Editor's Note: Halo: The Master Chief Collection originally received a 4.5 stars and Editor's Choice from Tom's Guide, but we have since altered the score and removed the Editor's Choice award due to the problematic state of the game's online multiplayer. The review text has been updated accordingly.
What does Halo mean to you?
For some, it means sprawling single-player firefights and intriguing sci-fi lore. For others, it means spending hours blowing up friends in competitive multiplayer. And for the creative lot, it means crafting custom arenas and creating slick montage videos.
If you fall into any of these categories, Halo: The Master Chief Collection is a playable treasure chest meticulously made with you in mind. Packaging the first four numbered installments in Microsoft's beloved first-person shooter series, complete with a full new-gen reworking of Halo 2, this $60 Xbox One anthology offers plenty to do for Halo heads old and new. However, with the game's online matchmaking — a key feature of the series since 2004's Halo 2 — all but broken right now, those who play Halo to compete against the world may want to hold off for now.
A Tale of Four Halos
The Master Chief Collection is a careful curation of all things Halo, which, if you've been stuck in outer space for the past decade and a half, is Microsoft's blockbuster shooter series, created by Bungie and later picked up by 343 Industries.
Halo helped establish the rulebook for the modern console FPS when it launched for the first Xbox in 2001, offering tight, weighty controls, satisfying weapons, expansive battlefields and a regenerating health system that has been aped by just about every game in the genre since.
Halo is largely the story of Master Chief, a supersoldier who takes on threats such as the alien Covenant, the zombielike Flood and the robotic Prometheans alongside his iconic A.I. companion Cortana. Part of what makes the Master Chief Collection special is the ability to enjoy his saga any way you like; all levels from Halo 1 through 4 are unlocked from the start, and you can opt to marathon throughout the whole franchise or battle through themed playlists that mash up the best missions from each game.
Halo 2: A Legend Reborn
If The Master Chief Collection is a virtual museum, Halo 2: Anniversary is unquestionably its most prized exhibit. This Halo 2 remake serves up a complete aesthetic overhaul of the 2004 Xbox classic, packing refreshed visuals, beefed-up sounds and beautiful new cutscenes that immersed me in Halo's narrative in a way that no game in the series has before.
My favorite gameplay mechanic in Halo 2: Anniversary has nothing to do with shooting anyone. Rather, it's the single button that instantly reverts the game's new-generation graphics back to how they looked in 2004. Aside from inciting a rush of nostalgia, looking at Halo 2's original form deepened my appreciation for the richer colors, better lighting and insane amount of new details found in the Anniversary version. Whether I stumbled upon a lush patch of foliage, a realistically rippling pond or an ominous space station in the distance, Halo 2: Anniversary always made me stop and stare — before traveling a decade back in time to see how it all used to look.
From the burst of a Battle Rifle to the sharp slice of an Energy Sword, all of Halo 2's sounds have been bolstered for the new package. The remastered version of the game's guitar-rock-orchestra soundtrack is appropriately thunderous, to the point where I couldn't help banging my head to a guitar solo during a tense dogfight with an enemy ship.
Halo 2's recrafted stages are glued together by immersive new cutscenes, which marry the game's original dialogue with strikingly lifelike cinematics. Crafted by Blur Studio, these new scenes use real-life motion capture and detailed set pieces to add emotion and scale to the game's many iconic moments — from Sergeant Johnson's tussle with the alien Arbiter to the Chief's epic takedown of a Covenant ship. Blur's cinematics make Halo 2 feel like a brand-new game, and are reason alone to fire up Halo 2: Anniversary.
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Halo 2's core gameplay hasn't changed, because it holds up remarkably well. Signature Halo 2 mechanics such as dual-wielding weapons and jacking enemy vehicles feel just as good now as they did in 2004, and the whole experience is smoother now that the game runs at a buttery 60 frames per second.
The Best of the Rest
Halo 2: Anniversary is joined by Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, which gave the first Halo a similar reworking when it first hit the Xbox 360 in 2011. While the differences between the original and remastered versions of Halo 1 aren't quite as dramatic as those of Halo 2, you can finally switch graphics modes at will; doing so in the Xbox 360 version required you to sit through a brief loading screen.
