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Halo: The Master Chief Collection – new plays and replays, disappointments and surprises

I've just finished all the main campaigns of all the games included in Halo: MCC. I had played two of them in the 2000s, and I've always wanted to play the rest, but I've never owned a console, so the PC release of the MCC was the first time I got to experience all the games since Halo 3. The experience was pretty interesting, sometimes surprising, something frustrating, but I'm ultimately glad to have played through the whole thing.

I'll get into my impressions on all the games below, in order of release. Some of these sections may be long, I've included a summary at the end of each one.

Halo: Combat Evolved (replay)

A little background for this one – I've played Halo: Combat Evolved multiple times since I was a schoolkid, and it's one of my favourite games of all time. I've played it again for the first time in years, and yeah, it still holds up. The levels in the first half are all excellent, and they might qualify for the most densely packed collection of great levels in the whole franchise. The enemy design and differences, the variety in weapons, all of these blow my mind even now, because this is the foundation on which every other Halo game has been built, and all those elements were already strong right off the bat. And the sense of wonder and mystery in the whole game is still top-tier, being the strongest element of the whole package for me.

That being, said, there are two issues, one old and one related to Anniversary.

I mentioned the first half because, even back in the day, the drop-off in quality of level design in the second half was obvious, with a few levels that suffer immensely, with The Library being an infamous low point, and the first half of the Maw feeling like a chore.

I also played the Anniversary edition of Halo, and I had major issues with the art design. Pretty much every surface of every building or alien structure is lit up with bright tubelights, which can get ridiculous when you find building's blank back wall being overdesigned to the point that it looks like a door, or bottomless pits that once extended into darkness and now look like potential shortcuts to lower areas. Lots of levels have had their colour scheme and atmosphere completely changed, and a lot of it doesn't really mesh with the original intent. It runs great, sure, but I kept being frustrated with the new graphics and comparing them with the old.

Overall though, I still love this game. So much.

TL;DR – Great game, some bad levels, anniversary graphics overdesigned.

Rating – 9.5/10

Favourite Level – Assault On The Control Room

Halo 2 (replay)

I remember when Halo 2 was released for Windows Vista, and was completely out of reach for me until the XP crack was released. I played it through once and was heavily disappointed – the game had ditched all the mystery and wonder of the first game, essentially becoming an action blockbuster. The electric guitars in the new Halo theme also irritated me, ruining (what was in my opinion) a perfect musical piece with unnecessary modernization.

After played Halo 2 again now, my opinion has done a completely 180.

There's MUCH more worldbuilding this time when it comes to the Covenant, with an Elite being a secondary protagonist, and the Master Chief's brightly lit swashbuckling adventure levels contrast with the Elite's moodier levels with their strange vistas. When I played the game for the first time, the focus shift alienated me, because I wanted something that felt like the first game. As I've grown older (and hopefully a little wiser), I've changed my stance on sequels enough to realize that Halo 2 is trying to show a very different experience, and honestly? I now think it's incredibly successful, and even the rushed ending doesn't bother me much.

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The gameplay has also aged extremely well – Halo 2 introduces a whole bunch of weapons and dual wielding, and all of it feels fantastic to play with. In the first game, I generally stuck to a few weapons for dispatching different types of enemies, while in this one, I keep switching weapons to try new things and play differently, and nearly all of them are fun to use, and there's lots of room for experimentation in the level design.

Halo 2 has also received the same Anniversary treatment, and the new designs are substantially more well conceived than the first game. The art style and colour schemes are all respected well, with modern textures spicing up a lot of areas and characters that were previously very low-quality, and massively improved lighting and models that make a lot of levels feel even more atmospheric. This also improved level design for me – levels that were formerly visually repetitive now feel much better to play through, and the music levels are much more audible and add a lot to the experience for me.

Before this, if anyone said Halo 2 was one of their favourite games of all time, I used to be quietly dismissive. Now, I'm finding myself agreeing with them, and wondering if I actually like this better than the first game, which was already one of my favourite games ever.

TL;DR – Used to dislike this, now love it. Great weapons and fun dual-wielding, interesting story, even with the ending.

Rating – 9.5/10

Favourite Level – Quarantine Zone

Halo 3

​​I remember when the Xbox 360 came out and I wanted it so badly, and a huge part of that was Halo 3. I went to Gamefaqs and read the whole script, I read a million online reviews that were near-unanimous with their praise, and I kept hoping to play it someday. And finally, after thirteen years, I've finally gotten to play it for the first time, and I can finally experience what all those other people had played all those years ago, and I finally get to say…

Yeah, it's pretty good. Bit short though.

Barring a few extra complications towards the end, the whole game is basically about the Human-Covenant war, and most of the game focuses on finishing the fight (which was literally an advertising tagline for this game), and the focus is spent on giving the player a bunch of large levels with a lot of strong enemies, a bunch of tools you can use to fight them, and giving you the freedom to do whatever you want to do.

While I was a bit disappointed coming in from Halo 2, I did admire the sheer focus of the game's design, which easily lends itself to the presence of some of the best gameplay sections in the series so far. In fact, while the level quality has been a bit hit-or-miss in previous games, nearly all the levels here (with the exception of the second last level) range from good to brilliant.

I am at a bit of a loss for words, though – all these years since I've wanted to play it, and I've just had an immense reversal of my opinion on its predecessor, and in the end, Halo 3 just ends up feeling like a very good game. Like, I'd be open to replaying some of the levels sometime, but there's no radically new addition to the series that makes me interested enough to write about.

Anyway, yeah, it's pretty good. Bit short though. Also, sadly, the last time dual wielding will be seen in this franchise.

