A collection of four Halo games should have been a cause for much rejoicing for Xbox fans. However, somewhere down the development road the team behind the game collection forgot what made Halo successful the first time around: Multiplayer. Without a working multiplayer at launch (or indeed for a week afterwards) this game feels half-complete.
+Halo 2's visual upgrade is nothing short of stunning.
+Having the ability to go through all 4 main Halo games again is awesome.
+The menu navigation and selection is slick and easy to use.
-The game was released before it was completed.
-Multiplayer is still having issues getting started a week later.
-Playlists should be customizable, instead of just preset.
While we might not hit every single game for review, I'm sure some of you have been wondering where the Halo: Master Chief Collection review has been. It's understandable, especially considering the fact that we've live streamed several hours of the game on our Twitch stream. So here's the down low: We received a review copy of the game about 2 weeks before it came out, however there were issues with the multiplayer/co-op that were going to be addressed in a patch. Outlets were provided the option of reviewing the single-player portion of the game when the embargo lifted (the Friday before the game launch) or waiting to review the entire package when the multiplayer patch dropped (was originally going to be on launch day).
So here we are, over a week from the official launch, when I had more than 2 weeks lead up to the title to play it so we could get out a timely review... I made the call to review the game as a complete package though, and waited. And waited. And now here we are, the game has been out for a week and still no review for the site, so let me say that's my bad.
However, I am going to still review the game as a complete package, because that's what it's being sold as; so if you're a fanboy, or just someone who thinks selling half a game because it'll be patched down the road is an okay practice... this review is probably not for you.
The Single Player Campaigns
I admit that I'm not the world's largest Halo fan, but I can still say that I've played them all (from RTS to top-down action shooter). I never got fully invested in the lore. I know some will argue the depth of the story and the universe that Bungie created and 343 resumed, but for me personally I just couldn't get into it.
What I did get into was the hype, the straight forward action-adventure gameplay, and co-op and multiplayer (to be addressed separately, I'm going to try and stay on topic here). I've cleared every one of the Halo games except for 4 because I was a little sad to see Bungie go at the time. So I came into the Master Chief collection with an ability to see it from both the perspective of a returning fan and someone seeing (at least a piece of it) new for the first time.
343 Studios and Microsoft have done a simply outstanding job of bringing these games together in one beautiful package. For a returning fan it was a trip down memory lane seeing all those old familiar landscapes. I spent a lot of time just testing myself to see how much of it I remembered (skull locations, boss strategies, trying to speed-run segments a little to see if my memory of the mission held). You see, when I was into Halo (as a game, again, not so much the lore) I was WAY into Halo.
I played the campaigns several times through to get every single achievement, clear all the skulls, complete the game on its highest difficulty, etc. etc.
It was just one of those game series that I felt dedication to clearing 100%. I squeezed every last bit out of those games' single-player story that I could (because, to be completely honest, I ain't the world's sharpest shooter online and those achievements were a grind and saved for last).
Because we're looking at four complete and separate (though joined through story) games, I'm going to have to break this down piece by piece (even further than the already divided multiplayer/single player sections):
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary
This is pretty much a straight-up port of the re-release of Halo: Combat Evolved that came out for the Xbox 360 in 2011. If you already own/played that version, there's not going to be many surprises.
For those of you that didn't play the Anniversary edition on the Xbox 360, you'll be treated to some improved graphics from the original Xbox version of the game (which you can switch to and from at any time to compare/contrast with the original game graphics).
Anniversary includes some new tweaks like a friends-list centric scoring system, so while you're playing through the campaign (regardless of difficulty) you can be striving to beat your friends' scores as well.
On the Xbox One, Halo: CE runs at a steady 60 frames per second... which feels a little bit weird at first, then in the long-run, amazing. This is easily the best improvement from the original game, as it makes everything feel lightning-quick and buttery smooth.
