Before Halo 2 launched in 2004, I must have watched the trailer a hundred times – easily accessible from its permanent home on my college computer's desktop. Like many fans, my anticipation for the Xbox follow-up was ... let's say substantial. And, like many fans, I was a little disappointed by the campaign and its abrupt, cliffhanger ending. Thankfully, a genre-defining multiplayer suite did more than enough to salve any abrasions left behind by the rough campaign.
Now, ten years later, 343 Industries and Saber Interactive have taken another energy sword stab at Halo's most maligned moment, slathering it with pristine visuals, a fully remastered musical score and gorgeously recreated CG cutscenes for Halo: The Master Chief Collection. All of these additions go a long way toward delivering the kind of grandiosity that original developer Bungie probably intended, even if they don't quite take away the sting of the campaign's final minutes (or some of the less interesting levels, for that matter).
And this time around, you've got every single main series Halo game to soothe any lingering discontent, including Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Halo 3 and Halo 4. That's every campaign level across all four games, every multiplayer map, player-created maps and gametype sharing, saved films, and a lovely kitchen sink, all flowing at a liquid 60 frames-per-second.
What if I've never played Halo? I can save you some time and say that The Master Chief Collection is absolutely worth the price for anyone who likes a good shooter, especially if you like sci-fi to boot. What made the original Halo such a success rings true today, offering players thoughtfully designed encounters, giving them a handful of tools and letting them decide the best way to proceed. You are the Master Chief, a power-armored super soldier known as a Spartan. Despite your herculean strength, however, you can only carry two weapons. The conquering alien empire known as the Covenant comprises several different races, each one with specific strengths and vulnerabilities, meaning that improvisation with your available weapons is both encouraged and often necessary.
The birdlike Jackals hide behind wrist mounted energy shields, for example, but they can't take much damage. The squat Grunts are weak (and cowardly) but can be dangerous in large numbers. The Elites are the Master Chief's equal, packing the same rechargeable, full-body energy shields, allowing them to take just as much punishment as you can.
Halo deftly mixes these enemy races (and several more as the series goes on), giving each encounter a "sandbox" feel. You might, for example, encounter a pair of Elites surrounded by two squads of Grunts, while a small group of Jackals stands watch above. Do you carefully aim around the Jackals shields to take them out first? Maybe you use a Covenant Plasma Pistol to instantly drop one of the Elite's shields, following it up with a quick headshot from your pistol, sending the Grunts into a panic. Or maybe you just toss a couple of frag grenades into the middle of everything and see how it shakes out. Who knows, maybe your pistol runs dry in the middle of the fight, and you're forced to pick up a discarded Needler to fill the remaining Elite with target-seeking crystals, culminating in a huge, pink explosion.
These are all valid tactics, and it's these moments that make Halo stand out (though you probably won't get away with "throw grenades at it" on higher difficulties). The galaxy-hopping space opera of a story, while it has its missteps, is filled with spectacle and memorable moments, especially if you can round up a friend or two for co-op (local or online). And, of course, there's multiplayer, but we'll get to that later.
Suffice it to say that Halo has its own unique rhythm, and it's one of the best, most consistent shooters out there. The series is beloved for a reason, and The Master Chief Collection is the perfect way to find out why.
Campaign (If you're new to Halo, be warned that this section contains major spoilers.)
We've covered Halo 3, Halo 4 and Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary somewhat exhaustively in previous Joystiq reviews, so let's focus on The Master Chief Collection's biggest addition, Halo 2: Anniversary. As with Halo: CE Anniversary, 343 Industries has taken the bones of the original Halo 2 and fleshed them out with completely renovated visuals. The effect is more striking than it was in Halo: CE, and it's clear that Halo 2 had a little more attention lavished upon it. It's not quite visually on par with the best that the Xbox One has to offer, but it looks great, from the giant, insectile Scarab tank to tiny details like the jagged, pink shards jutting out of the Needler. Rather than being covered by a bland, whitish mush, an icy landscape is punctured occasionally by rocks and soil under the melted snow. The trunk of a pine tree is gnarled and rough, rather than a straight, brown stick. Its foliage is lush, and sunlight streams through the branches, where before there was only a gray skybox. The bizarre, purple-infused motifs of the Covenant are shinier than ever, and the city skyline of High Charity actually looks like a place aliens could call home. The austere Forerunner architecture ... well, it's still pretty boring, but the detailed etchings in the metal look nice.
And, again, it's all running at 60 frames-per-second, which feels very weird in a Halo game, though now I can't imagine going back. (It also means that Halo's trademark "30 seconds of fun" now includes twice as many funs per second.)
Perhaps even more remarkable than the improved visuals are the completely remastered musical score and sound effects. Composers Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori's iconic score has been heightened, with most pieces sounding fuller and richer. The sound mix, too, seems to give the music a little more room to shine than the original Halo 2, as the remastered tracks are generally much more noticeable during gameplay. The only part of the soundtrack that seems worse off, in my opinion, are the more electronically influenced tracks, which have lost some of their unsettling punch. But maybe that punch was siphoned into the new sound effects, which are wonderful. Once you've heard the throaty, staccato pops of a battle rifle's report echoing off of the alleyways of New Mobasa, the original Halo 2 soundscape seems muddy and dull by comparison.
Halo 2's original in-game cutscenes, meanwhile, are positively laughable in the face of their new CG counterparts, crafted by the impeccable Blur Studio. The fresh cutscenes are stunning, and they handily deliver on the epic scope that the first Xbox just couldn't muster.
