[Editor’s Note: This review is based solely on the single-player aspect of The Master Chief Collection, due to the inability to test the multiplayer under live conditions. We will be evaluating the multiplayer part of the collection separately, once the game is available to the general public. As such, this review doesn’t carry a score at the end; that will come once we’ve had time to fully assess the entire package.]
The Halo franchise has been as important, if not more, to the Xbox brand than Sonic was to Sega. In much the same way as people bought Mega Drives and Saturns for the be-sneakered blue one, the number of Xbox consoles that Microsoft has shifted can be attributed in no small part to Spartan John 117. It’s perhaps not surprising then that there is an optimism and expectation surrounding Halo: The Master Chief Collection that it will help to reduce the sales gap between Xbox One and PS4.
Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3 and Halo 4 are all back, with varying degrees of makeover and with varying degrees of success. One thing is a constant though: playing through each campaign reminds you just how superb the experience was the first time around. Whatever you think of Destiny, or perhaps even Marathon, there’s no doubting that the adventures of the man known as the Master Chief saw developer Bungie at the pinnacle of their craft. Fans debate whether Halo 2 was better than Combat Evolved, they argue over which is the best level in the series; but they do all this because it’s genuinely difficult to pick a favorite. Bungie revolutionized the first-person shooter on consoles, and while things like two-weapon limits, recharging health and huge, bombastic set pieces are now taken for granted, in 2001 when Combat Evolved debuted, they were fresh and exciting new ways of doing things.
The star of the show here is clearly the remastering of Halo 2, and so it only makes sense to single it out for some special attention. The Halo 2 HD remake is gorgeous, if a little too dark at times. For much of my playthrough, I found myself switching to the much brighter original engine numerous times, out of necessity rather than preference. The Gravemind mission takes place mainly inside a Covenant structure, and identifying Brutes in some of the darker halls is almost impossible with the default settings. That aside, it’s the most enjoyable Halo campaign I experienced in the collection. The upgrade to 60fps not only makes it smoother and more pleasurable to look at, but it genuinely changed the way I played the game. Single shot weapons like the Carbine are now my go-to weapon of choice: the fire rate is much faster, and the weapon feels more responsive with the new frame rate. The new art isn’t going to be to everybody’s taste, but I was so impressed with the backdrops that it didn’t bother me one bit.
Of the four games in the package, it’s Halo 3 that suffers the most. Caught between the rock of being old with no HD makeover, and the hard place of not being recent enough that it can get away with it, the Vaseline-smeared NPC faces and low-res textures really stick out in 1080p, and they were never exactly cutting edge to begin with. Yes, the game benefits from the same increased frame-rate and resolution as the rest of the package, but it’s the ugly duckling of the group. Which is a shame, because when it comes to campaign pacing, design and thrills, Halo 3 is the pound-for-pound champion out of all 4 games here. It’s still enjoyable, but it would have really benefited from some of the TLC given to Halo 2.
Halo 4 is a more divisive topic among the community, but playing through 343 Industries’ first solo outing again with fresh eyes reveals a game which, to this reviewer at least, is infinitely more enjoyable than Combat Evolved. It’s not that Combat Evolved’s visuals haven’t stood the test of time – the Anniversary visual spit-and-polish did a lot to bring the game up to date – but it’s the level design that hasn’t aged well. The Silent Cartographer is equally as confusing to navigate in 2014 as it was in 2001, even with the HD treatment. Even if you think you remember the way back through the level’s winding and samey passages, you will still get lost.
As with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, accessing terminals around the various maps will play you a backstory cut scene. With Halo: The Master Chief Collection, these cut scenes aren’t played in game. Instead you are taken to the Halo Channel app on your dashboard. Whilst I understand the desire to push the app, leaving the game to play a cut scene can be rather annoying. This didn’t affect other players with advanced copies, but my Halo: Combat Evolved cut scenes were all in a language that I couldn’t distinguish. The Halo Channel is also were you’ll get to watch Nightfall, the new live action TV show, as well as the previous Forward Unto Dawn features, and Microsoft is really pushing it as the definitive source of everything Halo from now on. In that sense, it could be viewed as something of a replacement to the old Waypoint app.
And the best soundtrack in gaming just got better. The almost perfect audio has also been remastered, and reverting to the old engine also allows you to hear what it used to sound like. Not just the haunting music, but the weapon effects have also been updated. Marty O’Donnell’s score, already the stuff of gaming legend, takes on a new lease of life with the updated audio mix. Deep bass notes sound deeper, strings sound richer, and the overall atmosphere is greatly enhanced.
If the visuals and sound aren’t enough for you, the jaw-dropping cut scenes will be. Blur studios have outdone themselves with the remastered sequences. The beauty of the Halo 2 engines running side-by-side is that switching between the old and new visuals even works in the cut scenes. Here, the technological progress made since 2004 is really showcased. Not only are they greatly enhanced, but they’re actually longer. Sometimes when you switch back, the old engine is a few seconds ahead. And the introductory cut scene to Halo 2 is very special, without revealing spoilers; that’s all I’m going to say.
Menu navigation is very slick, allowing you to switch between the 4 campaigns and various MP options at will, as well as access your customization options. Each game has its own depth of customization to mirror its original. For example, Halo 4 has dozens of Spartan models (male or female) you can choose from, whereas Combat Evolved’s customization is limited to just the color of your one male suit. Also lying dormant in the menu is a link to the Halo 5 Beta, just to whet your appetite.
From the outset, you have the option of playing missions from each of the games out of order in a random playlist, and this is a feature repeated in the multiplayer mode. It’s been welcomed by the community, but I can tell you first hand from replicating this setup in custom games that it’s a rather jarring experience. Visuals aside, the physics of both your character and the weapons themselves vary greatly, and so jumping from one to another gives a varied but ultimately disruptive experience as you readjust to each game’s unique feel.
The controls aren’t a problem because you can set one universal control method for all four titles, but having played several games so far, it takes a few beats to calibrate things. How effective is the Battle-Rifle on this mission? Can I dual wield? How high can I jump, and how fast can I sprint? While it’s understandable that 343 wanted each game to retain its unique look and feel and didn’t want to tamper too much with Bungie’s work, a little more work on making the physics and weapon balance more universal would have greatly helped the transition between different campaigns. It’s not a deal breaker by any stretch, but it takes some getting used to.
I’m going to save my multiplayer impressions and final score for when all the modes have been fully unlocked and can be properly tested under live conditions, but even if there were no multiplayer at all, these are four 9/10 campaigns bundled together with varying degrees of remastering and increased frame-rates. Not since Super Mario All-Stars on the SNES has a whole series of games been thoroughly overhauled and bundled together in a complete, and comprehensive package. And while a couple of niggles here and there stand out, you’d have to be particularly churlish to argue that they lower the overall value of what’s on offer here.
If you own an Xbox One, then picking up Halo: The Master Chief Collection is a no-brainer. If you don’t, then this should be the release that convinces you to take the plunge. Far from being a simple rehash of what’s gone before, The Master Chief Collection is one of the first truly essential games to be released this Holiday season.