Master Chief's return to PC continues, with the addition of Halo 2: Anniversary to Halo: The Master Chief Collection. The number of available games has been slowly expanding since the arrival of Halo: Reach last year, and the newest launch is here only a couple of months after Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. Both of those ports were positive experiences to go through, albeit with a sprinkling of bugs. And now, it is Halo 2’s turn.
Many of you should already know that this is not the first time Halo 2 has been available on PC. Microsoft pushed out a port of the original 2004 Xbox game to Windows Vista as an exclusive in 2007, arriving alongside the now infamous Games for Windows – Live service. But of course, being years late and lacking improvements did not exactly help the port's reputation, which ultimately became the final mainline Halo title to reach PC, until the new initiative from Microsoft.
I was lucky enough to play Halo 2 on Vista back in the day, and although my memory of it is a little hazy, I've been very excited to find out just how much has changed in the HD remaster which finally shed its Xbox One exclusivity. As usual, I will not be exploring the story elements too deeply in this review to avoid spoilers and retreading old ground. Read on to find out what I thought of this new PC port of the Halo 2: Anniversary edition by Saber Interactive and 343 Industries.
Compared to Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2 is focused much more on giving the Covenant a deeper background, so if you've been wanting a little more context as to what is actually happening in the enemy camp, you're in for a treat. The Covenant, the alien federation that wipes out human settlements and glasses planets in its free time - which Halo: Reach players should now be familiar with - isn’t just the over-the-counter baddie that you plow through while on the way to your objective anymore. Now, you get to witness its command hierarchy and cult-like nature, and find out all is not well within the Covenant's ranks.
The story campaign digs into the consequences of Master Chief and Cortana's actions in Halo: Combat Evolved, both from a human as well as alien perspective. To accomplish this, a significant portion of the campaign is dedicated towards playing as a high-level Covenant operative, an Arbiter. The game doles out alien segments to sandwich Master Chief-centric missions that are happening concurrently.
The change is not as drastic as you think on the gameplay side, however. Other than a handy get-out-of-jail-free-card invisibility cloak, the Arbiter's shield-based armor remains the same as the Master Chief's, you use familiar weapons and vehicles (though alien variants are more common), and even the brawls are against the same alien species. The backup you receive is just more alien buddies, but the dilemma is that they all look the same, so just avoid looking at my accidental friendly fire kill feed.
Throughout the campaign you will be zigzagging through human cities, alien ships the size of planets, sprawling underground tunnels, ancient alien environments that are even alien to the aliens I mentioned before, and more, all the while punching plenty of grunts. Gone are the days of being stranded on a Halo ring for an entire game. The pacing is excellent too, as on-foot sections are broken up with vehicle combat that involves ground and air battles, keeping you constantly moving across what feel like massive territories.
Pressing the tab key while playing the campaign will essentially transport you across time between the original graphics and audio of 2004 and the 2014 Anniversary remaster's offerings. Just like in Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, this extremely impressive implementation is also an instant toggle, easily showcasing just how faithful the HD remaster is comparably. It was not uncommon for me to just take a breather and enjoy the landscapes while using that toggle during the calmer times in-between fights, studying just how much has remained the same but changed drastically at the same time.
Another huge change brought by way of the Anniversary upgrade concerns the cinematics, redone by Blur Studios. These really make me wonder if there is an in-built routine on Master Chief’s armor just to keep the glorious shine levels high. These gorgeous cutscenes are a joy to watch, albeit a little jarring due to the massive difference in fidelity. That toggle to switch between Classic and Anniversary is also hard at work here, though I mostly stuck to the more modern offering during this playthrough to not miss out on the more highly detailed action.
The cooperative experience was essentially flawless throughout the entire journey as well, and playing with a co-op partner means all sorts of new shenanigans can ensue, easily enhancing the campaign that takes around nine hours to complete. It is still two-player online co-op, however this will go back to being a four-player romp once Halo 3 is cleared for action. Also, since Halo 2 adds dual-wielding weapons as a fun little mechanic, now you and your buddy can shoot at aliens with four guns at once. An essential upgrade, obviously.