Going back through the original Halo was a treat. Yeah, I had already done it again back in 2011 but there's something to be said for re-replaying a game that you have such a fond attachment and warm memories for. Halo defined the original Xbox and I'm kind of okay with reminding myself a few times over why that was (especially if it means picking up a few new achievements along the way).
This is the bulk of the package. 343 and Microsoft spared no expense at bringing this classic game (arguably the best in the franchise) into the next generation of gaming.
Unlike the Anniversary edition of CE before it, Halo 2's redux completely redoes all of the game's cinematics in a next-gen engine instead of just slapping on new texture maps and calling it a day.
Here again we're treated to a game that runs a smooth, steady 60fps and by now you've gotten used to it. Going back at any point would have been a detriment to the game... so let's just say for all games moving forwards this is probably the single greatest thing that The Master Chief Collection does for the package as a whole.
Similar to Halo: CE when it got a face-lift, you have the ability to, at any point, switch between the updated graphics pack and the original textures from the original game. In fact, in some places it can be used as a bit of a cheat.
The updated textures and dynamic lighting in some of the 'indoors' or cave missions meant that everything is a bit darker. On several occasions I cheated back to the game's original graphics just to see a brighter hall way and to get a better idea of what was coming at me.
But let me get back to the cinematic changes, because they are what really blew me away.
The game has completely reworked cinematic sequences that I feel like I undercut by simply stating that they've been brought into the current gen world of the Xbox One. These things have been reworked from SCRATCH. They offer not only far superior graphics (to even Halo 3 or Halo 4) but they are fully realized shots in a 3D landscape that just wasn't available when the original game came out.
Everything in Halo 2 feels like a blockbuster movie now: there's interesting camera angles, use of light, kinetic motion of the camera, and real expression in all of the characters faces when they're going through the story of the game. I was flat-out floored by how good these sequences looked, and I cannot say enough good things about them. If you want to be levelled by the difference between a game and its remake try switching between the two during cut scenes (because again, that's an option for you at any time) and you'll get a taste of the EXTENSIVE work these guys have put into bringing Halo 2 into the current generation.
I should also mention that the gameplay itself looks gorgeous as well.
Aside from the sexy 60fps that I previously mentioned, the game has gotten a graphical face-lift, just like CE Anniversary before it. The difference being that when the team went in to 'touch up' the game with the power of the Xbox One, they could go well beyond the leap between the Xbox and the Xbox 360 and make a game that looks better than the pair of its successors. Seriously, I cannot overstate how much better Halo 2 looks in this package... it's night and day (to use a tired old cliché that's never been more apt) and is the clear show-piece of this package.
Play this. Compare it to the original. Hell, compare it to Halo 3 and 4. It is a stand-out accomplishment and it evoked simultaneous nostalgia overload and future hype in this reviewer.
Alright, the last game in this collection that I can wax nostalgic about before we get into the most recent chapter in the Halo universe and something I had zero previous knowledge of before entering.
I mentioned, while talking about Halo 2, that it could be argued as the greatest chapter in the series history. I wouldn't be the guy to argue that point. For my money, Halo 3 was the pinnacle. I spent more time rerunning this game than I care to admit, and it pays off in the fact that I can act as tour-guide as I go back through the game with friends now on the Xbox One.
I want to talk about the fond memories I have of the multiplayer, the dedication I poured into this particular chapter of the game unlocking the armours and getting up that KDR... but I promised myself I'd stay on point here and only talk about the single player.
Halo 3 doesn't look much different on the surface. It was a good looking game on the Xbox 360 and it's a good looking game again on the Xbox One. It doesn't shatter the barriers or break walls when it comes to its tweaks, but there have been some subtle additions. Like the other chapters in the Master Chief Collection, small things have been modified (like terminal locations) to make this something a bit new for everyone.
Graphically as well, there have been some small changes, primarily to the game's lighting which just makes everything pop just a little bit more.
