Games Review: Halo – The Master Chief Collection (Xbox One, 2014)

Halo: The Master Chief Collection is an anthology title comprised of all four games starring the enduringly popular one-man-army (and unofficial Xbox mascot) Master Chief. For Halo fans anxiously awaiting the next entry in the series, Halo 5: Guardians, the Master Chief Collection offers a comprehensive stroll down memory lane in the interim.

This collection kind of a tough nut to crack in terms of finding the right way to review it. I mean, one of the games in this collection is 13 years old, so reviewing it as I would any other new release hardly seems fair. Thus, I’m going to be breaking this review down into a look at each game in turn and how they hold up today.

As a bit of an overview, this collection contains last year’s Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary remaster, a brand new HD remaster of Halo 2, and straight ports of Halo 3 and Halo 4. Everything from these four games has been lovingly remastered for use on, and to take advantage of, the Xbox One’s graphical grunt. All four games run at a near-flawless 60fps Each single player campaign is exactly how you remember it and every last shred of multiplayer content ever released for all four games is present and accounted for. Seriously, you are getting an absolutely bonkers amount of content for the asking price. So let’s go down the list.

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary
The first, and some would argue still the best, entry in the series. Playing Halo: CE was an intense blast from the past. Released back in 2001 as a launch title on the original Xbox, it was a giant leap forward in the way developers created games for consoles. It introduced the Holy Trinity of combat – you could only carry two guns, there were two kinds of grenades and melee that actually worked properly.

Halo: CE was a true revolution in the FPS genre. And the fact that it is still as fun to play now as it was on release 13 years ago speaks volumes about the quality of it’s design. 343 Industries released the Anniversary edition on Xbox 360 last year, a complete 1:1 HD remake of the original game and it is this version, optimised for the Xbox One, that is included here.

Though the environments feel quite sparse by today’s cluttered standards, they function incredibly well. Not having a lot of cover forces you to change up your tactics often and it keeps combat super lively. The enemies aren’t wildly varied by today’s standards, but they are still quite clever – Elites will jump and dodge lithely out of the way of incoming grenades and Grunts will move to flank you if you aren’t staying aware of your surroundings. Aside from a few very minor nips and tucks here and there, the game is identical to the original and 343 want you to be able to compare and contrast. Pressing the menu button on your controller switches between the original graphics and sound and 343’s, admittedly gorgeous, HD remaster.

My only real complaint with the HD remaster is in 343’s overhaul of the lighting system. Originally, Bungie didn’t have a lot of memory to work with so they hid a lot of larger enemies behind thick fog or they made the area very dim or dark to account for it. It gave the game a sense of foreboding and mystery – it was hard to see what you were walking into a lot of the time. It’s very, very pretty but it loses that feeling in translation. Everything is clear, crisp, brightly lit and draw distances are enormous. I suppose if you never played Halo: CE in it’s heyday it wouldn’t be an issue at all but for veterans like me, it brought a noticeable change of vibe.

Despite it’s age, Halo: CE is still a crazy amount of fun. Everything works. The whole experience just sings. Combat is tight and exciting, the weapons are fun to use, grenades are satisfyingly powerful and the pistol is still as brutally OP as you remember it being. There’s people playing games now who weren’t even alive when this game was released and may have never played it. Do yourself the favour – it’s so, so great.

Halo 2: Remastered
Oh, Halo 2. The middle child. The troubled second album. Halo 2 was a HUGE success for Bungie and Microsoft when it released back in 2004, but behind the scenes, things weren’t so rosy. Production was rushed by a desire to build a more complete package for online multiplayer and it led to Bungie having to let go of a lot of their ambition, scrap a lot of their pre-existing resources (remember that amazing gameplay video from E3 2003?) and go back to the drawing board before entering what is still referred to as “the mother of all crunches” in order to get the game shipped on time. What this led to was a game that looked and sounded like Halo but didn’t really feel like it at all.

Sadly, for Halo 2: Remastered, all the problems that plagued it on release are still there. The game seems to forget the Holy Trinity for combat that the first game relied so heavily on, providing you with guns that will do the job no matter which enemy you’re staring down. This means you rarely have to change up your arsenal. The only times I found myself picking something else up was when I simply ran out of ammo. I wasn’t constantly adjusting my load out on the fly anymore – a true shame. A tweaking of the field-of-view makes throwing grenades and using melee with any accuracy far more difficult than it needs to be – how many times did you die in Halo 2 after throwing a melee attack at an elite or brute that was right in front of you, only to have Chief inexplicably miss his mark by a wide margin?

