It’s almost impossible to ignore the cultural influence that Halo has had on the games industry these past 13 years. For many of my generation, it was our first major introduction to the modern-era of console-based FPS shooters. As teenagers, Halo: CE quickly became a cult favourite for after-school entertainment, replacing Goldeneye 64 as the staple of our competitive playground. Following-up with a sequel, Halo 2, the series then took that competitive nature to the next level with epic lounge room-based LAN matches between two teams of four; arguably some of my fondest gaming memories. Step forward several years, however, into the dawn of the “HD-era,” and this is where Halo 3 introduced us to online matchmaking and player ranking. It goes without saying that Halo was a pretty big deal to me.
Don’t get me wrong, I recognise that there were other games that did it first; arguably better even. However, to me, and many other players around the globe, Halo was the franchise that introduced us to the genre, as well as new ways to play games with our friends. Nostalgia is an incredibly powerful force, and the Halo franchise is unmistakably dripping with it. If any still-standing franchise deserved special treatment, I would think Halo classifies as a worthy recipient. Personally, I’m thrilled 343i decided to go down this path with The Master Chief Collection. However, fandom aside, let’s be honest: a lot of recent “remasters” have been half-hearted cash-ins, neither pleasing existing fans or helping newcomers to appreciate what we loved about the originals. Hopefully, Halo would get better than this.
First off, let’s clarify what 343i promised fans with this collection: Halo, Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo 4, Halo Nightfall (TV Series) & access to the Halo 5 Beta. Obviously, as the title suggests, it’s all about Master Chief, so ODST and Reach have been left out – but let’s be fair, that’s a pretty generous offering for one disc. As the new caretakers of the Halo franchise, 343i still has a lot to prove to fans though, so they weren’t willing to leave it at that. Every game in the collection has been upgraded to 1080P/60FPS, a “next-gen” expectation that’s been heavily debated these past 12 months; with Halo 2 receiving a complete “anniversary” treatment. We’re not talking about a shoddy “HD–upscaling”, however. Audio visually, Halo 2 has been remastered from scratch; an impressive feat, even by Xbox One standards.
It might appear superficially unnecessary to some, but the truth about a great remastering is that it can genuinely help older experiences live up to that nostalgic pedestal fans place their favourite games on, while also allowing easier accessibility to new players; all without altering the heart and soul of the game. While it’s true that Halo 2 is the gem of the collection (and why shouldn’t it be, it’s its 10-year anniversary!), the other three games are noticeably improved too. As someone criticised for being mostly indifferent on the 1080P/60FPS debate, I’ve had to recant on my neutrality after playing through the collection. I can now see this factor does make a difference – a big one, actually. Halo: The Master Chief Collection is without a doubt the definitive way to experience Halo CE: Anniversary, Halo 3 and Halo 4.
Halo 2: Anniversary steps beyond just being a “definitive” version of an existing game, however. We’re talking about totally re-created art assets, textures, lighting, sound design and original soundtrack; not to mention some of the best CGI-cutscenes, ever, by BLUR Studio. In terms of the main campaign, nothing fundamental has changed, and we know this as you can swap instantly back and forth between the original audio/visual with the push of a button. It’s actually one of the coolest features as there is no fade to black like with the original anniversary for Halo: CE, it’s immediate, and it really helps you to appreciate 343i’s work. What took me most by surprise though, is how much of a difference the improved sound design makes, with more prominent music and better sounding weapons and vehicles.
What defines this as a collective experience, and takes it beyond the efforts of other “HD Remasters,” is the way that 343i have intertwined absolutely everything into one seamless interface. In the main menu, you can access all the games, all the missions, and all multiplayer maps (more than 100, in fact!) – not to mention that both the forge and theatre modes are now compatible with Halo 2: Anniversary. It’s a slick and stylish interface which makes it very easy to pick out exactly what you want. What defines it further though are playlists: allowing you to play the entire collection from beginning to end, or missions/maps from multiple games all mixed together. I don’t think this has been done before, and, to me, it’s this core feature that unifies the collection and makes it stand apart from any similar offerings.
Admittedly, It can feel a little disjointed (visually) when playing the games chronologically, but it’s actually less noticeable than I was initially expecting it to be. Halo CE: Anniversary looks great with an increased resolution and frame-rate, and Halo 3 has been noticeably improved with a better lighting engine. These advancements combine to balance the visual progression, and truth be told, you can just turn off the upgrades in CE/2 if you’re more of a purest. In addition, the cross-game experience works so well because of the robust configuration options you’re given for each game, which include controller layouts and complete character customisations. It doesn’t ever feel like a bunch of games lazily slapped together, it’s one experience, and it’s great to track your career across all the different games.
When it comes to the fundamental design of multiplayer, it’s clear that 343i took great care to respect the franchise. The star of the show, Halo 2: Anniversary, has a dedicated ranked multiplayer in which you can play on one of six remastered maps from the original game. These maps mostly feature visual enhancements, but in some cases this also includes subtle changes to the terrain, as well as a few cool new features: such as a shield which can be activated in the centre of Ascension. I personally found the remastered maps quite exciting to rediscover and explore, but again, all the original versions are there for purists who aren’t looking for change. A big shock was learning that the assault rifle has been added into some of the Halo 2: Anniversary maps. No doubt, this will make some fans happy.
We must address the elephant in the room, though, and that’s matchmaking (it was broken for two weeks). I’ve been playing since three weeks prior to launch, and it was clear then that the collection wasn’t ready – a 15GB day one patch, seriously? From my perspective, it’s apparent these problems are the reality of huge marketing campaigns and unrealistic deadlines, and I genuinely empathise with 343i for the stress they’ve been under. For this reason, I held off on my review until they had time to address the issues, and to see if it would work as promised within a reasonable amount of time. Don’t get me wrong, players who bought the game at launch have a right to be annoyed, but I’m equally pleased to report that the patch released on the 20th resolved the major issues I was personally experiencing.
I don’t excuse the growing trend of games being broken at launch, but I do measure a developer on whether they hold themselves accountable for these problems, as well as their efforts to try and make things right with the community. From what I saw, 343i made no attempt at excuses and regularly left in-game messages to keep the community updated. Two weeks is frustrating, sure, but there were still four campaigns to play through, and the reality is that Halo is not the sort of game that just falls away after a couple of weeks. In it’s now rectified state, it’s the perfect holiday gift for any fan, and the bigger picture is that every single core Halo game now exists on a current platform, and can be played online for years to come. Anytime you want to get nostalgic, it will be there, and that’s fantastic.
Without a doubt, The Master Chief Collection is still the most expansive and enjoyable remastered gaming experience I’ve ever come across. It’s had some significant problems getting its feet off the ground, but this is not the sort of franchise that gets shelved after a couple of weeks. This time last month, there was no way to go back and play Halo 2 online with my friends: it was just gone, like many other primordial online experiences before it. So to those who love Halo, this is a big deal, and that’s even before acknowledging the difference that the improved presentation makes, as well as the novelty of cross-game experiences. Because of this, Halo has been preserved indefinitely, and that in itself is incredible. I’m not here to tell you if you should like Halo, that’s your call, but I can tell you this is a great collection.
Please Note: This review was based on the XB1 version of the game, and was provided to the writer by Microsoft for the purpose of review.