TL;DR – Exactly what it looks like on the tin, no surprises. Great level design, very short.

Rating – 8.5/10

Favourite Level – The Covenant

Halo 3: ODST

Basically a spinoff story taking place on Earth during Halo 2, from the perspective of a normal human soldier, Halo 3: ODST is an extremely interesting game. The music and sense of atmosphere are all excellent, and even though it's got the same graphics as Halo 3, the lighting system seems to have been improved by leaps and bounds.

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For much of the game, while you keep shifting perspectives between different soldiers of a squad, your main protagonist is a mute soldier who spends a night roaming through the ruins of a recently destroyed city. The perspective shifts are an interesting change of pace, showing off different characters, and I really, really wish I cared about any of them. Most of them are completely forgettable, and the most memorable character is basically Nathan Fillion playing a wisecracking Captain Mal-type and delivering lines that make him look like an annoying jilted ex. There's a nice side-story you can optionally find through the game by unlocking audio files through terminals, and I was honestly much more invested in that part of the game.

That being said, it's Halo. The level designs are great, and none of the games from this point onwards really have a bad level as such. The gameplay is great, and the differences highlighting the vulnerability (no shields) and reduced strength of the player characters (no dual wielding) make the game feel even more perilous, forcing you to play smart.

TL;DR – Great atmosphere, didn't care for the writing or the characters beyond optional voice logs. Still fun to play.

Rating – 8/10

Favourite Level – Kikowani Station

Halo: Reach

Halo: Reach is located at the very beginning of the game list in the Master Chief Collection, which makes a lot of sense if you think in terms of chronology, and zero sense when you think about how the gameplay has evolved through the series.

The setting might be one of the most interesting so far – this one's a prequel to the first Halo, and you're tasked with fending off the destruction of a planet you already know will succeed, playing a character whose doom you can already infer. The sombre nature of the story does a lot of heavy lifting, and while the writing of the characters isn't great (with a few exceptions that all die relatively early), the game does succeed in conveying a sense of tragedy and futility.

The game engine has been overhauled, with new graphics complementing a new art style that will only be seen for this single game. There are also a bunch of new weapons, and some of them become immediate favourites, like the Designated Marksman Rifle. The gameplay changes here feel like the next big step after Halo 2, with the open level design inherited from Halo 3, all coming together to form an excellent game that feels great to play. The campaign still doesn't reach the heights of Halo 2 for me, but that's fine.

TL;DR – Refreshingly different and new in basically every way. Wish the characters were explored and highlighted more.

Rating – 9/10

Favourite Level – New Alexandria

Halo 4

Halo 4 is the first game made by a completely different studio, and it massively reinvents the gamefeel again, bringing a lot of modern FPS elements to the franchise. It's an interesting experience – this was the most frustrated I felt at a Halo story so far, but it's also got some of the most gripping story beats in the whole franchise.

We get back to Master Chief's perspective after all these years, after the ending of Halo 4, and it's kind of weird how there's a lot from the previous games that gets thrown out, like dual wielding and the truce with the Covenant Elites. (this especially irked me, because there's no in-game explanation given for why they're back to being villains beyond a single "yeah it's been four years, anything could have happened"). A lot of the modern elements added feel irritating as well – Halo 3 and all subsequent games generally kept combat setpieces out of cutscenes and gave you control of the situation, and there are a few cutscene setpieces with quick-time events in Halo 4 that feel extremely out-of-place whenever they occur.

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There are some good additions though, like how the game has an added sprint function that's separate from the armour abilities, which makes the game feel much better when you have to traverse certain large areas without a vehicle. There are a few new vehicles you get to pilot, which all feel good to control and use. A huge addition to the Halo franchise is the setting – for the first time since the first Halo, the environments felt new and alien to me, and the level design is clean and clear enough that none of it felt overly visually busy (unlike the new enemy models for both new foes and old).

The biggest change, though, is the relationship between the Master Chief and Cortana, which influences basically everything in the game. For the first time, the Chief speaks regularly during gameplay, which serves the dual purpose of both humanizing him and making him feel like even more of a badass during the times where he spontaneously makes decisions on his own. For the first time, we see Cortana's face on screen when she speaks to the Chief, and what previously felt like dry mission info now feels like a conversation between two friends who've been through hell together. This is easily my favourite part of the game, and it's a pity that some of the other parts don't quite live up to it – the central mysteries of the game are revealed with a single cutscene stuffed with heavy-handed exposition, the antagonist isn't very compelling or interesting, and one particular human character feels like he's inconsistently written to advance the plot.

The level design is nice, though – it doesn't really hit the highs of Halo 3 or Reach, but while there are some mediocre levels, there are enough interesting levels that I wanted to keep playing. The new enemies are fine, and while I was frustrated with them towards the beginning, I eventually got how to efficiently and quickly beat them using strategies that are very different from equivalent types of Covenant enemies – though I wish their visual design highlighted their ranks clearly enough. The new weapons don't feel different or special enough for me to have new favourites, but they're good enough that I had fun playing with them.

In the end, I did really like the game, even with its shortcomings. Halo has never really boasted exemplary writing or deep characterization, and while there are a lot of risks the narrative takes that don't always work, the ones that do pay off in spades.

TL;DR – Simultaneously frustrating and engaging in story beats and gameplay. Still fun overall.

Rating – 8.5/10

Favourite Level – Reclaimer

End Note – I know about Halo 4's Spartan Ops essentially being a separate campaign, but I'm not sure if I should play through it. Have any of you played it? What do you think of it?


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