Review – Is Halo: The Master Chief Collection worth playing now?
The Master Chief Collection released in 2014 with the aim of becoming a major cornerstone of the Xbox One’s software lineup.
It boasted a compilation of the Master Chief’s greatest adventures, including classic like Halo CE, Halo 2 and Halo 3, as well as 343’s initial attempt at the franchise, Halo 4. Reach and ODST would follow a few years later.
Initially, the MCC represented the first misstep in what would become synonymous with Xbox’s flagship franchise; an initially promising but ultimately disappointing piece of software – riddled with bugs, and – most notoriously – multiplayer matchmaking problems, meaning the MCC was off to a rocky start. But 343 refused to let it die, and over the years have persisted with updates and improvements, adding content and fixing bugs, with the aim of turning the MCC into what it was always supposed to be, a celebration of one of gaming’s most iconic franchises.
So is Halo:The Master Chief Collection worth playing today? Let’s find out…
Remastered treatment: Every game in the collection is now capable of running at 120FPS in 4k, which is impressive enough, but it’s Halo CE and Halo 2 that fare the best in the group – both have had complete graphical overhauls, which really bring them into the modern era. Halo 2 in particular now looks the pick of the entire bunch in its new coat of paint, with environments, character models, textures and lighting all completely remade and look superb. It’s the best piece of work 343 has ever done. The cut scenes in Halo 2 are worth watching alone. A nice touch is also being able to toggle the graphics from original to remastered with the click of a button. Interestingly at times I actually forget which version I’m on, which pays testament to the original art design of these games, and how fluid gameplay really is all that matters when it comes down to it.
Halo CE campaign: It’s crazy to me that the very first Halo’s campaign is still arguably the best one. And that’s not a disparaging comment about the later entries – Halo CE is just that good. It expertly straddles the line between a tight, polished experience whilst providing a sense of vast scale and mystery to the Halo universe. The Silent Cartographer’s island is possibly the best every FPS level ever made.
Halo 3 campaign: Another single player belter is Halo 3. Whilst not as groundbreaking as Halo CE, and it doesn’t quite have the high points of Silent Cartographer, it’s the most consistently strong experience of the franchise. It somehow feels that every level is knitted together and part of some giant open-world galaxy, despite being technically isolated experiences. Halo 3 represents Halo at its absolute peak in terms of quality – the gunplay, the enemies, the vehicles and the multiplayer. It’s a classic, and playing in buttery smooth 120FPS means it plays how I see it in my mind’s eye, huddled around a 360 on a CRT TV.
Reach: Introducing Halo:Reach to the mix several years down the line was a smart move from 343. Unlike the other games, I hadn’t actually played Reach at all before this, and it felt lovely going into a Bungie-crafted Halo campaign with fresh eyes. The single-player campaign for Reach really does deserve the plaudits it gets, for once giving us a story that is comprehensible, and characters that feel layered and real (despite some Michael-Bay-esque cheesey military-romanticising dialogue). You could tell developing Halo was second nature to Bungie by this point. Reach serves as a strong love letter to the franchise, and is frankly the last worthy Halo experience.
Multiplayer fixed: The headline news is that multiplayer is now fixed and perfectly fast and playable in MCC. If you were unlucky enough to experience it at launch, you’d have found yourself waiting in pre-game lobbies for up to 10 minutes, and likely be booted out of any game you eventually managed to find. There were also quite limited playlists and maps at launch, with 343 clearly having not quite figured out what people would want from a 5-game compilation. Thankfully, now there’s essentially any combination you could dream of, with the ability to toggle off games you don’t fancy playing. For example, I’m a Team Slayer-only guy, and I love some Halo 2 and 3, so I just add those filters and I’m off to the races. It’s very well done. I’m of the view that Halo 2 and 3 are still the best multiplayer area shooters on the market, and seeing them rendered and preserved in this way brings me happiness.
Achievements: Curiously, something that kept me coming back to the MCC was the achievement list. I enjoy going for achievements typically and am by no means a completions, but there is just so damn many achievements in the MCC that it feels like you’re always a hair’s breath away form getting the next one. And many can be got at once – beating a playlist (a customized selection of levels from the games) will trigger an achievement, but in doing so you’ll also get the achievements for beating the individual levels, you’ll accumulate kills for those stat-racking achievements, you’ll grab skulls…there’s just so much. Are achievements pointless? Maybe. Do I love chasing them? Yes. And the MCC is a good example of how they should be done, and can enhance the enjoyment of a game.
