For the better part of this new century, a game with "Halo" in the title has been one of the best places to romp around with friends, test your mettle against stiff challenges, and compete for glory on the online stage. Halo: The Master Chief Collection brings four of those games together in one package, and it does so with a crisp, organizational flair that makes it immediately inviting. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Halo 2: Anniversary, Halo 3, and Halo 4 are laid out in such a way that no matter what mode you're angling for, it's easy to find your way to it, tweak the options just so, and set off down memory lane. Where that road may lead you, however, remains uncertain.
If you're undertaking one of the four campaigns, then you're in for a treat. Every mission is available right from the start, so you can head straight to the places you best remember, or start an adventure over from the beginning. It's like traveling through time or unearthing a time capsule, depending on your age, and it can take a little while to get your bearings as you calibrate to the particulars of each game. But once you're well acquainted, the thrills of yesteryear come rushing back. These are campaigns that stand the test of time well and invite replaying, whether it be on a harder difficulty level or just to mess around with vehicle physics on that one level you remember so well.
Outside the contained worlds of each game's campaign, however, The Master Chief Collection does not fare as well. Getting attuned to the many classic and anniversary varieties of competitive multiplayer can be disorienting initially, even if you have strong memories of each one. Once you have your bearings, the thrills of combat against your fellow player start to blossom, but getting that far is nearly impossible in the game's current state. Serious matchmaking issues often prevent you from even getting into a game, let alone the type of game you'd prefer. If you manage to get into a match, a host of other problems await, and upon completing a match, you're as likely to crash to the Xbox One dashboard as you are to be placed in another match. Fixes are on the way, according to developer 343 Industries, but as it stands now, The Master Chief Collection does not successfully deliver on its promises.
But what promises they are! To revisit the Halo 2 battlegrounds that brought so many people to Xbox Live? To relive the sprawling vehicular battles of Halo 3? To finally play classic Halo: Combat Evolved multiplayer online on a console? These are heady prospects for anyone who's been a fan of Halo over the years, though to actually experience them is something short of pure nostalgic glee. Loading into a multiplayer match can demand some abrupt memory recalibrations, as you pick up a bubble shield for the first time in over six years or try to dual wield a weapon and realize you cannot.
And the adjustments run deeper than that. From movement speed to weapon handling and balance, from audio cues to health systems, there are a host of things you need to compensate for when switching from game to game in a multiplayer session. It can be frustrating because one of the powerful draws of competition is the process of learning from your mistakes, adopting new tactics, and then meeting with newfound success. This progression is disrupted when hopping from game to game, but substantially smoother if you stick with one particular game for a while, say, a run of Team Slayer BR in the Halo 2: Anniversary playlist. Once you get that foothold, once you can remove the training wheels that you had to begrudgingly put back on, then you can begin to experience what made these games great.
Halo multiplayer has always had a few throughlines, regardless of the changes that helped evolve the series into what it is today. The balanced interplay of the limited array of weapons meant that you could develop strategies for every match-up and adjust your tactics accordingly. Head-on assault, stealth, misdirection, running for another gun, or hopping in a vehicle were all potential options, and they all coalesced to create dynamic battlefields that felt both immensely variable and fundamentally understandable. This sense of control and order amidst the chaos of online combat was crucial to the success of each of these games in its time, and it holds up firmly even now.
The multiplayer component of a game, however, is more tied to a moment in time than the campaign is due to its dependence on player population. A recently released game generally has more players regularly online representing a broader spectrum of skills, which leads to a more welcoming environment where people feel like they are finding fair matches. Years after a game's release, the population is whittled down significantly, and any newcomer is likely to feel the sting of the sharpened warriors who still remain. Furthermore, as time passes, players tend to gravitate towards a few preferred game modes, meaning that less popular options will end up essentially unplayable. How The Master Chief Collection will fare in this regard remains a big question, one that is all the more impactful given the sheer range of options that are potentially available. What is the fate of Halo 3 Oddball in a world that vastly prefers Team Slayer?
Though 343 Industries is attempting to manage this question by giving players a small, cultivated list of lobby choices, they are currently struggling to simply get players into games at all. Serious matchmaking issues have rendered online multiplayer extremely difficult to play in the three days since launch. At best, I was able to play three or four matches in one hour; at worst, I played zero. The matches I did play were often underpopulated or lopsided, and when they were over, there was little likelihood of being placed in a lobby for a subsequent match. 343 is posting frequently about server-side updates they are making to try to improve the situation, including one update that completely removed the option for Halo 4 matchmaking. How long will it be until you can reliably join a match within five minutes? When will the full roster of playlists be returned? Only time will tell, but until that time arrives, The Master Chief Collection is a huge disappointment for those who want to test their skills in online competition.
If, however, the campaigns are your aim, then you're in luck. The four grand adventures of Master Chief, gathered here with the aforementioned organizational prowess, are still a treat to play through in a variety of ways. Setting off from the start or hopping from mission to mission; trying for a timed speed run or heaping on the skulls to make things tougher; ticking up the difficulty level for a solo or cooperative challenge; all are different ways to romp through these campaigns and each has its own appeal.
Take Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. Released just three years ago, it was the first of Master Chief's jaunts to get the Anniversary treatment. Remastered visuals and audio were crafted to exist alongside the original assets, and you could switch between them with the press of a button. In The Master Chief Collection, seeing the flat-textured landscapes of the halo's surface spring to life with verdant foliage and sparkling rivers is a delight, and the increased color saturation makes your ugly Covenant foes seem all the more sinister. Though the remastered look is a great way to play, it's fun to switch between the two in different environments to see how drastic the difference is. And it's not always the more modern version that looks best, thanks to the alien elegance of the original Forerunner structures.