Considering the game's age, some of the same level design complaints I had with Halo: Combat Evolved apply here as well. There are a handful of levels that repeat designs and are not efficient at pointing out the exits following fights until you explore every corner to find one. There are some lengthy elevator and platform riding sections that were also a little dull. Maybe the aliens who made these facilities loved utilizing slow-moving platforms to go where they want or simply lacked the impatience trait.
To repeat myself from the last review, the Anniversary remakes do not touch the level designs themselves, but only upgrade the icing of these Halo cakes by a big margin. This isn't a negative for the releases themselves, just something to keep in mind. Still, those confusing or drab levels are minimal compared to Combat Evolved. I do not recall Halo: Reach having level problems like these either, meaning the upcoming re-releases of more modern Halo titles on PC should be rid of this concern altogether.
In the end, I wish I got to go through this campaign with the Master Chief Collection PC enhancements the first time around. Bungie's track record for delivering over the top and highly enjoyable campaigns remains intact in this entry, as Halo 2 smoothly takes over the reins from the previous title to greatly enhance all the correct areas, while the Anniversary remaster elevates the whole shebang to another level. As you can gather, my hype levels for Halo 3 are at an all-time high after experiencing this campaign in a new light.
Unlike the campaign, the multiplayer of Halo 2: Anniversary is where the experience is split into two divisions. You can matchmake into Classic or Anniversary remade maps separately. The former tries to keep almost everything the same as it was 16 years ago, from the graphics and audio to the UI, while latter is the most modern Halo multiplayer experience PC has gotten yet through the Master Chief Collection.
As such, this multiplayer offering is easily the most user-friendly experience available through the Collection right now. I say that because there are no innate armor abilities, and in Anniversary, the UI is modern and sized appropriately. Health is streamlined so that your only worry is regarding your shield, which regenerates very quickly after combat encounters. On top of that, you will probably have a much easier time controlling weapons here, since bloom has been done away with entirely – not the graphical effect, but the accuracy reduction that happens when firing precision weapons continuously. Instead of playing around with trigger timings, you can simply rely on your aiming skills.
Of course, I'm not forgetting about dual-wielding weapons in multiplayer, a mechanic that is pretty much useless against most opponents. But when the option shows up while next to a weapon with the feature, it's impossible to not pick it up and ignore the voice in my head that goes "wee" while holding down both mouse buttons. It is astounding just how different the feel of each multiplayer offering is from the games released so far, even though the changes do not look that drastic from the outside.
However, after spending around 20 hours in multiplayer alone, jumping between Anniversary and Classic maps depending on what the matchmaking gives me, I still have not meshed very well with the latter offering. At first, I thought the Classic iteration gave players way more health since I was pumping more bullets into them than in Anniversary before their ultimate demise. However, after looking into the problem, this appears to be due to shoddy hit registration.
Halo 2 Classic multiplayer is also where the teleportation bug appeared at launch, a hilarious issue where weapon projectiles and grenades can inexplicably "teleport" and hit teammates and opponents situated anywhere across the map if they are looking downward. Nine days after the launch, a fix arrived for the issue. A major problem like this should not have slipped through testing, especially considering weeks of public Insider flights are being hosted before every release.
While sticking with the greatly enjoyable Anniversary matchmaking is an option you have, there are sadly only a handful of maps available, which are also split between the 4v4 and 8v8 modes, compared to the Classic offering's massive map roster, so you'll miss out on a great chunk of multiplayer content.
Graphics, audio, performance
Although my nostalgia kept on advising me - very confidently mind you - that the Vista version I played all those years ago looked just as good as the Anniversary remaster, a quick switch to Classic graphics always brought me back to reality. The overhaul is impressive to say the least, offering a very modernized experience that is hard to find a fault with. While two versions of the game are running concurrently, even a PC built back in 2014 (when Halo 2: Anniversary originally launched) will probably not have issues running the title.
