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Review: Halo: The Master Chief Collection

It’s easy to forget just how important Halo has been in gaming history. Combat Evolved revolutionised dual stick controls for a shooter, successfully integrated vehicles and created a subculture of ‘console LANs’ to experience 16 player CTF madness (with four split screens, of course). Halo 2 launched Xbox Live and console online gaming into the stratosphere, popularising matchmaking, clan features and introducing the world to dual wielding weapons. Halo 3 was the most polished shooter experience of its time, further refining matchmaking and online play while bringing the series to the next generation on the Xbox 360. Halo 4, well, it showed us that the magic of a developer like Bungie is tough to emulate.

It is Halo 2 that The Master Chief Collection is here to celebrate, marking its tenth anniversary. Much like Combat Evolved back in 2011, Halo 2: Anniversary gives the original game a complete makeover, even going one step further and remastering the sound effects and music. That classic multiplayer has also been touched up, with six maps being remade in an updated engine and with some minor gameplay tweaks. Finally some new cutscenes have been added to flesh out the oft maligned story of Halo 2, famously a victim of the brutal crunch period the original game suffered. Having not played the original in many, many years I was impressed by how fluently these new story beats have been integrated, and how much they improve the narrative of the game.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I played through the Master Chief Collection with the intent to judge how the Halo series holds up today, and to do so I started at the beginning with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. The 2011 Xbox 360 remake has been further upgraded to run at 1080p and 60fps, with the full, original multiplayer suite now included rather than integrating remade maps into Halo: Reach like the Xbox 360 release. Combat Evolved is without doubt a classic game, but it feels like somewhat of a relic in 2014. The slow shield recharge, slow motion jump, fall damage and the use of med kits feels archaic, but more tellingly a lot of the level design doesn’t hold up to later entries in the series. Yes, “The Silent Cartographer” is still a classic and no amount of remodelling can make “The Library” pretty, but in general I found a lot of the combat areas uninspired and at times flat out boring. The way forward was often hidden and too often combat was funnelled into tight corridors that don’t take full advantage of the ‘holy trinity of combat’ that made Halo famous. Combat Evolved is a fantastic history lesson and a great hit of nostalgia, but play this one with a friend and make liberal use of the excellent mission select features within the Collection that allow you to pick and choose what you play without the need to unlock anything.

Halo 2 Anniversary by contrast has a lot more of that ‘Halo magic’ I remember. It looks fantastic; while the architecture suffers for the original Xbox limitations the texturing of the remake is superb and much like Combat Evolved Anniversary the ability to seamlessly switch between old and new never got old as I marvelled at how far we have come (it is especially satisfying with Halo 2 as you get to see the difference in the soundtrack and effects too). It is hard to say it looks better than Halo 4, in texturing I preferred Anniversary but the architecture is simple and sometimes the level design cramps the visual style, Halo 2 still has a fondness for corridors like its daddy.

Gameplay variety is more apparent in Halo 2 with a better spread of vehicle sections, larger arenas with more interesting set pieces and a better rhythm to combat. The last part is the hardest to quantify, while you feel squishier than I remember you have more scope to engage in mobile combat in Halo 2, I spent less time crouched behind cover and more time charging down Elites. You do find yourself in tough spots occasionally, low on ammo or without effective weaponry, but never did I find myself completely stuck, solving the combat puzzle was always satisfying in a way that Combat Evolved sometimes missed. Halo 2 loses some steam as it goes on, relying too much on corridor shooting and once again introducing the Flood (who are just as infuriating an opponent as you remember), but for the most part it was a lot better than I remembered it and light years ahead of Combat Evolved, especially with the remastered and improved cutscenes. There is a lot more personality to Halo 2, Cortana starts to shine as a character even if Master Chief is only a “shake it, baby” away from Duke Nukem in terms of cheesy one-liners. The voice acting and writing in Combat Evolved shows its age but Halo 2 holds up well. One thing to note is just how strange it feels to be playing these games in 60fps; for a while I was missing a lot of melee attacks that I attribute to the jump from 30fps. It also affected multiplayer, but once I was used to it I can’t imagine going back.

