Get Set To Come Out Swinging At 60 FPS
Halo: The Master Chief Collection is magnificent. Unprecedented. Masterful, even. It's thirteen years of console FPS history in a single package: Halo 1-4 tweaked and remastered with all of the local co-op, optional skulls, new skill and time challenges, levels, stages, secrets, live-action series and a massive multiplayer suite spanning 100+ maps, brought together into one cohesive experience. Halo 2 pushes the boat out even further with an Anniversary Edition boasting all-new textures, tweaks and gorgeous cutscenes. When it comes to HD Collections and re-releases, we may be looking at nothing less than the new platinum benchmark.
Unfortunately, it's also not all there, and I mean that very literally. The multiplayer suite and numerous performance tweaks aren't included on the disc, rather they have to be downloaded via a massive 15GB patch... which was only released 24 hours ago.
Giving the Master Chief Collection a score at this stage would be hilariously unethical, then, and I'd raise an eyebrow at any site willing to do so. However, having blasted through the all-important singleplayer campaigns, I absolutely can split the review in two to take an in-depth look at the remastered singleplayer and cooperative experience. You'll have to wait until next week for the multiplayer and our final verdict.
Halo: The Master Chief Collection boots into a single straightforward menu from which you can access all of the campaigns, modes, extras and options with a few quick flicks. Every campaign is ordered chronologically, with every level available to play from the off, either immediately via Quickplay or with custom skulls, speedrun and scoring modes enabled. The choice is yours.
On a personal note, it's also clear that 343 Industries have paid attention to convenience and quality of life. Controller layouts, audio options, thumbstick inversion and other settings can be each chosen on a game-specific or global basis, allowing you to tweak your preferences to your own personal specifications. You'll also be able to get load up the splash screen and stuck into the campaigns a third of the way through the installation procedure, though on my console, Halo 4 was installed first, followed by Halo 1-3 respectively. You'll naturally have to wait until the content you want is installed.
And, of course, there's well over 4000 GamerScore to snag, including all of the original achievements for Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition, Halo 3 and Halo 4, alongside new secrets, score challenges and progression rewards for Halo 2 and overarching rewards for killing certain numbers of specific enemy types.
Halo: Combat Evolved | Still The Daddy
Halo: Combat Evolved is one of the most important console shooters ever made, and by extension, one of the most important videogames of all time. Whereas Goldeneye 007 proved that the FPS genre could work on consoles, Bungie's 2001 effort proved that consoles could deliver graphical clout and gameplay features to take on all comers.
Thirteen years on, and I'm delighted to report that it's still The Daddy.
Combat Evolved cemented the compelling moment-to-moment gameplay that underpins the entire series. The two-weapon limit encourages players to constantly experiment with new tactics and improvise on-the-fly as ammunition ran out, while Spartan-117's regenerating shield allows us to take risks and think creatively under fire. Relatively smart enemy AI, at the time, reacts to you in different ways depending on the situation and the specific Covenant race (Grunts lead the charge, but panic and run if you break their lines, while Elites hang back and push the advantage when appropriate), ensuring that every attempt and even checkpoint reset is a totally unique experience. Finally, the smorgasbord of varied situational weapons, allied marines and vehicles provide plenty of toys to experiment with.
Toys that would have been useless had Combat Evolved not been a sensational sandbox. After the opening level sees Master Chief flee the doomed Pillar Of Autumn in a tight corridor crawl, teaching players the ropes, the levels were structured into tense linear sections punctuated with wide open arenas with numerous combat options to employ. You can pick your own routes to rescue scattered marines in the second stage, Halo, ragging around a Warthog or sniping from vantage points. Truth And Reconcilliation starts with a stealthy sniper incursion followed by a claustrophobic offensive on an alien starship.
Assault On The Control Room throws you from tightly-paced bridges and corridors into open plains bristling with tanks, enemy infantry and even a hovering Banshee aircraft if you're fast enough, followed by a terrifying Alien-inspired horror jaunt. Later levels introduced enormous three-way battles as massed Covenant troops faced off against marauding Flood forces, with you able to use any number of strategies and improvised skin-of-your-teeth manouevres to break their lines and reach your objective.
The finest moment, of course, is The Silent Cartographer, which starts with a beach landing before opening up into an entire island and subterranean facility to genuinely explore and conquer at your own pace. Though the campaign does hit some low points, notably revisiting two earlier stages in Two Betrayals (which is nevertheless an excellent level) and Keyes, alongside an overlong and tedious shooting gallery in The Library, the rock-solid gameplay still absolutely holds up.
So what of the visuals? Combat Evolved is effectively a gussied-up port of the 2011 Anniversary Edition, running on the original engine, but with a total rebuild of textures, lighting, models, assets and geometry. It won't cause any new-gen thoroughbred to lose sleep in raw graphical terms, but it is visually engaging and occasionally even arresting, due largely to a rich colour palette , gratuitous bullet sparks and gore effects.
