It was clear to everyone when 343 Industries used its acquisition of the Halo franchise to release Halo: Anniversary - an upgraded, remastered and expanded re-release of the original Halo: Combat Evolved - that a similar treatment could be expected for Halo 2. But with the arrival of the Xbox One, Microsoft revealed their plans for much, much more. Players wouldn't be offered Halo 2: Anniversary to commemorate the game's tenth birthday, but all four numbered entries as part of Halo: The Master Chief Collection.
Now the collection is imminent, bringing Halo: Anniversary, Halo 2: Anniversary, Halo 3 and Halo 4 to one platform, in one box, for one price. The fact that the upgraded reincarnation of Halo 2's multiplayer would be included - an online arena that helped to define Xbox Live and console shooters as a whole - made the Master Chief Collection a no-brainer, but if fans were impressed by the previous update, then the newest Anniversary will downright astound.
But outside of the games themselves, the package as a whole is hard to view as merely the cash-grab that some (ill-informed) skeptics will claim it. In an age when games like The Last of Us and Tomb Raider receive 'definitive editions' before their initial launch has faded from conversation, the inclusion of four games in one release stands apart. And the presentation of the Collection itself shows that it's one hours-long letter to the fans (the developers included).
Every Halo fans is sure to have their favorite entry in the franchise, but the ten year honor means Halo 2 Anniversary is most definitely the Collection's crown jewel. Boasting the same graphical and audio upgrades as its predecessor, the remake's visuals manage the same task of convincing players that the up-ressed Halo 2 is the same game fans knew and loved - until they swap back into the original version.
The same group effort - 343 Industries, Certain Affinity, and Saber Interactive - is to thank for the makeover, with the more powerful hardware of the Xbox One making the swap from new to old instantaneous. Where Halo 2 Anniversary excels over the previous remake, however, is the fact that the core game was more ambitious, more expansive, and more compelling. It didn't work for everyone, but it's never looked better.
But what makes Halo 2 Anniversary more than worth the price of admission is the stunning cinematic cut-scenes courtesy of Blur Studio. They, too, are able to be ignored for those seeking richer nostalgia; but if the discrepancy between the refurbished game and original is obvious, the leap forward taken with the cinematics is downright laughable. It may not be enough to make the entire game seem like a brand new experience, but it comes closer than many fans will believe.
Yet it's the source material behind the cutting-edge short films bookending each level that shows 343's real intention. When asked why the new/old swapping wasn't made optional to achieve 'true 1080p', Halo veteran Frank O'Connor stated that such a decision would miss the point of the collection entirely. In short: the remake is meant to celebrate how far gaming has come, and just how much Bungie got right in the first place. And that philosophy extends into the storytelling.
The scenes may be prettier than ever, better motion-captured than was possible at the time, and photo-realistic enough to challenge even Halo 4's graphics, but the voices - and therefore the humor and personality that won over millions - remain perfectly intact. It's an impressive feat, and the fact that such a massive overhaul doesn't distract from the story is testament to Blur as much as the developers.
From a mechanical standpoint, the core experience has been kept entirely intact. The increase in frame rate is the only real culprit in making the gunplay seem - at times - somewhat different. With battles moving faster, it's impossible to grant the same weight or tactility to sniper rifles or shotguns; but it's the price paid for more responsive controls, even if it proves that 'better graphics' isn't a straightforward improvement for everyone.
The impact of Halo 3 and Halo 4 is not nearly as evident, but the move to the Xbox One has brought with it an increased resolution and frame rate that won't go unnoticed among the hardcore. Not necessarily enough to warrant a repeat playthrough, but players may be tempted after finishing the newly-epic scale granted to Halo 2 (and its ending remains as underwhelming as ever).
Regardless of which entries are most precious to each player, the minimalist presentation of the Collection once loaded does volumes to communicate how 343 no doubt wishes the Halo series to be seen: as one story told in four chapters. Separated by years (and development teams), but chapters nonetheless. The interface may seem a footnote to the overall experience, but the task of handling four different games - each with individual stages, skulls, customization and multiplayer loadouts - in one menu system is a unique one. But 343 makes it seem easy.
The idea of having all four games at the press of a button not an appealing one? If that's the case, the unique Playlists concocted by 343 are a welcome addition, composed of missions sets divided not by games, but the overall structure and experience. The feature may not be used by every fan, but adding the equivalent of 'channel-surfing' through Halo missions is an inspired touch that shows 343 didn't farm out the upgrades and call it a day.
In the end, The Master Chief Collection brings a better version of the first Anniversary, a similar treatment for Halo 2 producing even more impressive results, and tweaked versions of Halo 3 and 4 for good measure. That's a no-brainer for both singleplayer and cooperative fans, but the weight of the multiplayer - re-capturing the gameplay and maps of Halo 2 to the finest detail - can't be underestimated.
[Update: Due to consistent server and matchmaking errors, we're holding off on reviewing the multiplayer portion of the game. Example below.]
Halo: The Master Chief Collection comes to Xbox One on November 11, 2014 in North America, with global releases following after. Game Rant was supplied a copy for review.
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