The story also suffers from the rushed development period. The original game had a reasonably well-plotted story that saw humanity crash land on a mysterious ring in space, fighting tooth and nail to keep vital information from falling into the Covenant’s hands, even as the situation deteriorated out of control. Halo 2 attempts to expand on the original’s story but ramps up the scope. For all our hard work in the first game, the Covenant have found Earth. We’re now truly on the brink of extinction. The biggest change the game implements is that suddenly we aren’t just playing as Chief anymore – we’re jumping back and forth between Chief and the Covenant agent called The Arbiter. Keeping people from being able to play as Chief is a bit of a narrative misstep, and one the series never made again. Remember when Sonic Adventure 2 made you play as everyone BUT Sonic all the time and it made you rage because who the hell wants to play as Rouge the Bat for like three levels in a row? That’s what this feels like. I’m sure you’re a good guy, Arbiter, but I came to play as Chief.

The game’s infamous cliffhanger ending was also the result of rushing to get the game done on time and the years have not improved the situation any. Saying Halo 2 has an ending is being a mite generous. The game doesn’t really have an ending. It just sort of stops. Thankfully, this collection means you don’t have to endure a three year wait for a resolution, you lucky duck.

To be fair, Halo 2 did have it’s good points. It introduced a bunch of new enemies that really shook up the baddie roster (although the Brutes are still disgustingly overpowered. How much health do they HAVE?! Seriously, you guys, they straight up refuse to die). It’s mission structure (though more linear than the original) has informed every Halo game to come after it and, despite the crazy amount of texture pop-in, it was very pretty.

343 have done a bang-up job once again on the HD remaster – the visuals really pop and everything seems more lived in and tactile than it did in the original version. Once again, you can switch between the old look and the new at the press of us a button to really get a feel for the work that’s gone into this new version. Covenant architecture feels grand and expensive, the ship controlled by the Flood Gravemind is suitably disgusting to look at and Chief’s HUD feels like the futuristic piece of tech it really is rather than Halo: CE’s glorified motorcycle helmet.

Halo 3
Bungie’s last dance with Master Chief before moving onto Halo: ODST without him, Halo 3 always felt like a long-form apology for Halo 2’s shortcomings. Everything about it feels punchier and more cohesive than it’s predecessor – the story picks up exactly where the last game left off, level design is tighter, there’s a welcome return to the combat Holy Trinity format, the Brutes copped a profound, well-deserved nerfing, the field-of-view was changed again and you play as Chief the entire time.

Halo 3 was also the first title in the series to introduce Skulls – hidden artifacts in the single player campaign that could be collected and used as modifiers for later playthroughs. Where another game might make such an item bestow a powerful ability like invulnerability, Skulls made the game demonstrably harder. Switching on Skulls like Mythic, Catch, Tough Luck and Famine could stack the game’s odds against to the point where it was almost impossible – but for series veterans, this was exactly what they wanted.

The game’s story concluded what is now referred to as “The Original Trilogy” and put an end to Chief’s ongoing clashes with the Covenant (as we knew them) and the Flood. Though heavy on the cheese the series had become known for by this point, it provided a poignant and emotional conclusion that felt satisfying. A natural stopping point.

Of the four games included in this collection, Halo 3 is actually the least pretty. As it was only released in the last generation of hardware, it hasn’t undergone the graphical remastering of it’s predecessors. Don’t get me wrong, it looks nice enough humming along at 60fps but the character models are noticeably boxier than in the previous two remasters and the textures are starting to show their age. Despite their linearity, level design is on point and sets up lots of interesting areas that can be used to your advantage during combat. There’s a much better balance of weaponry on offer, too, meaning you’ll be back to swapping out your weapons between skirmishes.

Halo 4
The first main title in the series not be helmed by Bungie, 343 Industries’ Halo 4 is just about the best Bungie cover band you’ve ever heard. It looks like Halo, it feels like Halo, it plays like Halo. It even has a more interesting story than Bungie’s offerings. On top of that, it pushed the poor old Xbox 360 to it’s absolute breaking point visually so wait until you see how nice it looks running at 60fps.