As in CE Anniversary, you can instantly swap between the remastered visuals/sound and the original with a press of a button. You can even do it during cutscenes this time around, but I would not recommend it. For one, there's a small delay in the sound when you switch during cutscenes but, more importantly, the new ones are just that much better. The tentacled Gravemind looks like a real creature now, instead of some jagged, green sock puppet. All of these upgrades do a lot to serve Halo 2's story, which is much better than I remember it.
The gameplay itself is unchanged, for better or worse. For the better, it's a blast to pound through New Mombasa, and sniping Banshees out of the sky with Scorpion tank shells as you roll across a gigantic suspension bridge is as enjoyable as it ever was. When Halo 2 really gets its sandbox encounters right – Jackal snipers up high, grunts on the ground, Elites in cover – when it gives you the freedom to approach them in multiple ways and succeed, it's a great exercise in tactical thinking and reflexes. The former is especially necessary on difficulties higher than normal. On Heroic or Legendary, enemies will dodge grenades, retreat and even try to flank you while their allies provide cover fire. And, yes, clearing Cairo Station on Legendary still feels like a minor miracle.
But all the visual upgrades in the world won't make up for Halo 2's more poorly designed levels. The "Sentinel Wall" on the Sacred Icon mission remains a seemingly endless, boring, gray gauntlet rather than something carefully crafted to test your skills. Other levels seal you in a room as you fend off wave after wave of Halo's zombie-like Flood enemies, which can become tiresome. Furthermore, after ten years, the final boss battle is still a dud.
Most of the levels don't fall into these traps, at least. Even when they do, Halo's satisfying gunplay saves the day overall, and the boosted visuals and sound give everything a lift. Even that drab boss fight feels a little more climactic when you have a dazzling cutscene to follow it up.
Again, Halo: The Master Chief Collection ships with every single multiplayer map from Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3 and Halo 4. In addition, the collection packs updated versions of some of Halo 2's most fondly remembered maps, which now have the same snazzy sheen as the campaign. These include Lockout, Ascension, Zanzibar, Coagulation, Warlock and Sanctuary. Lockout remains one of the best multiplayer maps I've ever played. Meanwhile, the remastered version of Coagulation, called Bloodline, is a valley of vehicular madness, filled with Scorpion tanks, machine-gun equipped Gungooses, air-dominating Hornets and the classic, fish-tailing Warthog. CTF, to put it lightly, is nuts.
You can transition seamlessly between any map for any Halo game, meaning a match on a Halo 4 map can be immediately followed up a Halo 2 map or something from Halo: Combat Evolved. Each map conforms to the gameplay and engine of its respective game. That means dual-wielding in Halo 2 and Halo 3, and customizing your favorite loadouts for Halo 4. Also, every weapon, upgrade and armor permutation is unlocked from the get-go, so you won't have to futz with leveling up or unlocking Achievements (yes, you can haz Recon).
Custom games ran smoothly for me, and Halo's strange brand of lively, occasionally goofy multiplayer is just as amusing now as it was ten or even 13 years ago. The sandbox comes into play here too, as every player scrambles to knock out their opponents' shields and land a killing blow. Again, how you choose to drop opponents is up to you, and sometimes it boils down to improvisation (or the rocket launcher respawning just when you need it most). Sharply aimed sniper shots from across the map are as valid as a sneaky shotgun blast in close quarters, and half the fun is finding your niche. CTF or the bomb-planting Assault mode are perfect for team-based shenanigans, while more serious players can dip into SWAT, where shields are disabled and headshots reign. Beyond the existing gametypes, you're free to create your own and share them with friends. Nothing but rockets on Longest, one of Halo: CE's most claustrophobic maps? Go for it.
You can even remix existing Halo 3, Halo 4 and Halo 2 Anniversary maps (or build one from scratch) using the Forge mode. Fair warning, Forge is dense and neither the game nor the built-in Xbox One help manual do much to explain it. If you know what you're doing, though, it's a very powerful tool. If you don't, you can always pile up a bunch of fusion coils, stick a Mongoose ATV on top and see what happens:
In short, there's something for everyone, and every inch of it is infused with the snappy, energetic gameplay that put Halo on the map in the first place.
Sadly, as of this writing – on The Master Chief Collection's launch day – online matchmaking is barely functioning. Wait times are several minutes long, and even when a match is found, it's rarely full. The few matches I've found have run just fine, with no noticeable connectivity problems, but actually connecting to a match is a complete crapshoot. Microsoft is aware of the issue, but the fact remains that, right now, players who put a lot of priority in matchmaking will be disappointed. For the moment, custom games with friends or co-op campaign are the best online options.
Conclusion I haven't touched on every little feature found in Halo: The Master Chief Collection. There are other thoughtful inclusions, like the universal menu, saved films and screenshots, hidden terminals in Halo 2 and playlists for campaign missions. The campaigns and multiplayer alone are enough to keep anyone busy and enjoying themselves for a very long time, and there's still more to do for those that want it. For example, good luck clearing the cross-game playlist that challenges you to clear all 45 campaign missions across all four games with 24 difficulty-enhancing Skulls activated ... on Legendary.
The real treat for fans, of course, will be revisiting Halo 2's campaign and subsequently reliving the classic multiplayer. Even with the matchmaking issues, and even though Halo 2's campaign has its low points, the remastered ride is worth it, and having every other main Halo game in one place is an excellent bonus (not to mention access to the impending Halo 5: Guardians beta).
For newcomers looking to see what all the fuss is about, Halo is as vibrant now as it was a decade ago, and The Master Chief Collection is essential.
This review is based on an Xbox Live download of Halo: The Master Chief Collection, provided by Microsoft. Images: Microsoft.
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