The arrival of Reach to PC last year began the long-anticipated journey of bringing back the Halo franchise to the platform that was left behind, and before you know it, the Master Chief Collection is now primed and ready with all of its games on PC. Finally getting my hands on the console exclusive entries for blind playthroughs have been an absolute treat after all these years, to say the least.
There is a massive behind-the-scenes change with this Halo compared to all the previous games though, as Bungie has left the building. Halo 4 was 343's first foray into the immensely popular franchise, and eight whole years after this journey of Master Chief and Cortana released on the Xbox 360, us PC players can at last delve into its depths and see how the story evolved under the new studio.
However, I would be lying if I said I haven't seen the general indifference, if I'm putting it lightly, Halo fans have radiated towards post-Bungie Halo entries over the years, which made me venture in half expecting a downgrade in quality across the board. As you will read in my thoughts below, the situation unfolded quite differently. My review of Halo 4, the final entry to the Halo: The Master Chief Collection on PC, follows from here.
The Halo 4 story plucks the Chief and Cortana from their slumber after Halo 3's somber ending and thrusts the duo towards a new foe that is even more threatening than a futuristic evil: an ancient evil. There is a short time skip involved that feeds into the narrative, which also means the galaxy-spanning war is pretty much behind everyone. The Covenant forces take a large step back in the narrative, becoming fodder to our weapons to give the new Voldemort offspring-looking Forerunner villain time in the spotlight.
While a dangerous threat is looming again, what was surprising to me was that our two protagonists have a mission of their own this time, saving Cortana from an AI expiration date. I would say this plotline is on focus even more than the new big bad, and that is a particularly good pivot from previous games. We already know that Master Chief is a very capable bullet that only needs to be pointed in the general direction of a universe ending threat, so what would be the point of retreading that angle anyway. Now the Chief is facing a much more personal problem regarding his closest ally that cannot be solved through punching or detonating something.
The campaign is gorgeous, delivering ample amounts of the expected Halo grandness in its design. You are taken through ancient alien plant cores where gravity is optional, lush forests, deserts, and so many more seemingly artificial vistas as the story unfolds. The campaign's fast pacing only eases up to take well-deserved breathers right before it throws new activities like mech driving on top of the standard Warthog drifting, dogfighting, and tense escape sections.
All things considered, the visuals are what amazed me the most. For an Xbox 360 game from eight years ago, the graphics are simply stunning. Granted, us PC players are getting an updated version of what was delivered for the Xbox One, but neither the assets nor the core systems have changed, making the graphics even more praiseworthy. The art style is markedly different from the Bungie works, with this venture going for a more realistic and modern approach. The textures and shadows are obviously a little soft when you go up close to them, but the overall atmosphere and pop-out effect of the massive environments and characters - human faces finally look human here - are praiseworthy. Wondering how this game ran on such old hardware became a common thought that would resurface whenever I would turn a corner and witness a brand-new epic landscape.
The upgrades do not stop at just the graphics, as animations are now much more intricate and numerous. Elements such as the new alien weapons that come alive in your hands as they get ready to rain down fire and the much more realistic flinching that enemies do when being shot at factor in heavily for elevating the immersion levels. The new robotic enemies that rise to battle us in Halo 4 try to break the originals’ combat molds as well, and it succeeds in some ways.
The new varieties swarm, revive, replicate, and teleport to make our battle dance a more interesting one, and when they are terminated, we are greeted with a shower of satisfying sparks and effects. The only problematic foe I found was the Knight class spawns, which did not give enough feedback to the damage I was dealing to them, instead simply absorbing a large number of hits before finally toppling over and disintegrating.
There is just one aspect I cannot excuse for being lackluster, and I consider this a sin: the lack of the original Halo score or simply any memorable music. So many grand, destructive, and awesome moments in the campaign could have been lifted even further if our favorite monks started chanting like they have done countless times before. The music would sometimes build up but only fizzle away a little while later without a finale.
Finishing up this section, cooperative play continues to be a feature in the campaign, which I utilized for my playthrough and discovered it to be a completely smooth experience. The story content does not end with the main campaign, however, as Halo 4 offers Spartan Ops, a series of cooperative play-focused mini campaigns that deal with the main storyline's aftermath, though not from the Chief's perspective. These have high budget CGI intros and are fully voice acted as well. Unfortunately, I did not manage to complete the entire set as my attention was mainly split between the campaign and multiplayer for this review. The missions I did sample presented a repeating format, where your squad progresses through a beautiful sandbox map filled with enemies, and whenever objectives are accomplished, more aliens get pumped into the action.
It is clear from the moment you jump into Halo 4 multiplayer that the developer tried to modernize the experience to align it more with what was popular around the time of the launch. As a result, this is the most Call of Duty vibes I've received from a Halo game ever, bringing with it weapon loadouts, perks, and scorestreak rewards, making a tried and true simple system more complex than it needs to be for my tastes. I am saying this as someone who lived and breathed Call of Duty multiplayer back in the day.
The speed of encounters has been bumped up quite considerably, as sprint is now not tied to a specific armor ability and is available universally; it is possibly the fastest sprint in all the Master Chief Collection titles. Other elements feed into this accelerated gameplay too, like the perks to make reloading faster and sprint for an unlimited time, plus armor abilities like the thruster pack. If you have a few seconds to spare in a standard eight-player map, you could easily traverse through half the map in that time, making most gunfights go from 1vs1 match ups to 4vs4 within seconds. Taking another leaf out of other shooting franchises, the sprint meter is hidden.
