Microsoft’s biggest franchise has finally made it to the Xbox One with the release of Halo 5: Guardians.
Definitive, complete, the total package; if you own an Xbox One there are a lot of great games out there, but up to this point only one can truly claim those descriptors. Halo: The Master Chief Collection compiles every numbered Halo game from Halo: Combat Evolved right up to Halo 4 with not only its single player campaign but all of the multiplayer content as well. When you do the math that adds up to an astounding 106 maps to kill with friends and over 40 hours of story and campaign content.
A brand new and unproven IP, Microsoft put a lot of faith in Spartan 117 when they launched Halo: Combat Evolved with the original Xbox console in 2001. I’m not sure if they knew how important it was at the time but it turned the FPS genre on console on its head. When Bungie refined the experience even further with Halo 2, they created what was to be the model for multiplayer shooters for years to come. Adding map editing features in Halo 3 and even more abilities for Master Chief in Halo 4 it’s clear that the Halo franchise is a pivotal one in the first person shooter arena that has constantly evolved (see what I did there?) with its audience.
Trying to pick this apart for a review is essentially an exercise in futility. When you take four of the highest rated games in history and package them along with all their extra content and a host of new ones it’s inevitable that people will say it’s amazing. Factor in the $60 price tag and there’s no denying that Halo: The Master Chief Collection is a must own. If you had to pick one part of the compilation to focus on here it is most definitely the anniversary treatment of Halo 2 and that’s what I’ll really focus on here. If you want to read a 4000 word review that dissects everything I can do that but in the end you’ll come away with a simple conclusion; OMG AWESOME!
Touching on Halo: CE, Halo 3 and Halo 4, it’s amazing to be able to see the progression from one iteration to the next. Sure Halo: CE shows its age, even with its anniversary treatment from the 360 era, but it really helps you to appreciate how far the series has come. Both Halo 3 and 4 look amazing on the Xbox One and while they don’t receive the same overhaul as Halo 2 they do receive some minor lighting and texture upgrades that take advantage of the new hardware.
The crown jewel in the MCC is hands down the Halo 2: Anniversary Edition. It’s been ten years since its initial release and it has never looked better. The cutscene cinematics have been painstakingly remade by Blur Studio and as cliché as it sounds they are jaw dropping. The levels themselves can be played in their original format or the remastered format which is certainly where you’ll end up. The ability to switch between old and new on the fly, much like you could with Halo: CE Anniversary, really drives home how much work 343 Industries put into this release.
Of course you can’t have a Halo collection without a serious multiplayer component and this is where MCC shines even further. 106 maps is nothing to sneeze at and they’re all given to you in their original format running on their original engines. While this brings up some legacy issues with the older releases it’s also a really fun reminder of the nights spent super bouncing on maps in Halo 2. Of course, alongside the anniversary treatment for Halo 2, the team at 343 has revamped six of the multiplayer maps for you to enjoy. Admittedly I never even touched half of the maps but that’s no surprise when you consider the hours upon hours it would take to fully play through everything in this collection. Regardless, once matchmaking was ironed out I really was able to jump in and capture the magic that first ensnared me way back in 2001 on Halo: Combat Evolved. The experience was even further refined when Halo 2 debuted on the Xbox Live platform and all the memories of how much fun I had in my early twenties came flooding back the instant I started playing. The first time I BXR’d an opponent I let out a squeal of delight something akin to that of a young schoolgirl.
The depths to which HTMCC goes behind the scenes is nothing if not expansive. From custom games to the Forge and Theater to the leaderboards and customization options it’s mind boggling how much you can do and track. In fact at first glance it can all be a bit confusing so be prepared to spend some time familiarizing yourself with the menus and options. One option which I found exceedingly helpful was the ability to set my controls to the same settings across all games. Considering that back in the days of the OG Xbox the ‘Duke’ controller had no right or left bumpers so controls were much different than they are today. By being able to adjust to more current standards I found it much easier to play. Taking everything one step further the extras included in the HTMCC including documentaries, the Halo: Night fall series, access to the Halo 5 Guardians beta there’s no denying a huge bang for your buck (I am just chock full of clichés right now it seems).
I’m honestly not sure what I can say that will truly influence anyone as to just how good Halo: The Master Chief Collection is. If you’ve ever played Halo you’ll already know that a compilation of this magnitude is nothing short of epic. Not many games can be described as a true ‘must own’ without that exclamation being full of pomp and circumstance but this is one time where the statement genuinely rings true. If you own an Xbox One you MUST OWN Halo: The Master Chief Collection.