The game is also stable as a rock. There weren’t any crashes or glitches in my cooperative campaign experience anywhere, and frames stayed above 60 throughout. Of course, PC-centric features like the FOV slider, key rebinds, high-resolution display support, and other tweaks lift the experience considerably, too. So far, graphics optimization hasn't been a problem with any of the Master Chief Collection games on PC, though the same thing can't be said about the audio.
Audio has been a problematic area in both previous Halo releases on the new platform, but I am delighted to say Halo 2 has managed to halt that phenomenon from being a pattern. The weapon sounds are crisp and heavy, and audio glitches are nowhere to be found. I did notice music in Classic was slightly muted compared to Anniversary, but sound options for music and effects are separately available for tweaking, if adjustments are needed.
Speaking of music, it has also been grand, amazing, and memorable, as is the case with any Halo title I suppose, but it deserves a mention every time regardless. A new piece of music welcomes you to every section of the game, and possibly my new favorite Halo track is the electric guitar-amplified Gungnir (or Mjolnir) remix of the main theme.
In addition, if you are into making old-school frag movies - maybe a machinima -, like to capture screenshots from cool angles, or find watching past exploits enjoyable, you should know that Theater mode has finally arrived. The replay/demo viewer is now officially available for Halo: Reach and Halo 2: Anniversary with keyboard and mouse support, and from my limited experience, it is extremely easy to use. You can switch perspectives, free cam across maps, pause, fast forward, and rewind replays with complete freedom.
In fact, the HUD-less screenshots in the gallery above were taken utilizing it. Sadly, Forge is still in the slow cooker in the background, so we will have to wait a while longer for that.
Halo 2: Anniversary is probably the best campaign remaster I've ever played, offering both the modern and classic renditions side-by-side so no party feels left behind. The modernizations are done very tastefully without taking away anything from what made the game one of the greats in the first place. This is obviously a must-play for any fan of the Halo franchise, offering a very cinematic experience that builds upon the roster of memorable characters, while sprinkling in lore-loaded cutscenes, high-octane action sequences, one-liners, and badass entrances of our favorite tanky hero. If you think that playthrough of the Vista version from back in the day was perhaps good enough, think again.
Finally receiving an audio-issue-less Halo game is an awesome treat too, and I am hoping that is a problem of the past going forward. The Reach and Combat Evolved releases still need updates to resolve their audio though, which 343 Industries and supporting studios are working on.
The Anniversary multiplayer is just as impressive to play, though light on the map selection as I mentioned. However, the issues I ran into in the Classic multiplayer portion are not ignorable, where unreliable hit registration and that weirdly specific but prevalent projectile bug seen at launch - which is finally fixed now - makes it an experience that some might find too difficult to ignore and power through. The Master Chief Collection's convenient matchmaking lets you deselect Classic, but having to avoid such a major part of the experience is not something to take lightly, dragging down an otherwise immaculate launch.
It is essentially uncharted territory from here on out for many PC players, me included, as we head towards the Halo games that never saw releases outside the Xbox console ecosystem. I am a tiny bit disappointed that this is the final Halo remaster to come out of Microsoft. When Halo 3 PC re-release comes around, we will be in for an authentic and slightly retro experience. Maybe a Halo 3 remake is under construction in a hidden bunker somewhere at 343 Industries, though it is already three years late to its 10-year anniversary party.
You can purchase Halo 2: Anniversary on PC through the Microsoft Store and Steam for $9.99. The full Halo: The Master Chief Collection package is also available for $39.99 from the Microsoft Store and Steam. The games are a part of the Xbox Game Pass for PC library too.
This review was conducted using a Steam copy of Halo: The Master Chief Collection provided by Microsoft.