When it comes to collections the bar was set highest by Valve's The Orange Box. If you're after the very best of HD updates then The Last of Us is an excellent update of an already excellent game. From this current generation looking back, Metro Redux is a fantastic value proposition, with two decent games and an attractive price point. Halo: The Master Chief Collection blows them all out of the water.
On the disc and in the download that follows installation, there's four campaigns and over 100 multiplayer maps for players to sink their collective teeth into. It's a comprehensive package, and the amount of content included is bordering on overwhelming. We've spent the best part of a week picking through the multitude of options on offer, and for the most part our impressions are almost entirely positive.
Let's start with the campaigns, because that's as good a place as any. There's four on offer, the numbered entries in the Halo series - Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo 4 - and each has been restored and/or updated for the Xbox One crowd.
Halo: Combat Evolved kicks things off, narratively speaking at least. It's largely the same as the update we got three years ago when 343i and Saber Interactive rebuilt and re-released the seminal sandbox shooter on Xbox 360, except this time it's running in crisp 1080p and at 60fps. It was already a handsome update, and it makes the transition up a generation unscathed and better for the added smoothness of the frame-rate bump.
The majesty of the opening campaign has eroded over the years, but, like the other games in this collection, much of what Bungie achieved back in those early days does stand the test of time. The narrative is, in our humble opinion, the best of the whole series; an opening salvo that captured imaginations with a triumvirate of opposing factions, some smartly composed enemy AI, and rich lore that went on to provide fertile ground for a whole series of sequels and spin-offs to grow from.
Saber Interactive, who as already mentioned had previously handled the Anniversary Edition of Combat Evolved, were handed the responsibility of developing the Halo 2 update. They were tasked with delivering the same Anniversary treatment as before, only this time they were afforded more wriggle room in the form of the additional processing power of the Xbox One.
While the rest of the collection hits every gamer's favourite set of numbers - 1080p and 60fps - Halo 2 Anniversary does not. Like the first update there's a feature whereby you can switch between the new, remastered engine, and the original game (by pressing the Back button). Running both engines simultaneously seems to have taken its toll, because here we only get 900p, and the framerate can be variable (especially when playing local co-op, when it can drop noticeably). It would have been nice to have the option of turning this feature off, and getting a performance boost in the process.
Then there's the quality of the visual update. For the most part it's carried by the quality of Bungie's art design; the worlds built by the Halo creators are visually striking to this day. From the colour palette of the Covenant world to the Forerunner architecture via the iconic armour designs of the Spartans, the Halo games have always been blessed with style. There's also, in some places, a load of new detail that has been thrown into the mix. That said, these positives don't paper over all the cracks, and this update is certainly not as good as it could have been; there's still some rough edges here and there, you'll notice some dull textures, and the odd bit of clipping. It's not perfect.
The rebuilt audio is solid, and certainly heightens the atmosphere of the campaign, but this atmosphere is somewhat eroded thanks to the loading screens after the new cutscenes (which we'll get to later). The decision to remove the Incubus track - Follow - from the soundtrack has us baffled, but there's some nice arrangements underpinning the action, even if the score does feel a little too retro at times.
The campaign is, for our money, the weakest of the whole series. The storytelling is convoluted and overly-complicated (for starters), and to this day it's still clear that Bungie over-reached. As such, a faithful recreation only updates these flaws. Magnifies them even. Imperfect it may be, but there's still some great moments in the campaign; dropping down onto the ring with the ODSTs, fighting on the Covenant's home turf, defending Earth from an advancing enemy fleet.
But even brilliant set-pieces and furious gunplay aren't enough to gloss over some tired level design that's really starting to show its age. Like Combat Evolved before it, time is starting to weather the shell and cracks are beginning to appear, but here unlike its predecessor, linearity begins to creep in, especially in the levels where we step out of the metallic shoes of John 117 and play as the Arbiter.
That said, we can't quite bring ourselves to condemn it. We went through the whole story again, playing a mixture of solo and co-op missions (both online and local), and for the most part we enjoyed ourselves. Perhaps we won't make too many return visits to this particular campaign, but it's still worth one last tour of duty.
Halo 3 looks crisper than ever before, and certainly makes the most of the 1080p / 60fps increase. Once again, the update benefits from Bungie's stellar art design, so much so that the game remains largely untouched in this collection; it didn't need to be changed all that much.
This is where, from a narrative perspective at least, the story gets back on track. The story is well-rounded and holds together with more clarity, and brings the various strands together following the deviations of Halo 2. The Chief is more enigmatic than ever before, and the (first) trilogy is brought to a satisfying conclusion by the game's end.