The Master Chief collection has been a fantastic excuse to relive my memories of these three games and see how much I could remember. It was a beautiful experience to figuratively walk down memory lane hand-in-hand with the Chief and reminisce about all the good times that we had back when. Not to mention that this game in particular will always hold weight as my personal favourite... but from here we have to move on to uncharted territory, so as I conclude by saying "fuck yeah Halo 3", we'll move on to the new and scary world of Halo 4.
I skipped this game when it came out, straight up. I fully admit that by this point in the franchise I had reached exhaustion and had no more interest in continuing, especially because I was a bit of a Bungie fanboy and I refused to believe that anyone could handle the series after they left it.
Waiting for a "But"? Looking for me to admit that I was wrong and that Halo 4 is as good, if not better, than the three previous games that spun Bungie into all-star status in the gaming industry and positioned them with the ability to make whatever fever dream they had next?
Let me remind you that reviews (at least on this site) are personal opinion. I'm absolutely sure that there are plenty of people out there that have warm memories of this game, and I fully agree that it should be a part of the collection as it continues the story and leads up to the release of the franchise's fifth (subtitled) instalment.
Halo 4 is beautiful. It tells a decent enough story, and it gets Chief back in the game... But to me it's nowhere near as good as the previous chapters.
It doesn't feel the same; everything feels a little bit different, a little bit off. It's like the game was originally die-cast and now suddenly its make from some kind of plastic. It feels like it was handed off, that someone is trying to make a copy of someone else's work.
Some people, I'm sure, will look at this difference of feeling and see it as an improvement. For me personally though, it felt like a downgrade.
Now that I've had a chance to go through the story as well, I'm disappointed. There were a lot of loose ends from the original trilogy that I feel could have been delved into (again as someone that only loosely follows the lore), and plenty of awesome stories to be told about the Chief either before or after the three previous games (like Reach did). Instead we get a game that throws in a new race and world and war because it's trying to spin itself away from where the story "ended" in Halo 3.
I get it, you want to do something different, and you also don't want to have the responsibility of trying to tie into the canon of the massive world that Bungie created. You want to create something that is uniquely your own, and I can respect that... but as a fan of the original games it just feels like a let-down. It's like the handoff of X-Men First Class from Matthew Vaughn back to Bryan Singer. They just have different views of the world, and different things to say about it. They shouldn't try and pretend it's all one story.
Alright, alright. Enough of me shaking my cane off my front porch at "those damned kids" and shouting about how it used to be.
As a game, just a game removed from the burden of the title "Halo", it functions just fine and plays well. The story is interesting enough to keep you chugging along, and when you play through on the harder difficulties you get a challenge (which I'm a huge fan of in gaming). Halo might never be as good (to me) as it was when Bungie was at the helm (though I'd love to be proven wrong by Halo 5) but it's not fair to say 343 didn't do a great job with this game.
If it was a game by any other title, it would be a great game. I just can't get over my own personal hang-ups, and therefore, this quarter of the quadrilogy fell a little bit flat.
Menu Navigation, Custom Playlists, etc.
Now that we've gone through and soft-reviewed the games individually, let's go back to talking about how it works as a package.
The menu navigation from the home screen is slick, intuitive, and you will immediately understand how to get to wherever you're looking to go. It's themed appropriately, looks good, and lays out all the options of the games neatly.
Beyond that, I dig the fact that they don't make you dig through the skulls in each of those games for the privilege of playing the game at a more difficult setting. All the skulls in each of the games are unlocked from the jump, so on your first playthrough you can click those bad-boys on and modify the game to your personal pinnacle version (for me it's a simple equation: the hardest difficulty setting with birthday party mode activated so I get to hear cheers and see confetti when I get a headshot).
Like Halo 2 is to the games though, the biggest addition to the package in my opinion is the game's custom playlists.
There's a theme for almost anything you can imagine: Warthog Missions, Tank Missions, Chief Story, Arbiter Story, Rocket Launchers, etc. etc. etc. It's a cool way to hit "shuffle" on all four games and get to play a little bit of each in a single run. The various playlists will have you hopping between all four games in some instances, and makes for a kind of jarring (albeit interesting) experience.
