It's time to ready Battle Rifles, it's time to choose a side. Time to meet Halo 2. Again. The black sheep of the Halo saga has been the poster child for Microsoft's marketing push for Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and it's easy to understand why.
The game's online multiplayer was the first comprehensive excursion into the console competitive landscape and was - is - arguably the purest distillation of Halo's MP in the franchise thus far. The single player campaign may have been questionable, stitched together in a rush by a haggard Bungie to meet tight deadlines, but for Halo fans, the competitive side of the title is still pristine. Even if it's hard to adjust initially to the lack of a sprint button in today's twitch-based multiplayer space.
But that's being presented in The Master Chief Collection: the game untouched and untweaked from its original form, the only concession to the modern day a visual upgrade much the same as 343 performed for Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition (which is also included in the package), new cutscenes and smooth 60FPS gameplay running at 1080p, and even that you have the choice to ignore.
In the story campaign you can toggle between the original and new looks. In competitive, six of Halo 2's multiplayer maps are offered in remastered form as one multiplayer mode, while a wholly separate multiplayer is in place to experience all the original maps (with a slight graphical tweak). You've got all the modes, all the maps, all the weapon balance of the original.
We run through a trio of matches, press versus a mixture of 343 staff and helpers, as part of a Xbox One event this month. Dual-wielding is back, but the real fight is for the nearest Battle Rifle or stage's power weapon. For dominance at choke points. After a rough start ("I forgot you can't sprint") our side starts working as a team, and the old Halo magic of ten years past flows back into our veins.
It's nice to concentrate just on the moment to moment beats of a multiplayer match, load-outs reserved to knowing where the best weapons are strewn on the battlefield, and not fretting about XP-bonuses or ability perks. No text fireworks proclaiming new rewards. Just duck and jump. Spamming frag grenades, exaltation at the perfect sticky grenade throw. Headshot followed by headshot, watching the scoreboard tick up towards 50 kills, and the timer ticking down to the round's end.
Microsoft closed the original Xbox Live servers four years ago, which is an ice age in the online space. With the Anniversary Edition of Combat Evolved only released a few years ago, and Halo 3 and 4 still going on Xbox 360, it's Halo 2 that most people will need to reacquaint themselves with when the Master Chief Collection comes out.
Yet 343 are allowing players, in single player and story co-op at least, to customise chapter playlists to tear through all four titles in whatever order, or whichever levels, they so choose. (It's still a shame that Reach, O.D.S.T, and Halo Wars aren't included on the collection for the complete Halo story). It's a great idea to cherry pick your favourite levels from the four core M.C entries, but we wish there'd been a similar option for multiplayer.
Here's the situation. You've four games on the disc, each with their own competitive submenu, and within those distinct playlists. 343 are effectively dividing up the online community, and we've real reservations about player numbers six months from now. Gut instinct suggests competitors will gravitate to the purer MP modes of Halo 2 and 3, and the others will dry up.
While each title has a fairly different multiplayer due to balancing, we can't help but wish for a roulette-wheel style multiplayer playlist that'd randomly switch between all modes of all games (or even let you define distinct parameters), to let you get a taste of everything. Proving your dominance in one epic playlist across all versions of Halo multiplayer would be Achievement-worthy. (Update: Microsoft has confirmed you'll be able to freely play across the multiplayer maps from all four games, or specify certain playlists or game types through a unified Master Menu, that'll subsequently limit map choice based on your criteria.)
That may be wishful thinking, but given 343's building this package as a celebration of Master Chief's career, we can't help but want this to be as comprehensive as possible. But even if it doesn't, the Collection's still a good deal. It's catering for Halo fans who don't want to swap between consoles to get their full fix or budget-wary gamers who want as much content on the disc for their money. Even if you don't stretch to Xbox Live Gold, you've got four meaty campaigns to run through, and a chance to witness the ever-evolving nature of first-person combat.