It's a great campaign, with Bungie working at the height of their powers to create exciting sandbox areas to battle through, with memorable cutscenes bookending each mission. Overall it's probably our favourite campaign on the disc.
From first to last (with only one or two missteps along the way), Bungie created one of the most enduring sci-fi shooters of recent memory, and while Combat Evolved may have set the tone for the series, the third game raised the bar higher than we might have expected following what was offered by its immediate predecessor.
And then there's Halo 4, perhaps the best-looking game made during the last generation. It really did squeeze every last drop out of the Xbox 360 when it was released two years ago. 343i might have taken a couple of missteps on the multiplayer side of things, and a few of the trimmings thrown into the mix perhaps over-complicated matters and diluted the purity of the experience, but this is still a decent game and it looks great on Xbox One.
The story, which kicks off where the last trilogy ends, might introduce a new faction, but it's not as memorable as the previous entries in the series. Cortana's mental health issues aside, the narrative never hits the same heights as earlier entries. The smaller sandbox areas and increasingly linear level design also leads to less player-authored moments, and thus less endures in the memory.
There's loads of new weapons and different enemy types for players to get to grips with, and for the most part 343i took over the reins successfully in this respect, managing the introduction of so many new factors very well. The QTEs that started to appear might not have been to everyone's tastes, but they certainly modernised the series in a way that Bungie never would have. Like them or loathe them, they're inescapably included.
Both this campaign and Halo 3 were updated by Ruffian Games, and it has to be said that their approach has paid dividends; both games look fantastic on Microsoft's new console and they remain hugely entertaining, even if they're relatively untouched.
The four campaigns are only the start of this particular adventure. Once you're done playing the campaigns in order, and have blasted your way through the playlists (collections of themed missions across all four games), you've then got a staggering 106 multiplayer maps to play on. It's an incredible collection of classic and remastered maps that should have any Halo fan salivating.
We've looked around some of them on our own, and played in others during multiplayer sessions organised by 343i, and we can report that there's every reason to be excited about the restoration job done by 343i and Certain Affinity (who've long handled multiplayer duties and made map packs for the series).
In particular we'd like to lavish praise on the remastered Halo 2 maps. There's not many - six in fact - but they're brilliantly done. Those who played the original, or even jumped in during Halo: Reach and played through the Forge-made recreations, will be bowled over by the quality of the job done in updating this handful of maps. There's a couple of new features that have been built into them, and they play more similarly to Halo 4 - a fact accentuated when you jump onto the classic playlists and sample the originals. Overall, they're a resounding success and remind us of the updated Combat Evolved maps that were developed using the Halo: Reach engine for the Xbox 360 Anniversary release.
The unrestored multiplayer maps for Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2 are definitely showing their age. Visually this is true, but also in terms of what it's like to play on them. We're so used to having increased feedback when shooting (and taking damage), so much so that it can be disorientating when going back to multiplayer as it was back in the early days.
Yes it's a huge nostalgia trip to teleport between ships on Boarding Action, or to run laps in Rat Race, or to dance between pillars in Hang ‘Em High. Yes it's great fun to relive glory days on Gemini and Coagulation and Beaver Creek. It's great to have these maps and modes, but they feel more like museum pieces, a chance to savour the online glories of yesteryear, and not essential contemporary multiplayer experiences for modern gamers. A lot has happened in the years since these games were originally played and enjoyed by Halo fans, and while we're sure that there's plenty of old-school diehards that will gravitate back to the maps of Combat Evolved and Halo 2, we'll probably spend more time with the newer content.
Even the maps and accompanying multiplayer of Halo 3 is starting to show its age a little. Like the its older brethren, the lack of feedback and the omission of sprint means these games feel slower, more measured than their modern contemporaries. For some this won't be an issue, and jumping back into classics like The Pit, Guardian, Valhalla and Last Resort will be pleasure enough.
It's with Halo 4 that we see the biggest change, with the evolution of the armour abilities that were introduced in Halo: Reach proving a sizeable jump from the relative stability offered in Halo 3. These maps all look fantastic, and like the corresponding campaign, look brilliant following the update to Xbox One. Apart from the newly remastered Halo 2 offerings - Warlock (Warlord), Ascension (Zenith), Coagulation (Bloodline), Sanctuary (Shrine), Lockout (Lockdown) and Zanzibar (Stonetown) - these most recent maps are by the far the most eye catching.