The only downside really is that you can't customize these further. I would have loved to make my own set list of levels to play through with me and my pals. My own personal "greatest hits", as it were. Still, this feature is an awesome little addition that didn't need to be added and is greatly appreciated to help mix things up a little.
Are we ready? Take a second if you need to, I don't want anyone suffering from whiplash with the hard switch we're about to do. Up until this point everything has been pretty rosy and positive; the multiplayer section of the game is SIGNIFCANTLY less positive.
The people at Microsoft and at 343 are great people. They were shooting us emails leading up to the release explaining the problems with the multiplayer as they popped up and promising to have fixes. The multiplayer/interview sessions with the developers were quickly and courteously being rescheduled as we got new information about the game's imminent addition of multiplayer and working co-up (the first build didn't include co-op at 100%, it was an "at your own risk" feature).
Like I said before, every outlet was posed an option leading up to the launch of the game: Review the single player only, and get your review up early, or wait and we'll have the problems fixed shortly, then you can review the game as a whole.
We are now coming up on a week from the launch of the game, and multiplayer is still functionally broken. I have had almost no luck getting into games, the few I have been in were clearly not working to their designed capacity either (I was being thrown into matches solo against grouped players for 4-on-1 team battles, in example).
Microsoft PR has expressed concern with this externally and apologized profusely for the problems that people are experiencing... which is appreciated, but it shines a light on the dark world of modern gaming wherein a game can launch without a major component being included.
Multiplayer for many, including myself, is the core of the franchise's success. Not only were its competitive multiplayer modes ground-breaking and have been instrumental in reshaping the way the industry handles competitive games (hell, they wound up influencing Call of Duty!) but the co-op campaigns were a big part of the reason that I went through these games so many times originally.
Halo and multiplayer are intrinsically linked, for better or worse. I'd say the success of the game's multiplayer component is the reason that so many studios felt pressure to put multiplayer into their games (regardless of whether it should have been there or not in the first place). I mean, people were buying games they didn't even want back in the day (though I personally love Crackdown and am excited to no end to keep getting new copies of that).
It was a game changer... and now it doesn't work in their massive reworking of the franchise and cumulative collection.
It should have been the best part of this game pack. It should have been the key feature: "Hey everyone that's been playing Halo online competitively for the last THIRTEEN YEARS, this is your new home!" Even for the casual fans, with the opportunity to play setlists that let you experience multiplayer sessions that you might have missed out on previously (like the PC maps that are playable for the first time on console thanks to this collection). But it isn't.
I'm tempted to break the score down. I want to give it a 5 because it's an even split. If it was just the single-player experience this probably would be a 10 out of 10. Considering the multiplayer section doesn't work still a week after launch (there has been announcement again that we can expect fixes this week) it feels like that half should get a fucking 0.
Considering how our rating system works though, that wouldn't be fair. Giving Halo a 5 based on one section being a fantastic collection of some of the best single player games for Xbox and the other half being broken isn't fair... it isn't right.
So we wind up at a compromise where I have to give this game a MUCH lower score that I had hoped/intended for my experiences leading up to the launch.
I can't tell you how crushed I am that this happened, but it's something that I feel passionate about and will stick to my guns on: If you release a game, all parts of it should be functioning at launch, especially where a review is concerned. Our job is to tell people if the money they spend is worth it, and in Halo's current form (and I even gave it a week's grace period) it's not. It'd be like buying a BLT sandwich and being served two slices of artisanal, fresh-baked bread, the crispest freshest lettuce ever grown, and perfectly ripe juicy tomato... nothing more.
Companies need to start considering the "old world" mentality of game production where a game doesn't ship until it's complete. Having to hit an arbitrary release date to make your sales when you want them at the expense of shipping half-completed games and telling yourself "it's okay, we'll fix it in a patch" just doesn't cut it. Consumers deserve better, especially if the prices aren't going to go down (in fact they continue to rise).