on my set-up at least (my 360 is feeding into my analog TV via SCART cable, in case that has any relevance). I keep hearing break-up in it. I'm not an audio expert and don't know if there's a more exact description of the defect, but it's as if the speech is getting broken up into small packets separated by tiny gaps of silence - or that's how I imagine it anyway. Kind of bubbly or grainy, one might say. It's subtle and the degree of noticeability varies, but it pervades the game and isn't present when I play H1 with the same set-up. It's regularly noticeable with Marines and Grunts, and even more so with Cortana. It may be that this defect is actually present in other parts of the audio too and is merely at its most noticeable in the voicing, but I'm not sure. Perhaps it's also coming through when I'm riding a lift in AOTCR? That's a slightly painful sound. Anyway, the upshot is, the voice audio I'm hearing is poor - a serious blow to the playing experience.

I'm guessing that things would be ok if I was getting digital sound, and that 343i have merely not bothered to worry much about what happens with analog TV. But it's not as if there's anything on the game box which says "Requires digital TV for decent sound".

Tick-tock madness

As well as new music having been performed, most or all sound effects seem to've been redone, which I don't see the point of. While the majority of these are decent enough, I've mentioned some concerns about some of them elsewhere in the article, including the sniper rifle's crazy boom, and the Banshee and Pelican's weak flying sounds. But the most grating sound effect for me is the ridiculous tick-tock footstep sound you hear when moving on rock (possibly snow-covered, such as on the last bridge in AOTCR). I say 'tick-tock' which is close enough, but actually it sounds for all the world like a car's turning indicator to me. It's nothing at all like footsteps. I actually can't enjoy moving about on rock any more now, because I'm hearing that darned turning indicator all the time. As far as gameplay immersion goes it's a disaster, and a baffling one at that, because who could possibly think this sounds like the footsteps of a hulking great cyborg?

Other sound issues

A subtlety seems to've been partially lost from H1. In AOTCR the first dropship offloads a few Ghosts, and on a good day you can rocket them from the bottom of the tunnel, standing on the angled siding for extra height. In H1 you hear an admirably time-delayed bang after seeing the distant explosion, something which really impressed me, but in CEA there's sadly no bang at all. However, beyond the tunnel exit you've got the chance of rocketing a distant Wraith while it's still unmanned. You can get a delayed bang from that, but you need to be close enough or you hear nothing. The cut-off point is pretty close to where you can first get a good sight of it. So, delayed bangs are still in the game, but it looks like a lower cut-off point has been imposed, which is a potential downer if you're engaging in some long-distance destruction.

Something else I'll mention - bugs this time - is that in Halo the hovering sound for a covie dropship was absent for a while, and in The Silent Cartographer when Foe Hammer brings in a Warthog after the opening battle, the Pelican has been completely silent on multiple occasions. Also after that battle, when I went back to the area I'd battled through and did some weapon swapping, the wind sound cut out for a while making things eerily quiet, and only returned when I moved away from where I'd been.

Gameplay preservation

In the advance publicity, 343i emphasized that the H1 engine would be running underneath, so the gameplay would be just the same as before. The same for NTSC folk that is, not PAL folk for whom things would inevitably differ in various regards. As a PAL player of H1, I'm not in a position to be able to fully judge the veracity of 343i's claim, but it does look like things are mostly as they were before, and in particular I haven't noticed any changes in regards to triggers and checkpoints. Here are some assorted remarks though.

Platform Banshee trick failure

There are certainly some things which have changed from the NTSC original. In AOTCR it used to be possible to steal a Banshee from a high platform by rocketing the bottom of the platform to dislodge it, but that trick no longer works, which is a darned shame because you can have a heck of a lot of nonstandard fun with that Banshee. It would be interesting to know what's going on there. It's possible to get one after a descent off the first bridge though (using xbill's method, which isn't too hard after a bit of practice), so at least Banshee fun is still possible for folk willing to manage the descent.