In a neat twist, hitting the select button allows you to instantly swap between the original and rebuilt graphics, which reminds us how advanced the first game actually was. Bio-luminescent blood? Insane assault rifle sparks? Ambient occlusion? Not too shabby for 2001. On the audio front, Marty O'Donnell's soundtrack is genuinely magnificent in either version.
Beyond the jarringly cartoonish human faces and models, my only gripe is that, pre-patch, frame rate can sharply suffer during cutscenes, especially during The Silent Cartographer's iconic beach landing. We're not a specialist tech website, but I'd posit that this is largely because Halo is running on its emulated original engine, two consoles removed.
Halo 2 | Double-Edged Cutscenes
I have a very complex relationship with Halo 2. As discussed in a detailed retrospective yesterday, I love Bungie's troubled sequel, but can't deny that the campaign is mediocre if not genuinely bad in parts.
There's solid gold to be found here. Kicking off with a Covenant assault on planet Earth, Master Chief defends a massive orbital facility from a desperate assault, then engages in well-paced urban warfare, tank shenanigans, Warthog jeep runs and finally leaps onto a colossal war machine to slaughter its crew. Later the Chief pursues a Covenant prophet into the depths of space and a new Halo Installation, rampaging across its surface, under water, across floating bridges and finally smashing through an entire honour guard to assassinate the deluded politician. A third of the game is well-paced and rank amongst the best levels in franchise, bolstered by new (at the time) mechanics such as regenerating health, dual-wielding and vehicle hijacking.
Sadly, the rest of Halo 2 didn't quite work and largely still doesn't. Half of the game is played from the perspective of the Covenant fleet leader who pursued The Pillar Of Autumn in Combat Evolved, as he uncovers the conspiracy and lies at the heart of the alien hegemony, but his missions are largely dull, confusingly-designed and hyper-linear even by series standards. New Brute enemies eventually replace Elites as go-to foes, visually ugly and tedious bullet sponges. Halo 2 ranks as the most railroaded campaign in the series, still fun with friends and eminently enjoyable in parts, but easily the weakest link in the package all-told. A hopeless final boss and woeful cliffhanger ending top things off.
Thankfully it's very pleasant to look at. The Halo 2 Anniversary Edition is certainly a marathon (no pun intended, hardcore Bungie fans!) undertaking, with every texture and model improved on top of plenty of retooled geometry, lighting and shadows. Graphically speaking, it's a staggering improvement, but oddly a few scenes are less visually interesting than the original Xbox title, such as the newly humdrum and dull 'Arbiter' level that lacks the dark brooding greens of the original skybox. Once again, though, the choice is yours since both versions can be hopped between at will.
Unfortunately this hard work is largely undermined by some utterly jaw-dropping new cutscenes. Yes: undermined. 343 Industries have created some truly beautiful new CGI that introduces new character Agent Locke to the Halo universe and frames the narrative as a flashback, while also replacing the mid-mission story cutscenes. The eye candy is impressive, but in a nasty double-edged drawback that 343 should have foreseen, they also make the Anniversary Edition graphics look appalling in comparison.
Being dumped from a sumptuous cutscene into real gameplay is jarring, disappointing and uncomfortable, to the point where I genuinely hit the back button as soon as I started the game because I thought it was the original non-remastered version.
Personally, though, I still enjoyed Halo 2's superb early Master Chief stages (and the rest of it as a nostalgic romp!), thanks in part to the sensational re-recorded soundtrack that's been lifted out of the mix and shoved into the forefront where it belongs. Removing Incubus' high-intensity electric reel Follow in favour of generic metal is inexplicable and annoying, but otherwise the emphatically gutsy new horn section and heavier emphasis on vocals makes for some pulse-pounding soul-stirring arrangements. The new hidden terminal videos are also well-made and contain some extra perspective on the game's events, launching on Halo Channel app as opposed to in-game.
Still, let's face it, Halo 2 was all about the multiplayer. We'll get to that in Part 2!
Halo 3 | Taking Care Of Business
Combat Evolved may boast the most iconic levels and treasured memories, but Halo 3 is the finest game in the franchise all-told. The storyline brings Master Chief's first trilogy to a satisfying and occasionally heartfelt close, while the gameplay and visuals take care of business.
The entire game, with the exception of one genuinely disgusting crawl through Flood-infested flesh sewers that ranks as the worst stage in the entire franchise (Cortana, for those keeping score at home), was superbly polished from a mechanical and design standpoint. Practically every level and individual engagement was a combat sandbox in and of itself, packed with multiple routes, elevations, weapons, vehicles, gadgets to combine into exciting new strategies.