Halo: Combat Evolved is the one game in the collection that truly shows its age, as it feels noticeably stiff and slow compared with Halo 2 and its successors. However, with loads of series-defining sequences — from your arrival on the game's titular ring world to your creepy first encounter with the Flood — the game is more than worth diving into, especially if this is your first time in Master Chief's boots.
Chief's collection is rounded out by scaled-up versions of Halo 3 and 4, which both originally debuted on the Xbox 360. These games don't get the same anniversary treatment as Halo 1 and 2, but benefit greatly from enhanced lighting and an improved sense of fluidity. Whether you're exploring the African jungles of Halo 3 or hurling toward a Forerunner planet in Halo 4, these not-so-old Halo games feel even more fresh at 1080p and 60 fps.
Packing every single multiplayer map ever released for Halo 1 through 4, The Master Chief Collection's range of competitive content is staggering. As with single player, though, it's the reworked portions of Halo 2 that kept me coming back — when I was able to find a game, at least.
The game's first few days in public hands have been riddled with online matchmaking issues. Many players (including myself) reported having to wait an excruciatingly long time before being placed in a match, if they were even placed in one at all. This is especially ironic considering that the anthology is largely a celebration of Halo 2, the game that pioneered online matchmaking on the original Xbox ten years ago. It's imperative that 343 irons this problem out as soon as possible, because The Master Chief Collection's player vs. player component offers more content than just about any other shooter on Xbox One.
Six of Halo 2's most popular maps have been completely rebuilt for the collection, complete with an upgraded version of the original game's engine. Aside from looking beautiful — and boy, do they — the remixed stages toss in new gameplay elements that open up a wealth of chaotic and joyful possibilities.
Take the beloved winter arena Lockout, for example, which now sports dangling chunks of ice on its ceiling that can be shot down and slammed on any enemies below. Or Bloodline (formerly Blood Gulch), which packs new EMP towers at each base that can knock down any vehicles hovering above. Even old vehicles have been juiced up; Halo 2's Mongoose ATV now sports machine guns in the front, leading to its affectionate new name: the Gungoose.
The rich vistas and gritty details of the reworked maps are dangerously distracting. For instance, when battling out on Zenith (a remake of Ascension), I kept staring at the gorgeous clouds and canyons of the map's surrounding Halo world instead of focusing on my opponents. I was killed quickly and often.
This fresh take on Halo multiplayer is just a small slice of the multilayer cake that awaits competitive players. The collection's 100-plus maps each utilize their respective game's original engines, so fighting on Halo 1 maps will really feel like Halo 1, and so on.
You can hop on multiplayer playlists that are dedicated to a single Halo game, or opt to mix and match within the series. When you factor in each game's downloadable-content maps — including Halo 1 maps that were previously exclusive to PC — even the most seasoned Halo buffs are bound to find an arena they never played on.
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My private online sessions (and a few successful matchmaking games) with The Master Chief Collection were filled with the type of spontaneous, chuckle-worthy combat moments that made me fall in love with Halo in the first place. More importantly, they played smoothly, showing no notable signs of lag even as I shot at fellow Spartans all across the globe. If 343 is able to patch the collection's matchmaking problems so that players can quickly and effortlessly jump into the action, then I can see the anthology being played competitively for months — possibly years.
If you somehow grow bored with Halo's campaigns and multiplayer, you can utilize the long-running Forge and Theater modes to make new arenas and watch and record matches, respectively. The package also provides access to the Halo: Nightfall TV series — which wasn't accessible at the time of review — as well as the Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer beta, which kicks off Dec. 29.
While it seems crazy to want more from a package so massive, I can imagine a few Halo diehards being disappointed by the exclusion of series spin-off Halo 3: ODST and prequel Halo: Reach (my personal favorite). These installments aren't key to Master Chief's saga, but it would have been nice to relive them on next-gen hardware, particularly because of each game's popular Firefight co-op mode.
If you play Halo for its epic, highly replayable campaigns, The Master Chief Collection is a must-own. Mixing and matching iconic missions from Halo 1 through 4 is a joy, and the stunning cutscenes and reworked graphics of Halo 2 Anniversary often make it feel like a brand-new installment in the series.
If you mainly play Halo to duke it out with fellow Spartans, however, you should wait for the game's virtually unplayable matchmaking system to be fixed. Halo's raucous, diverse multiplayer offerings have helped define the current generation of shooters, and this otherwise impressive anthology won't be complete until the whole world can experience its violent joys together.