Very few games from the Xbox/PlayStation 2 era could get away with an HD re-release on current-gen systems. This is particularly true of the first-person shooter genre, where games typically date with a tremendous haste. It’s a testament to the staying power of Halo’s core gameplay, then, that the series’ first two instalments – released in 2001 and 2004 respectively – feature so prominently in the Halo: Master Chief Collection: a compendium of the four core Halo games, replete with their entire multiplayer suites.
Where parkour, wall running, and jet-pack double jumping has noticeably infiltrated the modern FPS experience, Halo’s approach can seem a little old-fashioned – sprinting was not introduced as a default mechanic until 2012’s Halo 4, for instance. But the Halo formula remains demonstrably solid, and the gameplay first established 13 years ago holds its own surprisingly well against even this generation’s most celebrated contemporary shooters.
Of course, that formula is strengthened this time around by a visual and technical boost for each game that goes a long way towards making it feel at home on the Xbox One. The machine’s extra horsepower has allowed Halo to harness 60fps and 1080p resolution for the first time in the series’ history. The aforementioned games from the original-Xbox era – Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2 – enjoy a complete visual overhaul in their Anniversary editions featured in The Master Chief Collection (TMCC).
While Combat Evolved Anniversary released first released on the Xbox 360 in 2011, Halo 2: Anniversary makes its debut here. Like Combat Evolved: Anniversary, it layers strikingly overhauled visuals over the code-complete engine of the original, which can be disabled at the press of a button for comparison (with next to no delay this time around).
The textures are, naturally, much more detailed and vivid, nicely rounding off the blocky edges of the original models in a way that doesn’t look entirely out of place on a modern console. Playing through a prettier, smoother-running version of Halo 2 – a game that noticeably pushed the original Xbox to its limits back in 2004 – is a genuine thrill, and there’s much fun to be had in admiring the effort that’s gone into bringing your memories into a modern era.
For Halo 2: Anniversary, 343 Industries opted to replace the original game’s in-engine cut scenes with pre-rendered cinematics courtesy of industry leader, Blur Studio. Within Halo properties, Blur is most well-known for its work on the outstanding cut scenes of Halo Wars and Halo 4, and the results are no less impressive in roughly 60 minutes of Halo 2: Anniversary cinematics. Sometimes it’s a little too good; even though Halo 2: Anniversary’s in-game visuals are great, they’re not Blur-cinematic great, and the transition from game engine to cinematic can be slightly jarring.
It’s a small thing, but compared to the visual consistency of the other titles, it does stand out. It’s also worth noting that, for better or worse, the new cut scenes aren’t a 1:1 replication of the originals; switching between the classic and new cuts often reveals that they don’t match up, time-wise. That said, they manage to capture the essence of the classic cut scenes in a way that differences are otherwise difficult to distinguish without the luxury of direct contrast.
343 Industries has once again employed the talents of Skywalker Sound to re-record the entire soundtrack for Halo 2: Anniversary, as was the case for Combat Evolved: Anniversary. However, the results are much more dramatic this time around; Halo 2: Anniversary’s mixes are entirely faithful to Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori’s original soundtrack, but a direct comparison (via the same button switch that enables and disables the new visuals) demonstrates just how much more prominent certain tracks have become in the mix, and to great effect.
This also extends to the game’s sound effects. For a particularly noticeable comparison, try firing Halo 2’s SMGs in classic mode before switching to their positively thunderous counterparts in Anniversary. For weathered Halo veterans, there’s hours of fun to be had in making such observations alone.
While the other games in the collection – Combat Evolved: Anniversary, Halo 3, and Halo 4 – haven’t received a graphical overhaul above and beyond that of their Xbox 360 incarnations, their overall visual fidelity receives a boost owing to the Xbox One’s superior hardware. When compared to its last-gen counterpart, each game is indisputably sharper and smoother thanks to the bump up to 60fps and full 1080p.
None of these games benefit more from this technical upgrade than Halo 4, the initial release of which seems to have been hamstrung more by hardware limitations than we may have first understood. On top of the aforementioned improvements, TMCC’s Halo 4 is considerably more vibrant and colourful, bringing it more in line, stylistically, with its predecessors.
While it was always the most graphically advanced, the original release’s prominent Forerunner architecture often came across as bland and overly metallic. This time around, the enhanced lighting effects showcase much more detail and draws more attention to the variety on display, resulting in a much more engaging aesthetic.