"Elegant" could be a charitable way to describe the even pace with which this first incarnation of Master Chief runs around these levels, or you could take a harsher view and call it "slow and plodding." Moving at the speed of 2001 can be initially off-putting, but of course, everything else in this world is designed around Chief moving the way he moves, and this internal consistency helps the adjustment process. As you learn to use the three prongs of Master Chief's arsenal--guns, grenades, and melee attacks--all over again, the balance between you and your enemies starts to become clear. Their individual and group tactics are at once formidable and deconstructible, encouraging you to both respect their power and figure out new ways to dismantle them in each new situation. This balance scales nicely as you add skulls, increase the difficulty, or team up with another player.
The foundations of Halo's gameplay were established in Combat Evolved, and Halo 2 elaborated on them with a lengthier campaign and a new playable protagonist. Though the story of when humanity first encountered a halo in CE is more highly regarded than Master Chief and the Arbiter's dual adventure in Halo 2, the sequel's campaign still delivers plenty of exciting moments that make it worth playing. The lesser (or perhaps just more convoluted) narrative benefits greatly from the addition of new cutscenes from Blur Studio, the animation house that contributed some excellent sequences to Halo 4. Blur's work here is a tremendous improvement, bringing new life not just to the characters and storyline, but to the world itself. Though they cover the same scenes and same dialogue (you can switch between to two on the fly to double check), they are crafted with a cinematic flair that the originals lacked. There's also some new content packed in for good measure, through in-game terminals and new cutscenes, that offer clues about the next release in the Halo series, Halo 5: Guardians.
The Anniversary treatment generally does right by Halo 2 as it does by CE, though there are a few caveats to be aware of. Lighting is a huge area of improvement, for the most part, bringing depth and contrast to levels to make them feel more vibrant. Still, there are times when the saturation goes a bit too far: under aerial bombardment from the Covenant, you may find your screen whited out to the point of blindness and deep in the twisting tunnels of a Forerunner structure, you might resort to swapping to the original visuals (again, with the push of a button) or upping the brightness on your TV to get your bearings.
As for the audio side of the remastering, a quick switch reveals just how much fuller and majestic the updated orchestration is. Crossing a suspension bridge in a tank and blasting Covenant vehicles out of the sky is a thrill either way, but it's amped up when you're blasting the robust new remastering of that excellent soundtrack. There are drawbacks, however, some of which will depend on your taste in weapon audio. The galloping clatter of the submachine gun has been replaced with a brasher, more metallic sound that I found more bland than the original, and while the original sniper rifle sounded like every shot rang out from a mountain top, the new one is a more perfunctory blast. Sounds like these made me wish for the option to pick and choose between remastered and original, but no such option exists.
Halo 3 is pointedly not an Anniversary edition, though both it and Halo 4 (and the two Anniversary editions) have been updated to run at 1080p resolution and 60 frames per second. You'll miss Blur's H2A handiwork when you watch Halo 3's cutscenes, but when it comes to playing the game, you're in for a treat. Halo 3's campaign really feels like the one in which Bungie nailed what it meant to be Halo. The through lines are still there from the beginning, including the balance of weapons, the enemy tactics, and the frequency and flexibility of vehicular combat. In Halo 3, the campaign flows deftly between diverse environments, giving you an array of ways to tackle a given situation.
The key here is replayability; this array of options isn't really necessary, or even fully exploitable, on one playthrough. Playing by yourself, with a friend, with some weird modifiers, or on a tougher difficulty level all provide different scenarios you have to figure out and all bring different options to the fore. A stiff challenge might make you experiment with creative new solutions, or a lighter one might urge you to try daring stunts where solid tactics would work just fine. In cultivating this flexibility, Halo 3 delights in your successes, punishes your failures, motivates you to be better, and inspires you to be creative, which are some of the best things a video game can do.
Halo 3 brought the first Halo trilogy to a close, and never is this more apparent than when playing Halo 4. The 2012 release signals a new start in a number of ways: Master Chief can now sprint for the first time and use the mobility-enhancing armor abilities introduced in Halo: Reach. For a man used to going one speed, it feels significantly different and more modern, a distinction that also becomes clear in multiplayer matches. Halo 4 introduces new enemies that challenge Master Chief with their maddening ability to shield each other, and also introduces new allies, who challenge Master Chief by not treating him like the unimpeachable hero warrior of the past. Seeing commanders talk brusquely and disrespectfully to the Chief is as much a signal of the new era as anything, and it's delivered with the best characterization, dialogue, and cinematography that the series has seen to date.
Though the action is peppier thanks to the new locomotion options, the core tenets of combat design that sustained the Halo series for so long are still in full effect. The new complement of weapons, abilities, and enemies carry the torch of diversity and flexibility proudly through the transition; Halo 4 was the first Halo developed entirely by 343 Industries and not Halo's creators, Bungie. It's also the best-looking game in the Collection, and though you can see its age relative to more recent releases, it's still a vivid, attractive game.
And it's a testament to the quality of Halo games throughout the years that Halo: The Master Chief Collection is an attractive package, despite the massive problems with online multiplayer. It's not a game that demands to be played, not in the way that a new game or a new entry in a beloved series might. Instead, it's a game that makes a strong case to be owned, to be put on your digital shelf for when you've got an old friend coming by, or are hankering to revisit familiar battlegrounds. And even if you don't have much experience with all the games contained herein, the way that they're all arranged in an immensely accessible way makes it easy to fire it up, play a few rounds or take on a few levels, and then put it down until the next time the mood strikes you. The Master Chief Collection is inviting, illuminating as it does the enduring appeal of the Halo series: to create worlds that are epic showpieces and elaborate playgrounds, places to triumph and places to play.