When people think of Nintendo, a number of timeless—and cute—characters crop up; Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, Kirby, Fox McCloud, Pikachu… the list goes on and on. From Nintendo’s humble beginnings with the original NES back in 1985 all the way to the Wii U in 2014, the company has consistently been an ambassador for cute mascot characters. The most surprising thing in 2014 however, is that they seem to be the only ones that can succeed at this now.
When you look at the mascots for the Xbox One, they don’t even have any right now, although Master Chief from Halo, Marcus Fenix when they make another Gears of War game, and possibly Jack Joyce once Quantum Break comes out are all on the way. Sony isn’t looking much better with Delsin Rowe from Infamous: Second Son, Nathan Drake from the next Uncharted game, whatever the name of your sword wielding protagonist is in Bloodborne, and of course, Kratos from God of War whenever they dredge him up again to start tearing people in half.
Now, that doesn’t mean that Microsoft or Sony only have dark, gritty mascots throughout their entire history. Microsoft has toyed with cutesy characters like the Pinatas of Viva Pinata and the baby animals of Kinectimals, while Sony tried introducing Knack at the PS4’s launch, and still has a library of other cute characters like Ratchet, Clank, Sly Cooper & friends, Parappa the rapper & friends and quite a few more. The big difference is, whereas Nintendo has its cute mascots front and centre as the showpiece ambassadors of its beloved franchises, Sony and Microsoft do not. Their showpiece characters don’t represent innocent cartoony fun, but gritty, photorealistic violence. It’s no wonder that Nintendo has the market cornered on family entertainment while the likes of Halo and The Last of Us skew to a much older demographic.
But it begs an interesting question. Are Microsoft and Sony “trapped” in a dark and gritty world of mascots for this next console generation? Obviously, the more people a console appeals to, the better, but as we saw in the last generation, cute console mascot games didn’t really take off on either the PS3 or Xbox 360, and the not very impressive debut of Knack on the PS4 seems to continue this trend. The PS3 in particular, saw a sharp drop off of cute mascot games as old stand-bys like Ratchet & Clank, Sly Cooper and Jak & Daxter pulled in fewer sales than the latest Uncharted or Infamous game. Insomniac put more of their efforts into the Resistance franchise than the Ratchet series. Naughty Dog abandoned Jak & Daxter entirely in favour of Uncharted and The Last of Us, while Sucker Punch handed the legacy of their Sly Cooper games over to Sanzaru Games while they concentrated on Infamous. There’s a reason all of these former “funny animal” studios went in this direction; their old bread and butter games weren’t selling as well.
Somehow Nintendo has managed to make cute mascots not just acceptable, but wildly commercially successful..
Contrast this with Nintendo, that still enjoys monster sales on games like Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. in addition to less cute games like Legend of Zelda and Metroid. It’s true that Nintendo doesn’t enjoy the same level of sales with Call of Duty games on their consoles, and there has yet to be a Grand Theft Auto game outside of Chinatown Wars on the DS. However, Nintendo has managed to maintain a library that’s suitable for all ages, whereas more cute, childlike (not necessarily childish) fare has become more marginalized on the PlayStation and Xbox machines as the years pass.
Somehow Nintendo has managed to make cute mascots not just acceptable, but wildly commercially successful, whereas both Sony and Microsoft genuinely struggle to satisfy this audience. Perhaps the audience isn’t there, and they all went to Nintendo. That seems unlikely however, as it would mean every person that owns a PS4 or an Xbox One has no kids, or simply dislikes all forms of cuteness, which is statistically unlikely. It’s more realistic to assume that many families have a situation where the PS4 or Xbox One is for Dad and/or Mom, while the Wii U is for the kids and for general family gaming activities.
Somewhere along the line, people got the idea that neither Microsoft nor Sony could put out good cute mascot games, and this perception—however untrue—has gained momentum. Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time for example, was actually a very respectable game in that genre, doing everything that old Sly games did but with all the bells and whistles of the PS3’s power. Despite the good reviews, it didn’t sell nearly as well as darker, grimmer shooting games, so obviously the problem here isn’t one of quality, it’s one of perception. People don’t WANT to buy such games on Microsoft and Sony consoles, even when they’re good. But why? And why is it that Nintendo not only succeeds, at this, but is expected—almost demanded to—by the audience?