Update, March 15th: Oops, it seems I spoke too soon. You can dislodge it by rocketing the platform, in either mode. Evidently I didn't test that thorougly enough (and neither did any of the people who likewise thought it was a no-go). It can take perseverance even when you're aiming in a suitable area, but the same is true in H1. It does seem harder in CEA though.

The impact of the dual surfacing flaw

Some of the consequences of the dual surfacing flaw affect gameplay. In particular your fire can end up getting blocked by an invisible surface, an annoyance which may well influence how you tackle things. For example, maybe you won't bother trying to exploit cover so well, because when you shoot close past your cover, the shots too often get intercepted by invisible surfacing extending beyond what you actually see.

Inferior hit feedback

Elsewhere in the article I've mentioned a few issues relating to visual feedback when you score a hit. They affect gameplay to some extent, so I'll briefly repeat them here. When your shot hits an enemy, the flash effect is much fainter, making it harder to judge whether you were on target. Likewise, Elite shield flicker is much harder to notice. Scandalously, neither Ghosts nor Wraiths smoke up with increasing damage, so you can't judge what state they're in. It's consequently less enjoyable to tackle them.

Cloaking doesn't fade

Unlike in H1, active camouflage doesn't fade out, it just cuts off instantly. It's so ugly it looks like a glitch, but perhaps it was actually intended? Whatever the answer, it's horrible. Another change is that if you get hit, you don't start fading in. The same goes for when you damage a cloaked enemy; you're not rewarded by being able to see him for a while. All this make me wonder if 343i had some technical problem with implementing partial visibility, and had to abandon it.

Heartbeat starting up sooner

In CEA, the throbbing heartbeat sound kicks in when health is down to two bars. However, in PAL H1 at least, health had to be down to only one bar. I'm not sure if it was the same for NTSC though.

Slow down grunty!

I'm finding it much harder to double-tag a panicking Grunt low down so the first plasma sends him high and the second boosts him higher. Presumably this is just due to how NTSC H1 was. The Grunts move faster and it's harder to cope with their jinking about, and plasma grenades have a shorter fuse so you don't have as long for the second tag. Have to say, PAL H1 is much better for enjoying mischief such as this.

Megabattles and more

I set up examples of all four H1 megabattles, and things appear to be working as before. No trouble setting them up and no differences in enemy behaviour, other than those accounted for by the difference between NTSC H1 and the PAL H1 I'm used to. However, the spiral path megabattle suffers from the thick mist which has annoyingly been added to the area down on the ice. If you're defending any further back than the base of the path, the mist restricts your vision, giving you less time to work on enemies when they finally come into view. As such, it has a limiting effect on the range of tactics available, and most combat is likely to end up being pretty close-range and desperate. I've also already mentioned the problem of engine fade-out in the rockslide megabattle if you drive among the covies much. Visually that battle also suffers quite badly from eye-catching detail changes on rocks.

One other thing I've noticed with the megabattling is that the greater speed of the advancing enemies makes the fighting significantly harder than what I'm used to with PAL H1. This is true also of the Flood onslaught challenge at the start of Keyes. When I set that up on Heroic I was surprised to find myself being repeatedly slaughtered, despite the fact that with PAL H1 I would've expected to prevail every time. It took me considerable effort before I finally won a round. If CEA is a good reflection of NTSC H1, I have to conclude that in situations where enemies are coming at you, such as in that onslaught challenge and the megabattles, survival is significantly harder on NTSC compared to PAL - something I'd not been aware of before.

One last thing. When I set up a twin bridges megabattle with large enemy count, the amount of framerate slowdown when I flew in was considerably less than the quite severe slowdown I'd get in H1. So that's nice.

