Before it was formally announced at this year’s E3, I didn’t really believe that Halo: The Master Chief Collection was actually a thing. Being a massive fan(boy) of the franchise, I wanted to believe, but it just seemed like too big of an ask – four games remade for the Xbox One over the course of two years? Madness.
Of course, we know now that only one of those games is receiving such lavish treatment, but fans will still be getting plenty of content for their money. While the Master Chief Collection will be very handy for anyone looking to jump into the series for the first time before Halo 5: Guardians drops next year, what this really represents is a glorious celebration of the Master Chief saga. It’s pure fanservice.
The package collects all of the main games in the series (meaning that ODST, Wars and Reach are all left out in the cold) and unites them under what 343 is calling the ‘Master Menu’. From here, you can launch any of the four games, or just jump straight into a specific mission; because 343 understand that fans will have played, and thus know, these games inside and out, everything is unlocked from the get go. Fancy a trip through Halo 3‘s ‘Covenant’ level? Go for it – you can jump straight in. But even better than that, the developer will be curating campaign playlists, which are selections that will group together similar levels from across all four campaigns, such as levels featuring warthogs or scorpion tanks. There will also be one mega-playlist for the committed Halo fan which will take in all four games, from the start of Combat Evolved to the end of Halo 4.
Of course, while this is a collection, there are two big draws for fans to look forward to this November, the first of which is a remastered Halo 2. 2014 is the ten-year anniversary of the original Xbox game, and so, like Combat Evolved three years back, it’s getting the full-on remake treatment. Just like Combat Evolved Anniversary, Halo 2 Anniversary will be running two game engines; the original 2004 iteration underneath, and a new rendering layer on top to offer more modern character modelling, environmental lighting and more. This means that players will again be able to switch between both the old and the new looks at the press of a button, and while this incurred a short fade-out before, it’s now instantaneous.
Audio has also been completely re-recorded at Skywalker Sound, and switching between modes will also switch between the original and remastered soundtrack. Lastly, Blur (the studio responsible for Halo Wars‘ fantastic cutscenes) have remade all of the game’s cinematics, replacing the original in-engine cutscenes for incredible new pre-rendered versions, even reframing them where necessary. They’re mind-blowingly good, verging on photorealism here and there – just look at character faces.
But enough of what’s new. That other big draw I mentioned? That’ll be the multiplayer suite, which preserves the PvP modes from across all four games and brings them together, just like the campaigns. The collection contains every map ever released for Halo (including some which were previously PC-exclusive), meaning there are over a hundred to battle through; all accessible through one interface. Select a playlist, and the game will throw up relevant maps from across the entire saga for players to vote on. Once a map is selected, it’ll be loaded up in that game’s original multiplayer engine – meaning that every game played, every shot fired, every grenade thrown will play out just as we remember it, just as we expect it to.
Back in May, when the collection was still just a rumour, I started thinking about what shape the multiplayer component might take. What we’re actually getting is pretty close to my dream mode:
If I could have my dream Halo multiplayer mode included in this collection, it would be one experience rather than four disparate, game-specific modes. This single Halo multiplayer universe would be a relatively ‘pure’ Halo experience, perhaps modelled after Halo 3‘s multiplayer, and would include all the maps from all four games. If people wanted to play a more Halo 4-style game, and have that as its own playlist, its own mode like Griffball or Infection, but again, playable across all the series maps.
In fact, what we’re getting is even better – the actual multiplayer from all four games, as it was, but all accessible in one mode. It’s like a museum for Halo multiplayer, encompassing everything it has ever been (minus Reach, of course), but all in one place. Microsoft closed down the original Xbox Live a few years back, rendering Halo 2‘s genre-defining online modes unplayable, but now we’re getting it back, just as it existed back then. And Combat Evolved? That never even had online multiplayer over Xbox Live, but we’re getting it here. And best of all, it means no splitting of the playerbase; at least until Halo 5: Guardians is out, the entire Halo community on Xbox One will be concentrated around one title – one title with the potential, not to mention the variety, to keep people hooked in for literally the rest of the generation.
As an extra sweetener to the deal, 343 are also remastering six of Halo 2‘s most iconic arenas for a new multiplayer experience built on an upgraded Halo 4 engine, so fans get the best of both worlds: an unadulterated Halo 2 multiplayer experience, and the chance to see those maps that are burned into their retinas in glorious 2014-o-vision.
What makes this more than just a simple remake project is 343’s dedication to making sure everything is as we remember it, from how the game plays to the glitches (such as Halo 2‘s notorious BXR button combo) that fans exploited in multiplayer. To this end, they even went as far as keeping two separate bug lists during development – one for already-existing bugs that they wanted to leave in, and one for anything they might introduce during the porting process that they do want to squash.
It’s this attention to detail that really elevates the collection into fanservice territory – newcomers wouldn’t know about the skill jumps, the glitches, the button combo exploits. But fans do, and they want them to be there; they want the games to feel right. Of course, this runs the risk of alienating newcomers – no one is going to have fun if they’re being constantly steamrollered by veteran, ninja players – and so Frank O’Connor, Franchise Development Director at 343, has a plan. “[B]ack in the Halo 2 days, for example, we tried to not expose… things like BXR and stuff because they gave people an unfair advantage.”, he told the audience at SDCC. “I think our approach this time will be a little bit different and pretty opposite, and where there are things like fun glitches we’re gonna try and explain how those work to people so that they’re not in the dark, and, you know, there’s like five jerks on the other team not telling them why they have infinite ammo.”
As well as acting as a compilation of the series’ history, the Master Chief Collection also looks to the future of the franchise: included in the package is the digital series Halo: Nightfall, which introduces us to Agent Locke – a character that will be starring alongside the Master Chief in Halo 5: Guardians – as well as including access to a multiplayer beta for the upcoming game. It adds to that feel of the collection as a museum for the Halo franchise; by looking to the series’ past and gaining understand from it, perhaps we can chart the course for its future. 343 is further reinforcing this by adding new ‘bookend’ cutscenes in-between the existing games that somehow tie into Halo 5: Guardians – perhaps framed as Locke poring over the details of the Master Chief’s exploits as he sets out to find the legendary Spartan?
Of course, more cynical gamers will always look upon remakes and remasters as nothing but a cash-grab designed to fill the gaps in a release schedule, but in this instance that kind of attitude just isn’t warranted; 343 seem intent on respecting both the source material and their audience. Clearly, a lot of work has gone into the Master Chief Collection, and at the price of a single game, it represents fantastic value for money. And, for me at least, it’s great to see publishers willing to celebrate the great series’ that give us so much joy. Games are often deeply personal things to the people that play them, so it’s always nice to see their creators respecting that connection.
This approach seems to be gaining some traction in the market right now. Square-Enix’s Theatrhythm titles are basically playable compendia of Final Fantasy music, with tracks set to famous landmarks and cutscenes from across the series, starring dozens of characters from throughout the franchise’s history. Likewise, Nintendo’s upcoming Hyrule Warriors packs in so many references to multiple games from across the Zelda series that it can only be seen as a great big slice of fanservice, even if it is approaching it from the angle of a Dynasty Warriors mash-up. But with the amount of content, thought and effort that 343 is packing into their very own fanservice project, it manages to effortlessly outdo either.
Before Halo 4 launched, fans rightly had doubts as to whether the series could thrive with Bungie out of the picture. That game proved that 343 has what it takes to make a Halo game, and the Master Chief Collection proves that they really understand where the series came from. With Bungie now hard at work on the excellent Destiny and 343 continuing to expand the Halo franchise, it’s a good time to be a fan of this particular breed of sci-fi shooter.