Halo 3 stands out as the least modern game in the package in terms of looks, not being retextured or remade, just getting upgraded to 1080p, 60fps with some improvements to lighting. It still looks good, the improved architecture and sprawling vistas the Xbox 360 was capable of stand out after the simple architecture of the first two games, but it does show its age somewhat. The game itself holds up as a classic, the best variety of the original trilogy, the best vehicle levels and the welcome addition of equipment. Brutes are an unfortunate choice as the chief enemy, more about sheer power and force than the clever, mobile Elites, but the Flood are used sparingly and that set piece with the Scarabs is as good as you remember it. “Cortana”, the second last level, still brings all that momentum to a grinding halt but the mission select is again your friend here.

Then we have the maligned Halo 4. Coming five years and a Call of Duty revolution after Halo 3, you can see a lot of the elements of modern shooters creeping in to the Halo formula here. The only upgrades are again, 1080p and 60fps, but in Halo 4 the framerate occasionally suffered for me, nothing that affected gameplay but noticeable, especially in open areas. These open areas is where the game looks and plays best, but the level design drops in quality dramatically when enclosed.

Halo 4 does implement some modern ideas well, sprint and equipment functions are good additions but I don’t think Master Chief needed animated melee takedowns or ‘push LS to crawl/climb’ set pieces to heighten the tension. The real issue is just how uninspired the Prometheans are as enemies, not offering that tactile response to being shot that previous Halo enemies exhibited, acting too often as bullet sponges without varied tactics or interesting patterns. The Promethean weapons similarly don’t have that oomph to them, a shame considering I really liked the weapon and ammo shortages that Halo 4 regularly exposed the player to, forcing more scavenging for weapons than any of the previous games. It certainly isn’t a bad game, but without the bridge of Halo: Reach it feels like a completely different game to the previous three in this collection.

The functionality tying the package together is truly impressive. Both Anniversary modes feature new campaign scoring (Halo 3 and 4 retain their in-built campaign scoring), leaderboard integration and combat medals; it’s a lot easier to get that elusive Killimanjaro against Grunts than it is against human players. All missions and skulls are available from the start (activating the ‘rare dialogue’ skull in all games offered some nice surprises), with Halo 3 and 4 including checkpoints within missions to make sure you can get straight to the Scarab battle or the final escape sequence (something the two Anniversary modes could have used, particularly Combat Evolved). For those so inclined there are a selection of playlists that encompass all games, if you just want to play vehicle levels, epic battles or for some reason flood levels, it has all been curated for you. Terminals are included throughout all games, but using them dumps you out of the game and into the Halo Channel to watch the content, a jarring experience that I activated accidentally several times at one inconveniently placed terminal at the end of Combat Evolved.

The single player journey of the Master Chief may bring you to the yard, but it will be the extensive multiplayer suite that keeps you in the game. The scope of what the Master Chief Collection offers is truly staggering, with the headline packages being the Halo 2 Anniversary maps and offering Halo: Combat Evolved multiplayer online on console for the first time. Everything is here, every single map from all four games (plus PC exclusive maps, yes that was a thing), all the gameplay modes and variants, Forge mode for Halo 3, 4 and newly added to Halo 2 Anniversary and the theatre and content sharing functionality of Halo 3 and 4. The scope may end up working against The Master Chief Collection, while pre-release it is hard to judge the popularity of any given matchmaking playlist I find it hard to imagine some of the less popular modes will be heavily populated.

Just as in campaign, multiplayer brings a huge variety of maps, modes and engines to the table. The Master Chief Collection lets you play within the maps of five games and their engines — Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 2: Anniversary, Halo 3 and Halo 4 — and you can really tell the difference between them as you do. Things sound, play and just generally feel different between engines. It’s delicious to hear how Halo‘s in-game announcer subtly changed as the years went by, but boy do those Combat Evolved maps look sparse and ugly. Control schemes can be customised by game or globally, with every option you could want available so you should be able to slide right in to the older games as long as you don’t miss the black and white face buttons of the original Xbox controller.

