Xbox has been the home to plenty of exclusives, but none have defined the platform and the brand quite like Halo. Next year's Halo 5 will be tied with Halo 3 for the longest time new console owners have had to wait for a matching game, and so The Master Chief Collection is something of a stopgap measure--the appetizer before the meal. As far as appetizers go, though, it's awfully filling.
As the name implies, The Master Chief Collection collects all four games featuring John-117 as the playable character. This handily lets 343 avoid including ODST and Reach, but the package isn't by any means thin. Four entire Halo games represents quite a lot of Halo, to the point that even the most ardent fans will likely need to pace themselves if they want to see all of them through again.
To that end, the game smartly lets you hop around at your leisure. Every game and stage is unlocked from the beginning, so if you'd rather jump around or revisit some favorite stages, you can. Skilled Halo players can turn on a variety of Skulls, unlocked from the start, which give scoring multipliers for the new stage-based leaderboards. These come alongside a series of non-scoring Skulls which can be turned on just to tweak aspects of the game, like enabling Active Camo or making rare dialogue happen more frequently.
It also introduces curated Playlists, series of stages connected by a common theme. These can be categorized by game, but the best are the cross-game Playlists that give an overview of how the series progressed. One might track various vehicle stages throughout the games, or another might pit you against the Flood over and over. One called Final Four collects all the climaxes from each game and bundles them together. It's a simple, ingenious way to showcase the series' history.
Playlists are a simple, ingenious way to showcase the series' history.
Playlists are limited by the inability to track progress for more than one at a time. That effectively means that you can't hop between Playlists to try different ones. This isn't a problem for most brief playlists. If you attempt an extra-long list, like the one that runs through the campaigns of all four games, you need to commit to finishing it without doing any of the others.
Unfortunately, these playlists are only curated by 343. The idea of allowing users to make their own playlists seems so obvious, and even easy enough to support as a social feature. Letting users make their own compilations of Halo memories would lend this compilation some serious longevity, and the lack of it feels like a missed opportunity to encourage fans to share their own favorite memories.
Not that longevity is a problem for a package that includes four lengthy games. The showpiece of the collection is Halo 2: Anniversary, another loving makeover in the style of the Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary released in 2011. Thanks to a a higher frame rate and lighting flourishes for the new generation, the makeover looks better than the one given to Combat Evolved. Plus, it benefits from new, beautifully rendered cutscenes. Halo Anniversary has undergone the same treatment, but its previously revised textures aren't quite as detailed as the new ones made for Halo 2. Halo 3 and Halo 4 both received frame rate boosts and other small tweaks, which helps the package feel cohesive but isn't quite as striking as the treatment given to older games.
If you need a reminder of just how impressive the achievement is, the first two games allow you to switch back to the original textures at the press of a button. Halo Anniversary did this as well, but a choppy delay meant the gimmick wasn't very functional. The Master Chief Collection makes it instantaneous, which means it's easy to compare and contrast any environment you come across.
Multiplayer offers a similarly stark contrast, albeit in a different way. The classic maps have largely been retained in their original states, given a few visual tweaks but otherwise remaining simlar. Since Halo 2 is the showpiece, though, some of its maps have been rebuilt in the impressive new engine. It isn't quite the instantaneous comparison offered by the single-player, but it does go a long way towards showing how far progress has come.
Other than those handful of maps and some graphical tweaks, though, multiplayer is very much intended as a museum of Halo history. As a result, the maps and modes are kept in walled gardens. Modes and options that only appeared in particular games, like Race, Territories, and Regicide, remain distinctly in their own space. It's understandable that 343 didn't decide to mix and match modes into gameplay maps and systems that were never meant for them, but I can't help but feel curious regardless.
With all these options, the navigation and menus could have been an utter mess. They're comprehensible considering the wealth of content, but they do suffer from some oddities. The general Settings menu, for example, has a host of control options, but they're each separated by game. If you find settings you like, you might be caught off-guard when you jump into a different game and find them entirely changed. Similarly strange, the Loadouts for Halo 4's multiplayer are found in a Customization menu, rather than under the Multiplayer or Halo 4 menus. It's understandable enough once you learn its ins and outs, but takes some orienting.
True to their nature, the older games are still hampered by their outdated saving system. Often I would have to jump back into the start of a mission I hadn't completed, rather than simply picking up progress where I left off at a checkpoint, because I had forgotten to save and quit out to the main menu. It will likely take modern gamers a few frustrating moments of missing progress to remind them of how to negotiate a system that sticks to its roots a little too much.
Halo: The Master Chief Collection has a handful of quirks and legacy issues, but those don't diminish the achievement. It's a stellar collection of some of the best games of the last few generations, with options galore and clever ideas like Playlists to breathe new life into old content. It's a must-have for Halo fans, and may rightly serve as a satisfying introduction for newcomers.