It's brilliant to have the choice between playing modern or going old-school, and there's something heartening about having so many options in front of you. There's broad appeal here, and no doubt the levelling system (that we've not really had a chance to sample properly just yet - but that harkens back to the second game's 0-50 skill-based ranking) will be welcomed by fans bemoaning the gradual shift away from the skill-focussed matchmaking of yesteryear. Apart from those who preferred the multiplayer from Reach, nobody's going to feel left out here.
Update: We've played a few more games since the game's release, not enough for an extensive write up, but enough to know that all is not well on MCC's servers. Those of you who've picked up the game will probably be aware of the network issues that are currently affecting some players. For the most part we've had no problems, apart from perhaps slow matchmaking, but there has been a couple of matches that were, at the start at least, bordering on unplayable. It's not the seamless experience we were hoping for, but we've still been able to (mostly) play without too many issues. Hopefully the rest of you are in the same position and are able to get a game or two without too much trouble. We'll keep playing, and soon we'll bring you a much more in-depth article on this collection's multiplayer.
Each of the four games and their respective multiplayer components has their own strengths and weaknesses, and 343i's insistence on updating wholesale means that these updates come warts and all. For better and for worse. But even with these four campaigns bundled together, and with a staggering number of multiplayer maps, we still felt that something was missing from the package, that this collection is only nearly complete, or only nearly cohesive - it doesn't quite manage to fully achieve either objective. As such we'd have liked 343i to have done one of two things.
First they could have bundled together every old-gen Halo game and so created the definitive collection (that's Halo Wars, Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach on top of what's already here). That would have been the collection of collections, and in a stroke would have tied together the entire series and delivered it complete and ready to go for all Halo players on Xbox One ahead of the release of Halo 5: Guardians (the beta for which, if you didn't know, is also part of this package).
Obviously this hasn't happened, and this collection balances on the shoulders of the series' iconic hero, Master Chief. Wanting all seven Halo games together might seem greedy considering what's on the disc, but the delivery of this quartet of campaigns is uneven in terms of presentation, it lacks cohesion. It feels just a little bit disjointed.
Surprisingly enough, the reason behind our mild dissatisfaction comes down to cutscenes. In Halo 2 these have been updated by Blur, who've done an incredible job of realising a bloated story. The cutscenes are as good as anything you'll see in a game by Blizzard, which is high praise indeed.
What we wanted is the same level of graphical fidelity in the cutscenes across the board. 343i had a chance to link all four campaigns together through updated, cohesive CGI scenes; creating a seamless whole. Instead we're given a different quality of presentation in each of the four campaigns, where the second game (in this respect at least) looks better than the fourth.
As we mentioned earlier, on the multiplayer front, there's a noticeable jump between the experience and feel of Halo 3 and Halo 4, and the inclusion of Reach's multiplayer modes would have bridged that gap perfectly, which is another argument for that game's inclusion in this collection (and Master Chief appears in that game at the end as an Easter Egg, albeit very briefly, if they needed any justification).
That may sound like we're splitting hairs, and indeed we are, but the cohesion we're talking about - bringing all four games together with such grandiose style (or throwing together all seven old-gen Halo games and making it definitive that way) - would have been the cherry on top of what is already an outstanding collection, and 343i has done so much already, it's just a teeny tiny bit disappointing that they didn't go the whole hog.
But we don't want to end of an overly negative note, because all told we're very happy with Halo: The Master Chief Collection. It's a really robust package and there's a multitude of compelling reasons for shooter fans to pick it up.
The campaigns, while showing their age a little, are still mostly brilliant, and the playlists and the huge range of game-changing options means that there's incredible longevity there. Then there's the multiplayer, which is staggering in terms of scope. We'll be coming back to you in a few days, once the servers are up and running and we've played a lot more games, with a frontline report on the different games and modes on offer. However we can, from our time with the multiplayer thus far, tell you that it's a hugely impressive collection of maps, and playing these maps the way that they were originally intended is a boon that will bring great satisfaction to fans, both recent and long-standing.
From the top down this a hugely impressive collection. Yes, it could have been better in places, and yes, deficiencies from yesteryear are harder to ignore now that we're not viewing these games through the rose-tinted goggles of nostalgia. But don't let that dissuade you, Halo: The Master Chief Collection is rammed full of exciting content, and whether you prefer story campaigns, co-op play, or explosive online action, there's something here for you to enjoy. If you like Halo and you've got an Xbox One, you need to buy this collection.