The most polish in multiplayer, as in its campaign, has been given to Halo 2. I delighted in swapping between the 25 maps of Halo 2 and the 6 made-over Anniversary ones, even trying those revamped-texture maps in old- and new-school styles. The whole while, I couldn’t help but think how much fun it was to dual-wield against human players. Halo 2 meant a lot to me for a long time, so seeing it get such a beautiful treatment, and frankly just being able to play it again put a big smile on my face. Combat Evolved, Halo 3 and even Halo 4 are all different enough that none steps on any other, Halo fans will want to try out their favourites in each game. You don’t have any cross game integration, for example you can’t play Combat Evolved maps with Halo 2 physics or weapons, but the completeness of the package for each game is more than enough for me, I don’t need a Frankenstein’s monster of Halo. Forge mode is limited to Halo 3 and 4, but Halo 2: Anniversary also gets the full treatment, meaning you can play around in that game’s six revamped maps, plus three new Forge worlds. Creative types, I can already see a smile on your face, even if everybody will just end up playing Lockout with Banshees, Zombies vs Swords CTF from xXxMisterChief420xXx.

In our review process, I teamed up with other media to play a series of custom games across multiplayer engines. While that was easy enough in a group setting, I was unable to test the matchmatching via “Find Game”. This will be crucial in multiplayer’s success, really; with the sheer variety of maps included in this package — just under 100 — you’re spoilt for choice with engines, maps and modes. Excellent matchmaking and well curated multiplayer playlists will be crucial in ensuring gamers aren’t sitting at their consoles, waiting for games as digital tumbleweeds blow by. One thing’s certain, though: multiplayer in Halo is as hectic, brutal and enjoyable as always.

If four games, two remasters and the multiplayer modes for all of them isn’t enough for you, The Master Chief Collection also gives you access to the Halo 5 beta later this year and to the Halo television series Nightfall. While not available at the time of review Halo 4’s Spartan Ops will also be included. The Halo Channel collates all of this video content, including documentaries, terminal videos and competitive streams, it’s a lot easier to use than the old Xbox 360 Halo app but you will probably be able to get by without it.

One issue to note is the massive extra download that The Master Chief Collection requires to play online. The retail disc contains the four single player campaigns plus local multiplayer for Combat Evolved and Halo 2, full multiplayer functionality requires a 15GB day one update. For Australians this could be a significant chunk of their download limits or launch day disappointment as you put the disc in only to find you need to leave the download going overnight. Digital buyers won’t be affected here but those with download limits or poor bandwidth should make other plans to get this huge content update.

If you have any nostalgia for Halo, The Master Chief Collection is a must own. The multiplayer offering is incredible, reviving one of the most popular console shooters of all time and offering the biggest console LAN game online for the first time. The single player campaigns are presented perfectly, nothing is locked away, they can be experienced in any order, skipped through or devoured in sequence, played for nostalgia or played to top leaderboards with skulls active. There is enough content here that it is hard to bemoan the lack of Halo: Reach or Halo: ODST (even if Reach was the single player pinnacle of the series). Halo: The Master Chief Collection sets a new standard for compilations that others will find tough to match.

Halo: The Master Chief Collection was reviewed using a promotional copy of the game on Xbox One, as provided by the publisher.


Halo: The Master Chief Collection

The good

  • Three of the best multiplayer games of all time in one package
  • Halo 2 Anniversary makes the original better in every way
  • Sets a new standard for features in a gaming compilation

The bad

  • Some framerate issues
  • Combat Evolved and Halo 2 have plenty of filler content

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About the author

Stuart Gollan

From Amiga to Xbox One, Doom to Destiny, Megazone to Stevivor, I've been gaming through it all and have the (mental) scars to prove it. I love local multiplayer, collecting ridiculous Dreamcast peripherals, and Rocket League.