It’s a question that probably both Sony and Microsoft are asking themselves, since both companies would love to have a mascot with the universal appeal of Mario. Only Sega managed to do the same thing with Sonic back in the day, and they no longer make consoles. If this continues we could see a division in the market where children are expected to play on different hardware entirely, while “grown ups” use a different machine. That’s hardly an ideal situation considering that consoles can play any game imaginable. It’s the audience that’s decided to certain games belong on certain systems and now buy the hardware and software according to this expectation. No one wants to live in a world where you have to spend $400 on a console for older household members and another $300-400 on an additional console for the kids, but it seems like many gamers now believe consoles for adults can’t handle games for all ages, and vice versa.
Hail To The Chief
It took five years and the gargantuan effort of changing stewards from one studio to another, but the title that put the Xbox where it is today has finally returned. Halo 4 has touched down and it is a proper, numbered sequel in the series that once again features Master Chief, the Space Marine by which all others are judged. It’s a big responsibility for newcomer 343 Industries, a studio assembled by Microsoft itself for no other reason than to carry on the Halo legacy now that series creator Bungie has left the IP for new, presumably multiplatform pastures with Activision. With so many people across the world aching for a new Halo experience, what’s the one thing 343 Industry could do to satisfy them? Why, make an old, provenHalo experience and do it well. And that’s exactly what’s happened.
Virtual Relationship Problems
After the almost Arthurian ending of Halo 3 where Master Chief was put into stasis with a request to wake him if there was ever need… there’s a need. A new villain arises to threaten humanity and this time it’s the oft mentioned Forerunners to whom the construction of the Halo galaxy killing array system is attributed to. On top of this, the continuing vaguely disturbing undercurrent of Master Chief’s romantic longings for his artificial intelligence Cortana gets more air time as she comes down with an AI condition known as “Rampancy.” This is a deterioration of AI cognitive processes after about seven years of service that results in the AI “thinking itself to death.” Cortana, after this latest bout of babysitting a cryogenically suspended Master Chief for a few years, has put in eight. So with that double whammy of urgent priorities Master Chief is back on the case, piloting combat craft, wandering exotic alien locales and shooting anything without a USNC IFF signal. All’s right with the world, as far as Halo fans are concerned. The only real criticism with the progression of the plot is that, like Assassin’s Creed, 343 Studios sometimes errs on the side of presumption, assuming that people playing the game have kept up with dense lore of Halo that’s cropped up in comics, anime and novels. If you’re not one of those people there will be occasional moments of bafflement as these transmedia plot elements are invoked. For the dedicatedHalo fan, this is a joyous wink of appreciation. For everyone else, it means moments ofentirely too convenient plot device/developments that have little traction.
Moving on to the presentation, there’s good news for graphics whores; this is quite possibly the greatest looking Xbox 360 game ever made, a fairly safe statement to make considering next year will be the console’s last. The frame rate is steady as a rock, there’s little in the way of glitches or collision detection issues, and there’s a noticeable jump in polygon counts and animation from even Halo: Reach. Microsoft has invested some serious money in facial capture technology so even Cortana gets in some startlingly nuanced expressions during the vaguely disturbing scenes of emotional endearment between herself and Master Chief. Master Chief probably also has some Oscar worthy arches of the motion captured brow, and pursing of lips during these tender moments, but we’ll never know. The art direction has also gotten a nice injection of new form and color thanks to the new enemy. Halo has always been good at bypassing the monotone, brown/grey mess that plagues almost every other FPS out there, and 343 Industries keep the reputation alive and well. The more angular, hard lines of the Forerunner enemies and environments give certain sequences of the game almost the feel of a futuristic Japanese game such as Zone of the Enders. But there’s still room for the lush, natural environments that players have come to expect as well, and of course, the Covenant look pretty much the way you remember them, with slight tweaks to their armor.
The sound is also what you’d expect. The iconic “shield empty” beep still trills frantically in the background and the gun fire does a decent job of taking advantage of surround speakers. The big concern here is probably the music, since the regular series composer Marty O’Donnell is now as absent as Bungie itself. Newcomer Neil Davidge—of Massive Attack fame—steps in, and while his compositions aren’t familiar, they feel fitting. Players pining for nostalgic moments of Gregorian chanting are in for disappointment, but there’s a weight and brassiness to the score that evokes everything from Star Wars at times to Avatar. It sounds like an extremely polished science fiction film and it fits the new feel and direction 343 Industries is taking Halo in. It is, like so many other things about Halo 4, safe.
