It contains some of the most recognizable elements in modern gaming. The scream of a Grunt. The soft buzz of an energy sword. The blast of a plasma grenade. Halo has earned its place among the most influential series of the past decade and a half, and while its mainstays like weapons and enemy types have carried over to each subsequent release, the changes are why the franchise has remained so popular in 2014. Where the first entry brought a narrative-focused, visually stunning shooter to consoles without the technical concessions of previous generations, Halo 2 revolutionized multiplayer with Xbox Live. But the industry is a very different place today — online gaming and plot-centric shooters are the norm rather than the exception. That’s what makes Halo: The Master Chief Collection so impressive: all four games hold up incredibly well, even with changing design philosophies and being spread across two generations. Unfortunately, issues more often associated with contemporary games show that a “look how far we’ve come” realization isn’t automatically a positive thing.
Halo: The Master Chief Collection appears, at least at first glance, to follow the familiar collection formula that has become so popular over the last generation. Where other collections pride themselves on uniformity across multiple titles, however, The Master Chief Collection’s four individual games feel remarkably different from each other. The original game, Halo: Combat Evolved, was already remade as Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary in 2011, and the version included here looks almost identical. It’s far from impressive, especially considering that the Xbox 360 remake wasn’t a particularly good-looking game, but it serves as an excellent starting point for what’s to come.
Fortunately, Halo 2 Anniversary — a remake of 2004’s Halo 2 and the main focus of the collection — is a much more comprehensive remake than Combat Evolved Anniversary. Instead of using the in-engine, stiff, robot-like cinematics of the first remake, Microsoft enlisted the services of Blur Studio to recreate every cutscene, as well as to produce a new scene at the beginning of the campaign. The result is breathtaking, giving characters like Avery Johnson and Miranda Keyes detail that was simply impossible in the original game. This fidelity is nearly matched in the terminal videos scattered throughout each level, giving additional insight into the motivations of a few key characters from the game.
But the visual facelift isn’t just evident in the cinematics; Halo 2 Anniversary looks like a game designed for the Xbox One, albeit one that holds onto some design approaches that developers have moved away from in recent years. The huge, open areas, spaceships, and Forerunner architecture look comparable to anything releasing in 2014, but the moment-to-moment action still feels like classic Halo 2. I haven’t played the original in several years, but I remembered the two hunters breaking through the doors on “Outskirts” like it was yesterday. It’s here that pressing the “view” button is so impressive: my brain played tricks on itself to believe that the original Halo 2 looked this good, but switching engines on the fly, even in cutscenes, shows just how wrong I was.
It’s the audio, however, that is the most impressive element of the remake. Switching engines also replaces the updated audio with Halo 2’s original sound, and these differences are even more noticeable than the visuals. Energy swords, which previously sounded like a lightsaber inside a wind tunnel, now extend with a sharp, slightly metallic twang. The submachine gun’s soft, pitiful excuses for shots are now replaced with powerful “thwaps” that make using the weapon feel more worthwhile. Even the soundtrack got a boost, literally: it’s consistently louder throughout the game. Where gunfire and Covenant chatter could occasionally drown the original Halo 2’s music out, its electric guitar solos and strings are now front and center. I may have played air guitar on my controller once or twice.
In an odd way, Halo 2 Anniversary’s technological leap forward makes Halo 3 seem out of place in The Master Chief Collection. As an early Xbox 360 release, it hasn’t aged well, and while it’s certainly still playable, the visual downgrade is jarring if you plan on playing the games in order. Halo 4 fares much better, and while the cutscenes are still not on the level of Blur’s work, the difference is fairly trivial. For an even stranger trip down memory lane, a number of “campaign playlists” are included for both the individual games and the collection as a whole, grouping similar missions together for that time that you really want to drive a Scorpion tank or fight the flood. Although they just serve as a quick way of choosing missions, they do save some time for those long marathon sessions.
Of course, single-player isn’t where Halo made a name for itself, and the online options in the Master Chief Collection, when they’re actually working as advertised, do not disappoint. The collection includes every map for all four games, DLC included, as well as six completely reimagined favorites from Halo 2, including Zanzibar and Ascension. Switching between games can be a bit disorienting, especially when going from the sprint-enabled Halo 4 to an original Halo map, but mode playlists enable you to search for specific games, as well. Unfortunately, horrendous matchmaking problems persist a full month after launch, and several playlists, such as the dedicated Halo 4 option, have been removed to alleviate issues. My experience has varied pretty wildly, from slightly long matchmaking times to finding literally no one to play with in the “Big Team Battle” playlist, which I chose as a way to actually play Halo 4’s multiplayer.
The highly publicized technical problems aren’t just limited to the multiplayer, however. I encountered a game-breaking bug near the end of Halo 4 that forced me to restart an entire mission, and some research led me to discover that the bug is actually a carry-over from Halo 4’s Xbox 360 release. With so little changed from the 2012 original, it’s disconcerting to see such a glaring problem fail to get addressed.
Halo: The Master Chief Collection isn’t just a game, though: it also includes Halo: Nightfall, a “digital series” produced by Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions. Even as a huge Halo fan, I found Nightfall, which follows Halo 5: Guardians newcomer Jameson Locke, to be a massive slog. Over the course of five episodes, Locke and his team investigate the remnants of a destroyed Halo ring, but even with a running time of around 90 minutes total, the series still feels like it’s stretching for time. The first and last episodes are the strongest, with fast-paced action sequences and a procedural-esque investigation, but this really should have been a short film: there just isn’t enough material to justify five episodes. Strangely, it’s the deleted scenes or “second stories” that are the most interesting parts of Nightfall. The first episode quickly glosses over an alien smuggler’s interrogation scene, but it’s available in full by pressing “X” when prompted, and gives needed information that the main episode is willing to offer in just a few sentences otherwise.
It includes four of the best shooters of the last 14 years, and Halo 2 Anniversary is one of the most impressive remasters ever released, but Halo: The Master Chief Collection simply doesn’t function as intended. Even with numerous patches supposedly fixing stability, it was almost a surprise when I managed to get into a match on the first try. If you’re more interested in reliving Spartan 117’s journey than blasting your friends online, it’s definitely worth the price of admission. Otherwise, you’ll be spending a lot of time waiting to shoot anyone.
All four included campaigns were played to completion for this review.