There's not many games out there that are as frustrating as Halo: The Master Chief Collection. On paper this is a fantastic offering: four stellar story campaigns complemented by a plethora of incredible multiplayer options. However, the final product has not lived up to its undoubted potential. Simply put, The Master Chief Collection is a broken dream.
Forgetting about what feels like a lifetime playing Halo games on Xbox and Xbox 360, our story with MCC started late last year, when a review copy of the game landed on our digital doormat. We played the game, sampled a variety of different missions from across the four campaigns, and played through the entirety of Halo 2 for the first time in about four years. We were happy.
As we said at the time, we weren't able to get online and play the game with other people in the traditional sense. The servers weren't up yet, and as such we were guided through a variety of multiplayer modes with fellow journalists and some 343i reps via custom matchmaking.
What we experienced during those briefest of early encounters had us eagerly awaiting the launch of the multiplayer servers. 343i had done as they had promised and assembled every single multiplayer map from each of the four numbered Halo games, and thrown them together on one disc. This promised to be a huge timesink, with players able to jump between different entries and hop across various playlists. It was every Halo fan's dream line-up.
Except, as everyone knows by now, that's not at all how it went down. And more than three months on from the launch of Halo: The Master Chief Collection on Xbox One, we're still looking at a game that is far from finished and remains as a dark stain on a once dominant franchise.
We're told that a significant update is on the way, and it's in the last stages of testing, so we'll update you once we've had a chance to see what impact - if any - that has on the overall experience. But in the meantime all we can do is judge the game on where it stands more than three months after launch.
Unfortunately, Halo: MCC, even after all this time, is not in good shape.
It's certainly in a better place than it was when we were trying to get games three months ago. You can at least find a match now. However, it's a labour, and what should be a simple process still takes far too long and involves too much messing about. We've regularly spent more time waiting in the lobby than we have playing in the subsequent match. Sure it's better than those early days, when it was near impossible to get a game, but we've had three months for 343i to fix these issues and yet here we are still talking about how and why it's broken.
Like us you might want to give yourself every chance of getting a game more quickly by having a decent net connection and by making sure that your home network is optimised for online play. Except, in our case, even after a dance with our wireless router, finding a game proved no easier. We concede that there might be a problem on the part of our ISP, but we've had ZERO problems playing online with any other platform here at the office - Xbox, PlayStation, PC and Nintendo: all work fine. It's only Halo: MCC that causes us a regular headache.
This is a monumental shame, because when it does work, when we get dropped into a game and it all clicks as it should, we're reminded that Halo is an excellent multiplayer shooter that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with every other top tier sci-fi blaster on the market. Thanks to the considerable frame of John 117, we'd even argue that it stands slightly taller. At least, we used to. Now we're not so sure.
Let us, for a moment at least, talk about the good, because this isn't quite an irredeemable mess. Well, it isn't anymore. Now, when you're able to sidestep the persistent matchmaking issues and sneak into a game, there is fun to be had. Because all four core Halo games are represented, there's four different experiences to enjoy. Within these classics there's a variety of different modes, so there's a huge amount of variety in there.
Playlists are divided up in different ways. You can either pick a game and focus on various modes within that particular group of maps, or you can pick a mode - like Snipers or SWAT - and play that mode across any combination of different games. By keeping it relatively simple 343i has managed to avoid diluting the player base too much; despite the huge number of maps, there are no more options here than you'd see in another game of the same sort (though it should be noted that this is down to necessity, not design).
This may change over time, with 343i hamstrung by technical limitations as it stands. Perhaps they'll add in more choice when the game isn't broken, or perhaps they keep a similar number of playlists but rotate. They're doing this to an extent now, a personal favourite mode of ours - SWAT - is currently off the rotation. Surely we'll see more ranked playlists at the very least - there's still only the one at the moment (though given the persistant issues, perhaps this is a blessing in disguise).
The original Halo game makes an appearance in a couple of the playlists, and it's a real nostalgia kick (even if the netcode isn't stellar). You can still play these modes on Xbox 360 if you've got the Xbox Original version (or, of course, if you've still got an original Xbox), but you can only play offline. It wasn't until Halo 2 came along that Bungie revolutionised the console shooter space and took us all online.
It's the maps and modes of Halo 2, and the very particular feel of that game, that will be the main draw for a good chunk of the Halo: MCC audience. This is now the only place where you can play on those classic maps online on an Xbox. If you missed it the first time around, you might wonder what all the fuss was about if you take a look now; it's easy to forget just how important this game was in the grand scheme of things.