Comfort Food In A Call Of Duty Era
“Safe” is an adjective that can be applied to just about every aspect of Halo 4. 343 Industries went back, put every Halo game under a Star Trek tricorder, and analyzed with almost mathematical efficiency what moments and mechanics from past games players responded to positively. Then they re-skinned those moments in the shiny new graphics engine with a new plot and let players live through them again. Signature free-form combat? Check. Hijack a Ghost and veer around a big open area taking pot shots at Elites? Check. Lonely meandering through vast, ancient, alien corridors? Check. Brief feelings of military omnipotence behind the wheel of a near unstoppable Scorpion tank? Check. Witty, world weary banter between soldiers? Check. Exciting vehicle section that invokes memories of the Star Wars final trench run on the Death Star? Check.Creepy pseudo-romance between a stone cold killer and his hot, blue, naked artificial intelligence, with the curves of a porn-star? Check, check.
Keep in mind, none of this is done badly, which is the important part. If you’re going to take iconic moments from a series that has a special place in the hearts of gamers, don’t screw it up. 343 Industries didn’t. This still feels like Halo, which is a nice change of pace from the relentless linear, fixed action set pieces that Call of Duty has plagued the industry with in Master Chief’s absence.But this isn’t anything particularly new, just a rehash done with polish and great technical proficiency. Halo turned the world upside down with a plethora of new mechanics console gamers had never seen before. This merely reminds players—in a positive way—of that warm fuzzy feeling they had back in 2002. It’s like finding out that childhood restaurant you hadn’t eaten at years was not only still in business, but had just opened up a new franchise around the corner. And when you order your favorite burger, it’s absolutely nothing new, but there’s still great comfort and pleasure taken from having that familiar taste in your mouth. That, in a nutshell, is the Halo 4 experience.
On the flip side of course, that means there’s nothing to surprise you. No moments of new discovery, no feeling that some bold new feature you’re experiencing for the first time is going to be a new standard for gaming that others will imitate. There’s no sense of risk or evolution to Halo 4, only accomplished refinement. A few new weapons pop up thanks to the new alien race, but these feel like assault rifles, carbines and shotguns, just now with free floating components and new textures. And it still feels good. The combat, even without Bungie’s hand, has that promise of experimentation that only Dishonored has managed to capture recently. 343 Industries understands how to give players a wide set of tools and a large enough environment that they can experiment in to fight enemies in different ways, employ different strategies, and, of course, play with friends in the included co-op mode that supports both local, LAN and online. Again, none of this is new, but it’s a welcome return to a different way to play an FPS.
That’s not to say that Halo has totally escaped the black hole of FPS design influences that is Call of Duty. When you get to the multiplayer component, a decidedly COD-ish vibe begins to creep in. Halo:Reach already showed that Bungie was willing to dip from COD’s “RPG-lite” well, and 343 Industries does the same for Halo 4. There’sthe now almost required mechanic of XP gained at the end of combat which can then be used to upgrade load outs, special abilities and character customization options. This, married with the already strong concepts from previous games such as The Forge, and the Theater, the usual competitive modes—all gathered in the section known as War Games—are all available so players will once again find themselves in familiar territory. Familiar bunny hopping, racist, homophobic, sexist territory filled with screaming kids that shouldn’t be playing an M Rated game but are anyway. Thank God for party chat and the “Mute” function.
One interesting new addition for multiplayer is a new co-op mode called “Spartan Ops.” This is probably the most valuable change to the Halo formula, adding a comprehensive co-op campaign that will unfold over time with new missions. “Episode 1” comes complete with its own cinematics—up to the high quality established by the pre-rendered sequences in the main game—and five missions to play through. The missions finally outgrow the rampant Horde Mode imitation from Gears of War that constitutes so many other co-op modes in online FPS gaming. Missions take smart advantage of Halo’s strengths, allowing full use of traditional Halo vehicles in large, open warfare, or simply crawling through the passages of alien installations, clearing out enemies. It will be interesting to see how Spartan Ops develops over time, with subsequent episodes. It’s the one truly innovative highlight of the entire Halo 4 package. It feels new, smartly designed, and does seem like it should be a feature that other games would do well to imitate for their multiplayer modes.
At the end of it all, the thing that matters is that this is Halo that didn’t get messed up. It may not take a lot of chances, but when it still retains the feel of its now iconic style of gameplay, that’s more than enough to keep the fans happy. This is one of those critic-proof games that doesn’t even require a review; no matter what anyone says, almost everyone with an Xbox 360 is going to buy it. But at least when they do, they’re getting a polished—if overly familiar—experience that doesn’t embarrass its legacy despite its new stewards. And it has a new and interesting co-op mode to boot. I’d say “Go out and buy this game,” but you probably already have.
Yesterday, David Ellis promoted the launch of the latest Halo 4 trailer, directed by acclaimed Hollywood director David Fincher. They did not disappoint.