Troublesome foliage

As part of the graphics update, some high areas you're not meant to get to have been liberally plastered with decorative foliage to pretty up the view from below. Trouble is, it can greatly impede the nonstandard fun you could otherwise have by getting up top. One such area is the top of the Silent Cartographer island. In H1 you can have quite a bit of fun up there but in CEA it's become an absolute jungle of bogus 2D scenery; no good at all. Another place is the hillside bordering the cliffside survivor area in the second half of Halo. I've been up there plenty of times in H1, raining destruction down on the enemy and fighting Banshees, but now the hilltop is full of obscuring junk. You might still be able to attack the troops below if you can find a clear place near the edge, but you also now have to be careful of the edge because you might fall through it!

I just wish 343i had done things more sensitively in this regard. I'm sure they could've added a good degree of decoration without ruining the nonstandard fun on offer.

Glitched up chasm

Again on the theme of off-piste areas getting spoilt, have you flown to the bottom of the chasm beneath the underground bridge in AOTCR? Aside from all the mist which has been added, they've made a right old glitchy mess of that place. There are bits missing, including the bottoms of some pillars. Holes in the scenery let you see some bogus yellow background beyond. Not very pretty at all. So it looks like they didn't give any consideration to nonstandard play here either. Actually, you can even see some of the yellow background when peering down into the chasm from above; so it's visibly glitched even for normal players.

Skulls and terminals

One of my main hopes for the game was that the skulls could make for some engaging new experiences, so what have we got?

Some interesting newcomers

The Bandanna skull gives you infinite ammo and grenades (and ensures you've got both types of grenade to start with), and is certainly my pick of the bunch. The idea of romping through a level with a needler that never runs out is quite a draw for me. Course, the needler isn't ideal against those pesky Jackals, but when it comes to them I can always draw on my limitless supply of frag grenades. Using Bandanna with a rocket launcher is another attraction, though unfortunately the launcher isn't widely available.

The Boom skull doubles the damage radius of explosions, which makes for good fun. Combine this with Bandanna and you can go through a level laying waste to everything that moves with an ear-splitting barrage of grenade blasts for example. And as I soon learnt, you really have to be careful as the thrower. Getting caught in chain reactions of your own making is a serious hazard if you're not careful.

The Piñata skull makes enemies drop grenades when thumped - even Jackals and Hunters - giving you a way of keeping well stocked or of building a big collection. One way I've had fun with that is to get grenades littering the place then set off a chain reaction to take out further enemies.

I haven't quite got around to signing up to Xbox Live to unlock the Grunt Funeral Skull yet, but I dare say that skull will provide some fine amusement when I do. It was the main reason I pre-ordered the game, so I really ought to get around to obtaining it soon.

Some welcome oldies

Among the skulls I'm already familiar with, the excellent Grunt Birthday Party skull makes a welcome appearance. I'm glad to see Mythic here too, though I'm not sure how much I'm actually going to use it. I've given it a go on Legendary and it tended to make things feel a bit boring, partly because of having to repeatedly backtrack for fresh weapons.

And lots of junk

As for the other skulls, I have little or no interest, and some are functionally redundant. Iron: redundant, as I can already choose to restart if I die. Foreign: likewise redundant, as I can already impose whatever weapon restrictions I care to. Recession: not interested, as I don't want my sense of ammo usage to be thrown out of whack. Famine: not very interested, though it could be used to make things more challenging. Black Eye: not interested in this sort of perverse mechanic. Fog: not too interested, and it wouldn't make much of a difference anyway. Eye Patch: like I'd be interested in having my guns have a completely different feel? Forget it. Malfunction: not interested.

I think it's a pity that so many skull slots are used up by redundant, dull or perverse effects. It seems like a wasted opportunity. We could've had much more interesting effects, opening up much better types of new gameplay experience. For example I really wish some skull had been used to make all weapons available in all levels, in some manner. I'd also have liked some sort of randomization skull, for making enemy compositions and placements more random - so you'd have less sense of going though the same old pattern as you proceed through a level. And perhaps above all, I would've liked a skull which boosted enemy numbers.