Chief and Cortana are off on a completely new adventure that will see them encountering enemies that we’d only heard about during the original trilogy. The new enemies (called Prometheans) were similar to Covenant but still managed to provide a challenge of their own. They had a completely new set of movements and they were a bit less predictable than the Covies. They also came with a whole set of new weapons and toys to play with that allowed you to further switch up your combat tactics.

Everything about Halo 4 just felt good. The infusion of new blood from the dev team could be felt throughout the entire game. You suddenly realised that the series’ vigour and energy had been slowly dissipating with each successive Bungie-led iteration, but they’d been so good at hiding it that you hadn’t noticed. If you, like many people, were all Halo’d out by the time Halo 4 rolled around, or maybe you were in the “no Bungie, no deal” camp, then you owe it to yourself to give this one a try. It’s the best the series has been in years and shows an awful lot of promise for the series’ direction from here.

Alright, let’s talk about almost everyone’s favourite part of any new Halo game – the multiplayer. Halo: CE burst into the gaming consciousness back in 2001 with the best multiplayer on a console since GoldenEye 007 and it’s one of the first things fans of the series point to when you ask them why they love it so much.

All four games in this collection sport the much-loved series mainstay of couch co-op. Jumping into Halo: CE with a friend and galavanting around as a two-person machine of Covenant demolition is still as much as it was 13 years ago, and co-operative play remains a highlight across all three other the other titles in the series. Indeed, even playing through Halo 2 with a friend makes the whole experience feel a little less muddled. Additionally, even in split screen, the game continues to hum along (for the most part) at around 60fps. There were only a few areas (like wide open warzone areas in “Two Betrayals” for instance) where the frame rate dropped for a moment.

The PVP multiplayer has also received a lot of love with every single multiplayer map ever released for all four games included in the compilation. Maps from Halo: CE and Halo 2 have all received the HD remaster treatment as well which makes them feel new all over again. Basically, rather than going game by game, you just jump straight into the multiplayer menu and the game will drop you into a game mode of your choice on a map from any of the four games in the collection. You’ve also got access to Custom Games as well as series mainstays Forge and Theatre for map customisation and replay recording. I conducted this review on pre-release code and, though the 20gb update file was released so that I could do so, there simply weren’t enough people online to test all of the multiplayer modes for this review. I will be sure to give them a try post-review and update this article then so keep an eye out for that.

On the subject of the 20gb update file, if there’s one area in which I can criticise this anthology as a whole, it’s the install size. My review copy was via download and it clocked in at a massive 45gb. This is before the application of the much-publicised 20gb day one patch that contains a lot of the multiplayer content, in addition to a few bug fixes and final polish. I have the Day One 500gb Xbox One console at home. The total install size for Halo: The Master Chief Collection is 65gb. That means that one game is taking up almost an 8th of my entire hard drive by itself.

Another thing I wanted to point out is the inclusion of skulls. I spoke about them back in the Halo 3 segment, and I bring them up again because they’ve been included in the remasters of Halo: CE and Halo 2. Obviously, in the original versions of these games skulls were not a thing. They didn’t exist. As such, they were not designed with such difficulty modifiers in mind. That is super apparent when you switch them on because you wouldn’t believe how hard Halo: CE is when you turn on Mythic alone. It’s crazy. So for those of you looking for a real challenge, you may have just met your match. By all means, enjoy yourselves.

I’ve come at this review from the perspective who has played all four of these games to death on their original systems. I’m far from the only one in that boat. For anyone who hasn’t ever played Halo before (I know you’re out there), this is a fantastic way to get caught up. It’s four amazing games at a bargain price. The big question though: will the nostalgia factor be enough to tempt series veterans into coming back for more? For those who are still partial to some quality co-op and good old fashioned deathmatch and CTF in this world of Call of Duty’s and Titanfall’s, I suspect the answer will be a resounding yes.

Review Score: 8.0 out of 10 (single player/co-op only)
Highlights: Halo: CE still incredible, co-op is a joy, overwhelming amount of content
Lowlights: Monolithic install size, Halo 2 still a mess
Developer: 343 Industries
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Released: November 11, 2014
Platform: Xbox One

Reviewed on Xbox One


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David Smith

David Smith is the former games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.