Necessitated by 343 Industries’ vision for a seamless experience in switching between campaign levels and multiplayer suites, TMCC is unified by a single UI. While it serves this purpose well, it does have the unintended side effect of stripping the title and loading screens from the individual games that have become somewhat synonymous with their personalities over the last 13 years.
For instance, Combat Evolved: Anniversary was an uncompromisingly faithful representation of the Xbox original in its entirety, from its title screen to its menus, while TMCC is more of a contemporary interface that acts as something of a jukebox for classic Halo levels. It’s a call that’s ultimately for the best, however; TMCC’s interface is simple yet exceedingly slick, allowing players to bounce around a staggering amount of content with ease.
During the review period, there was considerable evidence that certain aspects of TMCC, at least, may have come in a little hot. Firstly, the 15GB patch that included the bulk of the multiplayer content wasn’t made available until some two days before the review embargo lifted. The Halo Channel, in some ways a companion app to TMCC, was live as soon as the review code became available.
However, certain aspects of the app were unavailable for most of the review period: some understandably (such as the Ridley Scott-produced Halo: Nightfall series); others more questionably (the videos unlocked by locating the terminals hidden throughout Combat Evolved and Halo 2 were generally either unavailable or problematic to access. When they became available, my Combat Evolved terminal videos played back in Japanese).
As such, reviewing a product that was still coming together was an interesting proposition. While the campaigns were more or less complete, reviewers were given a brief and inconvenient window with which to assess the much-touted multiplayer component before the review embargo ended.
Even then, matchmaking was an exercise in futility given the tiny player base prior to release. Gameplanet’s multiplayer experience thus far is limited to a handful of custom-game sessions with other global media as coordinated by 343 Industries.
While TMCC’s online matchmaking utilises Microsoft’s dedicated servers, custom games are handled peer to peer. TMCC’s interface really proves its worth in this scenario, and it couldn’t be easier to navigate an entire party through five different multiplayer suites and tee up games from a wide variety of game types with highly customisable settings.
It’s also nice to no longer have to worry about a split player base due to paid map packs; every single multiplayer map to feature in the core Halo games – even those previously unique to the PC version of Combat Evolved – is present and accounted for here.
There’s a certain challenge in adjusting to each game’s unique settings and physics for those who mix things up often, but it’s mitigated somewhat by a largely universal control scheme. The default scheme for TMCC maps core functions to the same buttons, but players must still recall each game’s unique quirks such as which games employ dual-wielding, equipment, armour abilities, and so forth. Of course, the control scheme is also customisable on a per-game basis.
Given the above, Gameplanet is unable to comment on TMCC’s matchmaking system at this point in time, and will refrain from posting a score until we’ve had ample time to experience it. In the meantime, however, it’s almost too difficult to refrain from recommending Halo: TMCC unequivocally.
That it constitutes terrific value is self-evident. But it also represents, indisputably, the definitive way to experience the classic games of an enduring franchise. It cannot be overstated just how much each game is rejuvenated by this 60fps/1080p upgrade, and the ability to navigate the four games – multiplayer suites and all – within a unified interface is a genuine luxury.
Update 14/11/2014 11:30am:
In the console space, Halo has historically represented the gold standard in terms of a relatively painless, seamless matchmaking experience. So it’s particularly disappointing, then, that The Master Chief Collection has proved to be anything but in the days following its full release. When it works and a match is found, the actual gameplay experience is as smooth as you remember. The trouble is that matches really are few and far between, and there’s seemingly no rhyme or reason to finding one. As it stands, players might be lucky to find, say, two games in one hour of attempted matchmaking. It’s really not good enough.
Worse still, it seems that the simple act of adding friends to your in-game lobby/party has also become considerably more difficult post-release. While it was largely a non-issue in the game sessions with 343 Industries and other press during the review period, I was personally unable to do so once the full game was out in the wild. Even attempting to add a friend to play some campaign co-op was a frustrating exercise in futility.
343 Industries has been apologetic and seemingly transparent with players, and the studio insists it’s working around the clock on a server-side fix to resolve the current state of affairs. However, it’s important to advise readers that, at this stage, the four campaigns are currently the only adequately functioning aspect of the package. Even then, it seems that those who opt to focus on this component may be limited to either solo or local-co-op play for the time being.
343 has promised to remedy this entire situation in the coming days. We'll update again and adjust the score should this occur.