Both Halo 2 and Halo 3 share much in common. The pace in both is slower. The emphasis is on player skill rather than player investment. Subsequent Halo games have been far more generous with journeyman players who've put in the hours but who are perhaps not so skilled when placing their crosshairs. 2 and 3 paid particular focus to map placement, with weapon drop timings and player positioning of genuine importance.
Halo 4 makes a jump - Halo: Reach, that would have been the bridge between 3 and 4 is omitted from this collection - and as such feels like a very different game. It's certainly one that will look and feel more familiar to the more modern shooter fan. There's still plenty of skill involved, but the lean towards CoD-style loadouts, a faster pace, and the abandonment of the old skill-based ranking system, has - in many cases - seen the old guard make way for a new breed of Halo fan.
The reimagined Halo 2: Anniversary maps have been reworked with the Halo 4 engine, and they look great. Indeed, the Halo 4 and updated Halo 2 arenas work best of all, thanks mainly to the more up-to-date netcode. That said, while even these more recent games have issues, they pale in comparison to those suffered elsewhere.
We've not really delved that deep into the problems that are still ruining Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and it's difficult to know where to start, but truth be told there's a laundry list of complaints, and they're the kinds of basic issues that no shooter should suffer from. For a start basic UI and lobby features doesn't work as you'd want. Once you've finished a match you have to go back into the playlist once again, there's no automatic cycle. Groups get routinely split, and joining up with friends can be needlessly fussy. Waiting in the lobby as a group can result in increased waiting times for matches, and then when you do get into a match, we're still getting uneven games in terms of numbers.
Then there's issues regarding netcode. There's frequently noticeable lag. Matchmaking is poor, with unskilled teams regularly playing against significantly better opposition. Players get bored of being dominated and quit out early to further imbalance matches. Games will drop out moments after launching, or just kick one or two players and weaken a team.
There's always a glimmer, a game where none of these problems make an appearance, but too quickly after these moments of elation we're returned to the sobering realisation that these flashes of competency are far from the norm.
It's hard to work out exactly what has gone wrong, given that there's so many different problems. 343i has been very open about their plans to improve and tweak the experience (and we're also being compensated with a free HD update of Halo 3: ODST later this year), but at the same time they remain tight-lipped as to exactly what it is that has caused what can only be described as a catastrophic screw up. Surely they knew. They had to be aware before they launched the game that it was fundamentally broken, but we also have to assume that they didn't have a clear idea as to the scale of the repair job. If they knew exactly how broken it was and sold it to us anyway, then shame on them.
Of course Halo: The Master Chief Collection has moments where it's brilliant, and if you've a hankering to play the single-player content, we absolutely have no problems recommending that you pick it up. But if multiplayer is your jam, it's impossible to give it any kind of positive endorsement, even three months after launch. It's still too broken, too unreliable, and far too frustrating. When it comes to multiplayer, 343i promised us everything, and delivered nothing.
We're getting to the point where, if 343i ever manages to fix this mess, they're going to have to do something huge, radical even, if they're going to get this game back on track. It's hard to imagine a huge community ever flocking to this collection unless something drastic is done. (Perhaps, once it works properly, they might go as far as making Halo's multiplayer free for every Xbox One owner - we really can't think of anything else that they might do that could repair their reputation and bring the community back together).
If you're a huge Halo fan then maybe you're still sitting on your Xbox 360, and as far as playing Halo 3 and Halo 4 goes, that's still very much your best option. If you've given up your old-gen console for processors new, and while you wait for Halo 5: Guardians to land later this year (and that's shaping up very nicely indeed, by the way), we're going to have to point you in the direction of Destiny, Titanfall, Evolve, and Advanced Warfare. As far as sci-fi shooters go, they're still your best bet on Xbox One.
The fact that we're recommending other multiplayer games makes us sad. There's a core Halo game on Xbox One, but it's still shockingly broken, and if you want an online shooter edged with sci-fi, you've got to look elsewhere. This is not how it should be. Sure the single-player is great, but Halo's story is only one part of why this series is so intrinsically linked to the Xbox brand. Multiplayer is the core pillar of the connected Xbox experience, and Halo is their chief IP. That we're months from the launch of one of last year's big holiday releases and it's still not up to scratch is nothing short of a scandal. We've been dipping in and out over the past few months - waiting, hoping - for 343i to fix this. Like many other diehard fans who still litter the matchmaking lobbies of The Master Chief Collection, we've been hoping for a taste of old Halo. Now, as the months drag on, we're beginning to doubt that'll ever happen.
The long-awaited major patch has landed, and the results are very promising. More on that here.