Wouldn't have minded a Banana skull either. Bandanna came close but there were just a few too many letters. Banana would make enemies prone to slipping over, at which point you could laugh heartily and take advantage in the manner of your choice before they recover. Just picture it. A real winner, yes?

Bad terminal placement

I'm not really interested in the terminals which have been added to the game, but a few of them are aggravating liabilities due to their location. In The Maw there's one in a bad place above the cryo-bay. Multiple times when fending off a nasty Flood attack there, I've hit X to reload, only to get sucked out of the action because I've activated the terminal instead. Very annoying. Now I have to try and remember to be careful where I reload. Likewise, in The Silent Cartographer there's a terminal near where you might be fighting a pair of Hunters, and I've accidentally triggered it while trying to reload.

Among various issues relating to the general operation of the game, the worst for me is the awful experience of using the in-game pause menu, with which you revert, save or restart. There are multiple defects here and I want to go into a detailed look at just how badly things are handled, if only to highlight to other developers what not to do.

Let's imagine you're engaged in some gameplay and you hit START to bring up the pause menu. The first thing that happens is that the gameplay action stutters and freezes, which is clumsy and aesthetically painful. Then the pause menu appears in stages. Initially the light blue horizontal line near the bottom shows up, then the majority of the display appears, then the CONTROLS and VIDEO items get added along with some buttons at the bottom, and you also get highlighting added to REVERT TO LAST SAVE. Meanwhile the gameplay sound fades out, rather than cutting out. Already things are a mess. What should've happened was that the gameplay cuts off neatly (video and audio), simply replaced by the menu. Instant clean response.

When you now press the A button down to accept, there's no reaction. The reaction only begins when you release the button. Because of that, the reaction feels delayed. It should've happened when you pressed. There's a useless and distracting flash of the gameplay screen, then you get the confirmation screen. When you use A to accept, again the reaction only begins when you release. There's a useless and distracting flash of the pause menu with most items either missing or dimmed (not the prominent picture though), then most of it fades to black, but not the light blue line near the bottom and a few other minor elements. Those features remain a while until vanishing with a bleep. Now you've got total blackness, the new gameplay fades in, but usually in two stages. Typically the sound fades in while you continue to see blackness for a while, and then the video fades in. So, there's a displeasing lack of coordination there.

In summary, not only was the menu clumsily introduced, you then get sluggish responses with distracting bogus flashes along the way (and a fairly pointless bleep), plus an uncoordinated return of the gameplay if you revert. Against the crisp responsive handling you get in H1, it makes a sorry comparison indeed.

The substandard experience extends to other menu usage too, with similar faults, and even when I select CAMPAIGN from the main menu, not even that is handled properly by the game. The transition to the next menu is jerky, noticeably in the way the COMBAT EVOLVED HALO ANNIVERSARY graphic gets shrunk.

Word spacing flaw

There's also clumsiness in the menu content, in terms of layout. In particular, the text under the picture in a pause menu is often an unsightly mess, with words on a first line separated by way too much space, apparently to make it extend across the width of the picture (except that it doesn't quite reach the right). For example it can look like this:

>>    Search    for    the    three    additional    groups    of
human survivors

Now, ok that doesn't affect gameplay, but why blight your presentation with an obvious and ugly flaw which people will be seeing again and again?

Miscellaneous

Here are a few other things I wanted to mention, which could loosely be classified as presentation issues.

Delayed skipping

When the game starts up, I want to skip the intro stuff and get to the main menu. Annoyingly however, you can't skip immediately. It takes about 10 seconds before your button pressing has the desired effect (or about 5 if the game isn't installed on the hard drive, oddly enough). But you should be able to skip instantly! A fundamental of good machine interaction is rapid response. CEA certainly isn't the only 360 game with this dumb behaviour, but with the 10 second delay it may be the worst case I've encountered.