Control customization: The customization options are excellent in terms of control schemes. That’s all there is to be said on this really. Well done 343 for catering to as many people as possible.
Music: We all know how good the music in the Halo games are, even 343’s offerings it’s excellent. The MCC brings every score together in one lovely place. Halo 2’s intro theme is the quintessential adrenaline booster.
Saga playlist: Whilst the majority of the preset single player playlists do feel a bit pointless, The Master Chief Saga – in which you play all 4 games back-to-back – serves as a fun way to marathon through the Chief’s journey, and experience how the games evolved through time. The jump from CE to 2 is stark, with so much of the work done in 2 still present in the series today. 3 perfected the formula, whereas 4 marked 343’s first attempt at the series, and whilst at first glance it feels familiar, once you play for a while the lack of Bungie’s genius comes through. Still, the playlist is fun.
Halo 4 graphics: It might be the worst of the bunch when it comes to gameplay and story, but I have to say Halo 4 does look impressive. I remember at the time being stunned that the 360 could be capable of graphics and geometry this good, and the game felt like a glimpse into the next generation from an older console. The opening level in particular, when you step outside the ship into the low gravity area, looks like something native to the Xbox Series X. 343 nailed the aesthetic with 4, it’s just shame they dropped the ball elsewhere with Halo 4.
Skulls: I was never one to bother with the skulls in the original games, but found myself using them this time around, particularly when chasing the level high scores. They’re a fun way to tweak the dynamics of how you play; having to melee enemies in order to regain health, or having artificially low ammo in every weapon, makes you appreciate the quality design of the combat cycle and dynamics in these games. Having all the skulls hidden in levels before you can activate them is a novel touch too, rather than relegating them to boring in-game menus or unlockables from the get-go. Exploring levels in Halo games has always been encouraged, with a lack of invisible walls almost inviting you to break the boundaries of the maps. The skulls are emblematic of this philosophy, and I encourage you to embrace them fully as I did.
Co-op: The best way to play the game if you can – Halo is the epitome of video game couch co-op experience. Playing through every game is twice as enjoyable with a friend, and it feels like these levels were designed with co-op in mind. Who enjoys driving a Warthog while a CPU character shoots? Nobody. Co-op is the very essence of Halo, and it makes 343’s neglect of this feature in recent installments all the more egregious when you play it in MCC.
Halo 4 multiplayer: There are some good things about Halo 4’s multiplayer. It’s just so different from 1-3, with load outs, ordinances, abilities and sprinting, you can feel the Call-of-Dutification painted over everything. The thing is, it’s still really fun – it feels more frantic, and the load outs mean the weapon camping that practically defined the Halo MP experience is no more. The other games are better, but sometimes it’s refreshing to pop into Halo 4’s multiplayer and run around for a while.
Convoluted story: The Halo story and overarching lore of the universe is a rich tapestry or sci-fi space opera. Over the years, Bungie (and now 343) expanded the world of Halo in many different directions and timescales, and it’s as vast a chronicle as many of science fiction’s greatest creations. However, in the games themselves, the plot is often just so obtuse that it can be hard to grasp, and unless you’re paying attention to audio logs and terminals, it’s easy for it to just pass you by completely. Thankfully the moment-to-moment gameplay is so fun that this doesn’t really matter, and because of the opacity of the story the games at their best can evoke the sense of awestruck Lovecraft mystery akin to the first Alien film, giving off that incomprehensible horror of giant ancient alien worlds that Ridley Scott’s first film nailed so well. Still, I think this is actually unintentional in a lot of ways by the games’ writers given the amount of dialogue and cut scenes, and so having the narrative more accessible would be welcome.
Difficulty levels: Legendary difficulty is famous for being brutal, and it’s almost impossible in some of the games, Halo 2 in particular. Many fans love it and relish the challenge, but for me, it’s hard to the degree that it just isn’t fun to play. The problem is, Heroic difficulty is sometimes just a shade too easy, and so I’m left searching for that sweet middle ground between the two. The skulls can help tweak it, but it’s a bit annoying knowing that I’ll just never be able to beat Halo 2 on Legendary due to my limited ability and patience.
