Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary
For: Xbox 360
From: 343 Industries/Bungie/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Though “Halo: Combat Evolved’s” impact has been exhaustingly documented, there may be no finer point than the realization that the 2011 holiday season’s best new first-person shooter may very well be a 10-year-old game with a fresh coat of paint.
At least on the solo (or two-player co-op) side, that’s what “Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary” is — a pretty carbon copy of the game that launched with the original Xbox in 2001 and subsequently formed the foundation of a video game juggernaut.
Arguably, “Anniversary’s” faithfulness is to a fault if you’re accustomed to the advancements the series has made — from enemy A.I. to the ability to sprint, hijack enemy vehicles and dual-wield weapons — since that first game. Even visually, and regardless of a graphical revamp that brings everything up to par with the recent “Halo” games, there are allusions to yesteryear in the jerky way other characters animate and the odd turns enemies sometimes make when flanking and backpedaling.
The upside to staying so faithful? A cool trick that lets you swap between the old and new graphics at any time with a single button press. The transition is a little awkward insofar that the screen briefly fades to black without without stopping the action. But as a fulfillment of curiosity and a jaw-dropping demonstration of how far graphics have come in a decade, it’s a wonderful little touch. (Just be sure to use it when the coast is clear.)
As it happens, the rest of the game remains pretty wonderful as well. “Halo’s” sequels and prequels have outdone it in terms of scope, design variety and level arrangements, but the tenets of those great games — wide-open battlefields, branching paths even indoors, enemies that swarm and flank as well as rush in packs, numerous opportunities for devising your own unique plan of attack — are fully intact here. It was groundbreaking in 2001, and in 2011, following on the heels of oppressively linear military shooters that routinely punish creativity in their campaigns, it still puts many of its newer, flashier contemporaries to shame.
For those who never played it on the original Xbox, the full-circle timing of this anniversary release could not be better. Last year’s “Halo: Reach” allowed players to play out the story that fed into the events of the original game, so if “Anniversary” is new to you, it may as well be a sequel to “Reach” in the same way a “Star Wars” movie from 1977 is a sequel to one released in 2005.
For the returning players, each mission hides a terminal that unlocks new insights — courtesy of perennial series antagonist 343 Guilty Spark — about where the series is headed when the next “Halo” trilogy kicks off next year. The terminals are sometimes harder to find than they should be, but for the diehards, they’re absolutely worth seeking out.
“Anniversary’s” faithfulness isn’t quite as hardcore on the multiplayer side (16 players). The game includes remastered versions of six classic maps and some match configurations that allow players to reenact the original game’s four-player multiplayer, but it uses “Reach’s” multiplayer engine to power it.
At no point does “Anniversary” pretend otherwise: The game uses the “Reach” branding, includes all of its features (from Forge mode to jetpacks), and allows you to play with “Reach” players who purchase the six maps as a $15 download. The maps that shipped with “Reach” aren’t included on “Anniversary,” but in a generous touch, “Anniversary” includes a code that lets you download the maps for free and use them in “Reach” if you have a copy.
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Windows PC
From: Eurocom/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, crude humor)
Though “Disney Universe’s” name isn’t exactly untruthful, it might be a little misleading. This is neither a simulation nor an expansive online multiplayer game (as games with the word “Universe” generally tend to be), and it certainly shouldn’t be confused with the “Kinect Disneyland Adventures” game that lets you explore a virtual Disneyland.
If anything, the “Disney” in the name is more garnish than dish — a decorative exterior for a platforming game that has more in common with “LittleBigPlanet” and the Lego games than anything the “Universe” tag might imply.
Unless you had grandiose ideas for “Universe,” though, that little surprise is — particularly for younger and unseasoned players — a pleasant one.
“Universe’s” levels are modestly sized and pretty self-contained, framed by a fixed-camera perspective that functions similarly to what you get in those Lego games. Also like those games, completing a level in “Universe” typically entails complete a handful of simple mandatory objectives (which clear the way, cause-and-effect style, to the exit) and some trickier optional objectives that are good for collectibles, achievements/trophies and pride in a challenge comprehensively completed.
At no point does this become strenuously difficult: Even flat-out dying in “Universe” provides no punishment beyond simply losing a few hundred coins, which are abundantly available and function as currency toward unlocking new levels and other bonus content. But “Universe” isn’t so easy as to be insulting or boring even to players who are experienced enough to cruise through it.
In large part, that’s because “Universe” does the little things better than those Lego games do. Enemies storm levels at regular intervals, but while the combat is simple and loose, it’s far more refined (and, consequently, miles more fun) than the Lego games’ shoddy excuse for brawling. “Universe” also handles locomotion with considerably less guesswork: The characters don’t run and jump like they’re wearing soggy clothes, which makes it more fun to get around and easier to (among other things) correct a bad jump while airborne. Given a fixed camera’s occasional tendency to betray the laws of perspective and distance, even a little extra polish in this arena goes a long way toward alleviating aggravation.
Predictably, everything the game does is more fun when in the company of others. “Universe” supports four-player offline co-op, and it fulfills the mission of giving players numerous reasons and means to antagonize each other as well as work together.
If, at this point, you’re wondering how Disney fits into this, the answer is “loosely.” “Universe’s” levels are themed according to Disney properties, but the themes feel like themes more than the actual worlds from whence these brands came.
That’s doubly so for the characters you play as and face off against: Instead of literal Disney characters, they’re vinyl dolls wearing costumes with Disney character themes. If you played “LittleBigPlanet” — and particularly if you purchased any of the Disney-branded outfits for that game — the characters in “Universe” will almost certainly look just a little familiar.
The significant upside to that loose interpretation is that it allows “Universe” to cram a whole ton o’ Disney — Mickey and friends, Winnie the Pooh, the Muppets, the Disney Princesses, Pixar’s most wanted, Jack Sparrow, “Tron” and more — into the game without having to explain why Lilo and Peter Pan might be joining forces on a pirate ship. The story it comes up with instead is amusing, the characters look adorable in their Disney Halloween costumes, and the costume abilities and level intricacies shout out to their respective themes in clever ways that set this apart from just another Disney game.
Where is my Heart?
For: Playstation 3/Playstation Portable (universal, via Playstation Network Minis)
From: Die Gute Fabrik
ESRB Rating: Everyone
A traumatic family hiking trip inspired Bernie Schulenburg to design “Where is my Heart?,” and what results is a wonderful case of turning a negative into a positive. “Heart” follows the adventures of three monsters lost in the woods and searching for a way home, and at its most basic (on the first level), it’s a simple case of running and jumping through a level that fits entirely within the constraints of a single screen. From there, though, the levels break apart into disconnected panes that form a coherent level but do so out of order. A pane in the top left of the screen might depict scenery that’s adjacent to a square on the bottom right instead of right next to it, and you’ll need to dance along the edges and use the level design’s context clues to decipher how to reach the exit. “Heart” goes from easy to ingenious extremely quickly, and once it gives you the ability to rotate those panels and navigate parallel dimensions in search of shortcuts on the other side, the puzzles become downright devious. Fortunately, everything else about the game — the adorable 8-bit graphics, the sweet demeanor of the monsters, a sound palette that’s minimalist in a way that evokes Apple II-era games — makes “Heart” too impossibly charming to even frown at while its puzzles cerebrally kick you in the face. An understated gem like this stands in complete contrast to the tornado of big budget games that are bigger and badder iterations of the same old thing, and if you’re dying simply the play something you’ve never played before, this one is essential.