Some say that people shouldn't live in the past, but Halo: The Master Chief Collection reminds me that sometimes it's good to go back and re-establish my roots. I can't tell you how many nights in high school and college were spent battling the Covenant in the main Halo trilogy, then Halo 4 arrived and set Master Chief and I on a whole new adventure. Just to be sure no one forgets how those old games played out, 343 Industries wrapped everything from all four of these games into one neat little package called Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and what was intended as a nostalgia trip has also become a blueprint for how remastering games ought to be done.
By combining the four games into one package, I am given full freedom on how to explore each of them right from the jump. I can play through an entire game's campaign, I can play certain missions from whichever game I choose, I can hop into the multiplayer mode and decide which game's multiplayer I want to play, etc. The Halo is truly my oyster in the Master Chief Collection, and one of the hardest decisions I had to make was where to get started with all this. One of the best things about the combination is the ability to set a preferred control scheme out of numerous choices, then instantly apply it to all four games with one touch of a button. Halo aficionados can keep to the normal Halo style, while modern FPS buffs wanting to know what all the Halo fuss is about can switch to "zoom and shoot" and control Master Chief as if he were in Call of Duty. This easy access can bring in any type of player across the gaming spectrum, breaking down barriers other shooters struggle to surpass.
While each game has made the jump to the Xbox One admirably, the real attraction here is Halo 2 Anniversary, the completely remodeled way to play the ten-year-old classic. I don't know how the wizards at 343 achieved this, but playing Halo 2 feels simultaneously brand new and familiar all the same. The campaign hasn't changed, the guns are all the same, but this Halo 2 looks like it belongs on the shelf by itself.
Case in point: the View button (has two boxes on it, used to be called "Select") can instantly change the game between the revamped and original visuals, showing just how much detail was put into making this game look current. Doing so during one of the revamped cutscenes is particularly jarring, as a scene can instantly transform from looking worthy of a movie theater to looking ancient. That one button alone shows off all of the hard word put into this particular remastering, and the results are truly impressive.
However, this magical revamp of Halo 2 leaves Halo 3 as the only non-343 Industries game in the bunch, and it's the one game of the four that shows its age the most. Technically it's now the oldest of the trilogy (Halo 1 Anniversary in 2011, Halo 2 Anniversary in 2014, Halo 3 in 2007, Halo 4 in 2012) and while the other three run super efficiently in this engine, Halo 3 seems sluggish. Those who love Halo 3 will not be disappointed, as the port is merely a fresh coat of paint on the same critically-acclaimed game, but unfortunately it's the least impressive revitalization of the four titles.
As wonderful as it is having all of the Halo campaigns under one name, having all of the multiplayer formats together is even more exciting. Each game's multiplayer maps have been given the same attention and care as the campaigns, but once again Halo 2's Anniversary maps take center stage. 343 completely redesigned some of Halo 2's best maps, giving them new names and new ways to play, and these are easily the best maps in the entire game. My personal favorite from Halo 2, Coagulation, returns sporting a new middle base and some extra vehicles, making battles in the bloody gulch that much better.
The few custom online matches I played ran smoothly, with zero connection issues or glitches whatsoever. The new maps glistened in their updated paint jobs, the action was the same frenetic Halo combat I played ten years ago, and surprisingly the same strategies I used in Halo 2 worked just as well in Anniversary. I'm not sure that Halo 2 Anniversary will be the Xbox Live-hogging juggernaut it was in the past, but I can see a lot of people losing a lot of hours to the madness.
Normal online matchmaking, however, left a different taste in my mouth. I enjoyed how the game lets me choose between each Halo's multiplayer format before finding a match, while also offering other modes that combine all of the multiplayer maps into more general formats like Team Slayer and Free-for-all. Of course, playing these modes depends on whether or not I could actually connect to a match, which leads me to my biggest issue with this collection: no matter which format I chose, there was nothing available to play. While I understand that pre-release matchmaking is not the same as normal matchmaking, I was originally only given access to two matchmaking formats in an attempt by 343 to corral all of the pre-release players into getting frequent matches. Even then, I waited for an entire half-hour without getting a single ping. I worry that Halo: MCC will suffer some server issues during launch causing some multiplayer snafus (because what game doesn't these days?), but when it's up and working the multiplayer experience shines just as it has in the past.
Getting back in touch with my old pal Master Chief has proven to be a fruitful experience, and Halo: The Master Chief Collection has brought back some amazing memories. Connecting to an online match caused some stress, but besides that, every one of these four games emerges from the remastering better than before, even the supremely dated Halo 3. While Halo 2's ten-year reunion is the star attraction, to the point where calling the game "Halo 2 Anniversary and Friends" would make a lot of sense, all four of these games have a lot of offer to both the seasoned Halo fan and the newest Spartan soldiers. If nothing else, getting a chance to go back to my high school days for a while was a welcome change.
This review was completed with a digital copy of Halo: The Master Chief Collection provided by the publisher. We also tested multiplayer in private play sessions with the developer.