Once your speedy trek through the alien alps comes to a halt, you do not know when will your super suit's ability to flex its legs briskly comes back to full. The opinion split regarding sprint in Halo in the community is now completely understandable considering so much difference is seen in its utilization between the entries.
The streak rewards also leave a bad taste in the mouth. The first time they popped up, my reaction was simply, why? Thankfully, it has not gone so far as to include airstrikes and such, but the included bonuses do break the flow of the smaller matches I feel. In a round I could easily grab a few kills early on and gain a double damage buff that pretty much guarantees multiple more kills, which can then builds up towards claiming an overpowered single hit kill weapon like a railgun, or an overshield to make even three versus one encounters trivial. This format makes forming comebacks an exceedingly difficult endeavor for the underdog, as the higher scoring team’s top players simply keep gaining personal bonuses that help widen the score gap.
On the flip side, it is in the 8v8 Big Team Battle modes where the arcade-y changes begin to make sense and fit in with the more expansive maps, where chaos is the name of the game anyway. The changes are not all bad either, as weapon pick-ups are shown in the heads up display so that veterans cannot hoard them forever. The maps are also well-designed, having interesting routes for flanking choke points. I especially grew to like the new Dominion game mode, which has players capture sections of the map like Conquest from the Battlefield series before building defensive structures for holding them. The loadout changing method does not need to be five menus deep in a corner next to the skin customization section, but once again, it's a good way for new players to wade in with multiple options at hand without feeling overwhelmed with pickups.
In the continued push for connecting platforms, The Master Chief Collection is the latest Xbox Game Studios title to gain cross-play support. In all casual multiplayer versus modes, PC, Xbox One, and Series X|S players are now piled together, and though some may be worried about balance, it is not as problematic as it may seem at first. Thanks to the generous aim assist Halo games provide for controller users, even a casual player using their trusty thumbs can go toe to toe with a competent mouse and keyboard player. If aim assist were disabled in such a headshot orientated game, a single mouse wielder could probably take on an entire server of controllers. The choice, in the end, falls to you, with an option available for only enabling matchmaking with input devices that match your own. As for my casual needs, this is wonderful, and I will keep my cross-play setting enabled. Who am I to say no to faster matches?
Graphics, audio, and performance
I do not know what kind of anti-Xbox 360 aging cream Halo 4 applies every night, but other than the soft textures and shadows you can detect when you look closely, it is a beautiful game. Going for an apples to apples comparison, Bungie's Halo Reach released only two years prior to Halo 4 and for the same system, the venerable Xbox 360, but they somehow look a generation apart. You have probably gathered by now that I am impressed by the visuals of Halo 4, but not only are the graphics eye-watering - in part thanks to the bloom effect seen on every light source -, it is optimized like a well-oiled Warthog.
In my reviews of Master Chief Collection entries, I have glossed over the lack of advanced graphics options quite often. In my defense, it was because all these games act their age without suddenly requiring top of the line equipment after getting a polishing job. But now, the promised granular advanced graphics options have been delivered. While playing Halo 4 on maxed out High settings, my modest Radeon RX 580 pulls in over 200FPS on average at 1080p resolution. That number gets boosted to over 250FPS when the graphics are turned all the way down.
The graphics quality settings are split into anti-aliasing, details, effects, post-processing, shadows, and anisotropic filtering, though some entries like Halo 2 also include additional options for blood and texture resolution. While the difference will be difficult to witness while you're busy smashing aliens, you can see in my comparison shot below the changes to the lighting that occur when switching between all Low (left) and High (right) graphics settings.
Meanwhile, the sounds are crisp and detailed across the board, you can clearly differentiate between every incoming bullet, the clattering of spent casings, distant explosions, and alien screaming their way to you during battles. I only wish the music stepped up to elevate some of the moments as I mentioned before.
A few shaky bits aside, the Halo 4 campaign hit all the right notes for me thanks to the over the top absurd set pieces, the amazing voice acting, as well as the ever-increasing power level of Master Chief. This was a gorgeous game to go through, filled with interesting plotlines that managed to explore a more personal story surrounding our heroes. Now with context, the fan reactions to the game that I have witnessed over the years are perplexing to me. This is an experience I can recommend without a second thought. The lack of the series’ iconic music would be my main complaint.
On the multiplayer side, it is only the Halo of Duty-ness that brings down the high-quality package. But one of the things the Master Chief Collection does extremely effectively is provide options. You can simply de-select any mode, or even an entire game's multiplayer playlist if required, which in the end offers six games worth of action. In the same vein, server regions, cross-play capabilities, skins, installed content, key bindings, text-to-speech, per-game graphics settings, and basically anything else you can think of has various options attached to them, giving you the opportunity to create your own personalized Halo instance. I just love having options at my fingertips.
It doesn't matter if you're a returning player from consoles or a brand new soul going through the Halo journey for the first time, Halo: The Master Chief Collection is already a steal of a bundle that will only get better as updates keep flowing. 343 Industries has a roadmap that has the Collection receiving support for a long time to come. In the end, unless Halo 5 somehow materializes in 2021, the final Halo to reach us PC players before Infinite will be Halo 4, and I have no qualms about this.
You can purchase Halo 4 for PC through the Microsoft Store or Steam for $9.99. The Halo: The Master Chief Collection is also available for $39.99 on the Microsoft Store and Steam if you want access to all the games. The Collection is a part of the Xbox Game Pass for PC and Xbox Game Pass Ultimate libraries as well.
This review was conducted using a Steam copy of Halo: The Master Chief Collection provided by Microsoft.