Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Hail to the Chief - Games Weekly

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Saturday, December 6, 2014

Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Hail to the Chief

Halo: The Master Chief Collection is an overwhelming, if not entirely intimidating, package. In many ways, it’sa rite of passage for every Xbox gamer. It’s an historical collection that not only succeeds in expertly highlighting the evolution of the Halo franchise, but and perhaps more importantly in mapping a time line of modern first person shooter design, without ever feeling like your eyes are being eviscerated by retro-grade graphics.

The last 12 months have been inundated with HD remasters, and it's easy to dismiss them as stopgaps in a publisher’s otherwise empty release schedule. But it takes just one look at The Master Chief Collection’s content, presentation and execution to understand that there’s a right way and a wrong way to push old games onto new systems. 343 Industries gets it absolutely right as it pulls Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3 and Halo 4 not to mention over 100 multiplayer maps from across the series onto Xbox One and gives each game the 1080p/60fps polish that so many other developers are struggling to achieve and maintain.

You're no doubt aware that each of the games presented in this collection are some of the most critically and commercially successful first person shooters of all time. But nostalgia can be a bit of a bitch, and so there’s every chance that 11 years of improvements, refinements and shifts in Bungie’s design philosophy have been lost to you. Rediscovering this has been a personal highlight for this particular critic.

Blasting through each campaign reveals the majesty of the series. Halo: CE revelled in combat sandboxes that sought to highlight and establish Halo’s unmistakable trinity of gunplay, grenades and movement. Halo 2 introduced many console gamers to the majesty of dual wielding and, more importantly, to the potential of online multiplayer via Xbox Live. Halo 3 held greater story ambitions, as well as introducing its innovative Forge map editing and Theatre replay modes into play, while Halo 4 sought to push player abilities, more sophisticated gunplay and expansive levels into the franchise.

It’s remarkable how incredibly each campaign holds up so many years on. Even with nostalgia clouding our memory, we feel pretty confident in saying that Halo never felt like it struggled at 30 fps. It never felt restricted by the number, and it has certainly never controlled sluggishly because of it. But the leap towards a steady 60 has unreservedly benefited each game. The controls are more responsive, the action is smoother, and the gunplay feels faster and more immediate than ever before. It isn’ta fundamental change if you were never enamoured with Halo’s purposeful movement and slow turning circles, this won’t change your mind but for fans, it’s made four great games even better.
“The Anniversary treatment has made Halo 2 feel fresh and exciting all over again”
Halo CE: Anniversary (released on Xbox 360 back in 2011,Halo 3 and Halo 4 have all been given slight visual tweaks to ensure they run on Xbox One to the best of their ability. Halo 3, in particular, has largely benefited from lighting improvements and a bump in resolution, though the real star of the package is Halo 2. It’s been given a lavish overhaul in celebration of its 10th anniversary, and in many ways, it's better than ever before.

The Anniversary treatment has made Halo 2 feel fresh and exciting all over again. Ten years ago, Bungie despite the game’s narrative flaws created something of an FPS masterpiece. 343i might have given ita new coat of paint, but the game is stilla delight to play today because the underlying experience is still so freaking solid. The core game has been untouched by 343i: that means the original graphics, sound and encounters are still intact, albeit with a higher frame-rate and completely redone visual presentation. It’s not the best looking game on the Xbox One not by a long shot but the new character models, lighting, re-recorded sound effects and musical score do wonders to  make it playable two generations on.
“The Master Chief Collection is a unique opportunity to explore the development of the Xbox’s most important IP”
As with Halo: CE Anniversary, the ability to transition between the original visuals and sound effects returns, though it is now an instant transition instead of the irritating fade-to-black switch from before. Admittedly, we spent a fair amount of time going between the two and would often find ourselves sat in 2004’s graphics without realising it. The outdoor environments look poor in comparison to lavish indoor structures, while we are still convinced the original Martin O’Donnell score and lo-fi sound effects help drag you unequivocally into Halo’s world and Master Chief’s intergalactic struggle than 343i’s re-recorded efforts.

Still,  Halo 2: Anniversary presents something of an interesting quandary. While it’s undoubtedly the most fun and enjoyable game in the franchise, it’s still marred by a disappointing structure and narrative. Those legacy Halo fans with us will no doubt recall the infuriating cliffhanger from Halo 2 the first time out and experiencing that all over again was akin to a friend inadvertently dredging up uncomfortable memories from your past before making a sharpish move for the door. The blow is softened somewhat by not having to wait three years to finish the fight you can jump into Halo 3 within seconds now, of course not to mention the sensational new cutscenes from Blur Studios, which go a long way to making  Halo 2 feel more epic and cinematic than ever before.

When it comes to Halo it's easy to ignore its over ambitious narratives, because the core of the game it's tight gunplay, it's 30 seconds of fun mantra still holds up to this day. It’s even easier to explore and enjoy the content thanks to the unified and ambitious menu system. Jesus, look at us gushing over a goddamn  menu system, but it means for the first time you can effortless hop between Halo’s greatest encounters. The Master Chief Collection even presents playlists build around specific themes, levels and encounters. It’s a wonderful way to experience the evolution of Halo and now here is this more apparent than in the collection’s ridiculous collection of multiplayer maps, modes and matchmaking set-ups.

With every multiplayer map from across the series included, it’s the ultimate trip down a bloodstained memory lane. Just like the campaign,  Halo 2’s multiplayer still feels fantastic in 60fps. The maps, in particular, are still some of the best to grace Xbox Live they are a testament to how unchallenged Bungie was in multiplayer design back in 2004. What will be interesting over the coming weeks is to see where fans divert their attention with so much choice.

Halo: CE introduces maps into play that many gamers would never have played, but it’s impossible to overlook how unbalanced the guns were back then.  Halo 3 still feels as fun and chaotic to play as it did in 2007, while  Halo 4 still feels like a misstep for the franchise as it introduced loadouts and sprinting into the otherwise balanced Halo multiplayer experience.

The Anniversary maps are also something of a letdown six classic  Halo 2 maps rebuilt in a brand new Halo engine designed for Xbox One as they don’t feel as balanced or solid as the originals. Movement feels restricted, the weapon balance not nearly as tight. We’d say it was down to our rose-tinted glasses, but with the six original maps but a button press away, it’s easy to make the comparison and even easier to see them as lacklustre.

Still, Halo: The Master Chief Collection is a must own package for any FPS fan. For the seasoned  Halo fan it’s a great trip down memory lane, and for the new blood it’s a great primer before Halo 5: Guardians lands in 2015. Hail to the Chief, he’s still the king when it comes to FPS action on Xbox. Halo: The Master Chief Collection gave us the chance to finish the fight all over again, and we couldn't be happier. 

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