Highlights included enormous Scarab assault platforms that could be taken down with sustained firepower or boarded on foot, or with aid of vehicles, then crippled or destroyed in any number of ways. The Brute problem was also solved with satisfying destructible armour, unique weapons and 'Pack AI' that causes an entire squad to behave as a single bestial unit.
Its scale arguably hasn't been topped, providing the most jaw-dropping set piece battles in the series bar none. Some of Halo 3's massive organic set pieces are more impressive than other games' CGI cutscenes.
Visually Halo 3 was no slouch either. Despite not being the most graphically impressive game of the time, especially in terms of polygon count, it showcased Bungie's knack for crafting deeply pretty games using a sumptuous colour palette, verdant landscapes, cohesive art design, eyepopping skyboxes and an eye for tiny detail. Luxurious as a big picture, crisp when you got your eye in, and punctuated by the hot neon hues of enemy plasma bolts, it was drop-dead gorgeous.
And it still is. Seven years later, Halo 3 holds up so well that 343 Industries only needed to port it over, secure full 1080p resolution (probably with some extra AA) and 60 FPS performance, then call it a day. The result is a game that still looks fantastic, but runs sharper and more smoothly than ever before, reinvigorating both the gameplay and graphics.
It's nothing less than the highlight of the package, even though 343 Industries left it almost entirely untouched. Well, you wouldn't draw a moustache on the Mona Lisa, would you?
Halo 4 | The 60FPS Effect!
We have a review for Halo 4. This one is getting incredibly lengthy (sorry, but love talking Halo), and more to the point Halo 4 was already a deeply pretty game as the Xbox 360's graphical swan song. The campaign therefore only needed a few little tweaks in order to get bring it up to standard, with a reasonably stable 60FPS frame rate that occasionally snags during load zones and full 1080p resolution.
As we recently discussed in a top ten piece, Halo 4's campaign has the odd distinction of being solid, well-made, enjoyable yet somewhat unmemorable. Everything flows brilliantly, the new Promethian enemies put up a stiff fight and unique new challenges, the sound design is exceptional and Davidge's soundtrack is excellent despite sadly lacking a true theme. The problem, though, is that the campaign favours Halo 2's narrower focus, rarely opening out into truly organic sandboxes despite offering a smoothly satisfying experience throughout.
Interestingly, Halo 4 also features both the best and worst Quick Time Events ever perpetrated by a videogame. One, near the beginning, uses intuitive camera movements instead of button prompts, allowing you to react so subconsciously that it's hard to tell whether the event is interactive or just a cutscene (hint: it is indeed interactive!). Sadly, the game ends on... well, let's keep spoilers to a minimum just in case.
What's more important, however, is that Halo 4 was the first game to install... and therefore the first Halo game I've ever played at 60FPS. As someone who's enjoyed an irresponsible amount of Halo over the years (hundreds of hours at a conservative estimate) I can honestly tell you that the difference is astonishing.
Newcomers will notice nothing amiss, but Halo veterans will be knocked for six, especially if you played some of the original games beforehand in preparation. It genuinely looks like the game is running in fast-forward, as if enemies are moving at supernatural speeds and reacting twice as fast as they used to. They're not, of course, but the doubling in frame rate plays some serious visual tricks. It's the difference between watching The Hobbit at standard speeds, then at 48FPS.
You'll need some time to get used to it, and when you do, it becomes second nature. Ubisoft have sadly been caught with their pants down, because 60FPS feels smoother, more natural, slicker and sharper than before. Though, of course, the colourful alien aesthetic helps.
The Verdict So Far
"We're approaching the LZ. It's going to be hot. Get set to come out swinging.
Touch down, hit it Marines!"
Halo: The Master Chief Collection is already a nigh-essential purchase for Halo fans, genre aficionados or even just curious students of videogame history who want to experience the evolution of a series first-hand. It's a remarkable collection both in terms of quantity and the quality of its material, that crucially allows you to get involved without cracking any rose-tinted spectacles due to the major new graphical and performance boosts. Halo's organic combat sandbox gameplay, enemy AI, artistic flair and iconic set pieces all hold up in sensational style.
Is it perfect? No. The frame rate isn't always stable, and the jury's out on whether the quality of each title could have been improved if they released as standalone downloads with more development time apiece. I also can't help but wonder what Halo 3 might have looked like given the full anniversary treatment. I suppose we'll find out in 2017.
But more importantly than that, The Master Chief Collection is just damn good fun - whether alone, online or getting involved as it was intended. Local co-op. On Legendary. Iron optional. Friendships will be forged and broken, but for now, know that this is a seriously impressive collection whether you're a returning Spartan or curious newcomer.
As far as the competitive multiplayer and Halo: Nightfall is concerned, though, you'll have to wait for next week and our final verdict.