Clumsy cut-offs

When you load the game, you get some chanting but it ends up abruptly cut off. When you select to start a level, the music you've been hearing is crudely stopped. When loading the level, the chanting ends up getting cut off. All rather insensitive and painful.

Clumsy death handling and restarting

When you get killed, the game can handle things rather clumsily. Sometimes things go black almost immediately you're killed; no death animation shown. Often when things restart, you're hearing audio for a good few seconds before the blackness finally gives way to proper graphics. The audio isn't necessarily constant either; you might hear a bit then it'll go quiet, then return. That poor restart coordination also goes for reverting, and starting from a saved checkpoint.

Messy mode switch

When you use Back to switch to enhanced graphics, the game sometimes shows things before they're ready, and consequently you see some detail pop-in. But if you're going to have a fade to make the switch elegant (albeit less dramatic), at least make the delay long enough eh?

Conclusion

With its many flaws I have to consider CEA a disappointingly klutzy failure as an updating of H1. While I can certainly have fun with it, the worth of the new graphics is somewhat offset by the way detail is so frequently seen popping in, or changing as you move around. It hardly makes for an immersive experience - something on which I place a high premium. There's also the dual surfacing flaw to contend with, whereby the visible surfacing can differ considerably from the physical surfacing. Having a clear shot blocked by an invisible surface is no trivial matter in a combat game, and in some outdoor areas there's also the prospect of seeing enemies or other objects off the ground when the invisible physical ground supporting them is higher than the visible ground. These aren't the sort of defects I can easily tolerate, and it's especially sad to see them in a game which was meant to pay homage to the well crafted original.

Among other aspects I have issues with, the covies are less colourful than before, often having a rather dark look, and it's harder to tell whether you've hit them with shots because the flashes are weak. Some other basic feedback elements are entirely missing, Ghosts and Wraiths no longer smoking up as they incur damage. The plasma pistol is broken and the sniper rifle is… er… a touch boomy. Voicing exhibits noticeable break-up (on my set-up at least), so that's pretty bad, but there are other audio related negatives which affect me much worse, such as the Grunts now using an effectively new death cry annoyingly often, and MC having an absurd little tick-tock footstep sound when moving on rock.

On the positive side though, the new scenery can be quite pretty and the enhanced skies are good. Overall there's less murkiness than in H1 which helps a few levels noticeably, such as The Library - a level which seems relatively free of detail pop-in, I'm happy to note. The new needler is highly satisfying and there are a few skulls worth playing with for new experiences and fun, though it's a pity more wasn't made of them.

In view of the graphical defects and dual surfacing flaw, I might've been inclined to mainly play the game in classic mode for the sake of a less glitchy experience. I could've been happy with that. Unfortunately though, classic mode doesn't reflect the original game well enough. The weapons sound different to before, and so do the Grunts because of the altered line frequencies. Sound effects in general are likewise different, including those irritating tick-tock footsteps. Also I'd be seeing the ugly new HUD rather than the clearer and more elegant original, and I'd be suffering the unpleasant dismount discontinuity when using vehicles. Among other shortcomings, weapons would routinely be seen floating off the ground. I feel reluctant to play with such a mix of old and new. I'd rather keep my mental image of H1 uncontaminated with those altered elements and outright defects. If I play CEA at all then, it's going to be with the new graphics so it has more of a separate identity.

As such, I won't usually be expecting a high-grade experience, but I can certainly anticipate some good fun. The biggest draws for me are definitely the new needler and the Bandanna skull, and I see myself rampaging through levels with a needler or rocket launcher that never runs out, and generally engaging in fast boisterous play where there's less time to be bothered by defects. Probably doing some megabattling too, with added skulls. So there's something here for me, but this isn't a game I expect to be playing deeply or forming any strong attachment to. It's a case of salvaging what I can from something which gives neither a satisfactory updating of the original nor, in its classic mode, a satisfactory emulation of it.