Playlists: The MCC features a collection of playlists that consist of groups of levels form across the game, all tied around a theme. For example, you can play through all the Scorpion levels, or all the flood levels, etc. These can fun, but some of them feel a bit pointless and redundant.
ODST: Along with Reach, 343 added Halo 3:ODST into the mix a few years after launch, and it’s of course a welcome addition to the collection. ODST is beloved by many, and it does provide a refreshing angle on the Halo universe. Taking control of a simple soldier rather than a demi-god-like Master Chief adds some much-needed tension to proceedings, and the Halo 3 engines on which it’s built is as solid as ever. The game for me though doesn’t quite hit the heights of its siblings, with some bloated, unforgettable levels bringing it down. Still well worth a play through, just don’t expect Halo 2 or 3 quality.
High Score: Going for a high score in a level adds a nice amount of replayability to the games, with your score based on kills, number of deaths, and time to complete the level. A small bug bear I had was that there’s no way to add your score to the HUD when you do a kill, so it’s quite tricky knowing how much you’re on or how much each kill is worth – and similarly, medals don’t pop up on your screen as you earn them, like they did in the original games – which to a dopamine-addicted instant-gratification junkie like me, is annoying.
Terminals: Throughout the games there are hidden terminals that allow you to unlock various things, and again encourage you to explore every inch of every level. These are fine, but inexplicably 343 decided it would be a good idea to take you out of the entire game every time you load one up, and take you to a Halo part of the Xbox store. Why?!
Halo 4 campaign: The campaign in Halo 4 was controversial when it first launched, and sadly time hasn’t been kind to it, particularly when you put it directly up against those of its predecessors. There are some moments of enjoyment, but the whole thing is a long, padded out slog, made worse by spongey enemies, unsatisfying weapons and a terrible story. The introduction of the forerunners as enemies should’ve been a seminal moment for the series, and they don’t look awful, but fighting them is a real pain, particularly the Knights. Classic enemies like Grunts and Elites have also been over-designed to look like shiny Power Ranger toys, and everything generally lacks that sense of ‘solid’, gritty and grounded feeling Bungie’s games had. All-in-all, the Halo 4 campaigns should be skipped.
CE multiplayer: Back in the original Xbox days, Halo CE’s local and LAN multiplayer took over from Goldeneye as the must-play split screen experience. Now however, it doesn’t play too well, with the incredibly overpowered pistol practically breaking the game at any kind of high standard. It’s a novel nostalgia trip to play a few games of Blood Gulch, but the real quality lies in Halo 2 or 3 for multiplayer action.
Flood: The hordes of infected Flood just aren’t fun to play against in any of the games, even the great ones, representing the lowest points in every campaign. Why Bungie persisted to include them when the feedback since the first game was negative is a mystery.
Spartan Ops: Instead of a Firefight mode, the MCC includes Spartan Ops, which are a series of one-off missions that really boil down to ‘Kill everything’ standalone experiences. They feel rushed, sterile, and aren’t a patch on Firefight modes of Reach and ODST. Speaking of which…
No firefight for ODST?: The best Firefight mode in all of Halo, and the best thing about ODST, inexplicably isn’t included in the package. Why 343?
Multiplayer quitting: Something modern shooters seem to have resolved is the issue of people quitting multiplayer games, which can result in a spoiled and unbalanced experience, particularly in team-based battles. In a modern game, a new player will get introduced, but in these Halo games, if three people quit a team of four, the poor one guy is left to battle it all alone, or quit. This can get very boring.
No Halo 5: It’s odd 343 haven’t included Halo 5 to complete the collection, which would mean it included everything Master Chief-based before Infinite. By no means is it a classic, but the multiplayer was a big improvement over 4, and it would be nice to have it for completeness.
Right now, the Halo: The Master Chief Collection is in a brilliant place. Some of these games remain as enjoyable to play as they did when they launched, and the multiplayers of Halo 2 and Halo 3 in particular represent some of the finest arena shooters ever created, and I know I’ll be playing them for many years thanks to this collection. This collection is a must if you own an Xbox. 9/10.
Buy the collection here from Amazon.