Microsoft began a new venture to bring its Halo games over to PC last year, and Halo: Reach kicked things off by landing in December as the opening act of Halo: The Master Chief Collection (MCC) on the platform, starting fans off on the storyline in chronological form. Following a successful launch that brought in millions of new players, Microsoft surprise dropped Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary edition on PC earlier this week out of nowhere, starting the hype train back up again.
Before starting the review, here's some interesting history on the project. The Anniversary edition is the 2011 remake of the 2001 hit, Bungie-developed, original Xbox game Halo: Combat Evolved. As its base, the remake actually used the 2003-released PC port, developed by Gearbox Software of all studios. I can't imagine the convoluted process of diving into code that's originally written by Bungie, then ported to PC by Gearbox, followed by an Xbox 360 port, which is now running enhanced on modern PCs. The Anniversary remake developer Saber Interactive has thankfully returned to handle this new PC port.
I won't be diving deep into details of the storyline as I'm sure there are plenty of folks who haven't experienced this now almost 20-year old adventure, but who are finally getting into the Master Chief Collection on PC to catch up before Halo Infinite drops later this year. So read on to find out what I thought about the second PC port from Halo: The Master Chief Collection.
Experiencing Noble Six's journey and the story behind planet Reach was cool and all, but getting to jump back into the action as Master Chief is definitely a great feeling. The story picks up immediately after the conclusion of the Reach campaign, setting the stage for a moderately long storyline that takes place almost entirely on a ring-shaped megastructure dubbed Halo - hence, the name of the franchise - that is discovered at the beginning of the game.
Over the past few days, I played through the complete Combat Evolved campaign in co-op just like I did when I reviewed the previous game in the collection. However, this one did give me an error the first couple of times when trying to start the co-op journey. Weirdly, the problem went away on its own, never to be seen again. Something to keep in mind (though I certainly forgot) is that this and the upcoming Halo 2 campaign support only two-player online co-op, so you will be leaving behind some friends until Halo 3 if you're coming back from the four-player co-op goodness seen in Reach.
As you might already know, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary edition lets you switch between the original 2001 graphics and the remake's enhanced visuals at any time while playing. Before long it became second nature to toggle the switch anytime I came across a new vista, gazing at the upgrades that had been wrapped around the retro designs to keep the original spirit alive. The difference seen in most places is remarkable, as you can see in the comparison screenshots above.
During the entire playthrough, I experienced no crashes or bugs that hindered the progress. Most importantly, punching Grunts is fun and satisfying, possibly even more so than in Reach.
As expected from these older titles, there are some tedious points you will have to drudge through, mostly owing to the hardware limitations from back then, and running out of development time I'm assuming. Quite a few repeated level designs in certain parts of the story sort of jam up the pacing. Moreover, the environments you go through won't have the same user-friendly fluidity you've probably grown to expect from modern games. Maze-like spaces with exits in seemingly random corners are everywhere. These aren't some game-quitting level cons obviously, just things to push through to get to the real meat of the campaign.
Gone are the built-in powerups of Reach you select and unleash at will. For anyone looking to get that classic pure Halo experience, this is the game you should be playing right now, and Blood Gulch is as inviting as ever. Still, it will not be everyone's cup of tea. Anecdotally, I've had several sessions where other players would ask how do they go back to Reach matchmaking. Additionally, abandons seem generally higher.
Overall, the snipers are certainly more overpowered than ever in here when used by even a reasonably skilled mouse user, and there isn't any surefire way to counter them other than trying to memorize the drop locations and nabbing one for yourself first. The change of pace from Halo: Reach's multiplayer - that I have sunk dozens of hours into - was quite jarring until I got used to the new flow, which meant unlearning some things like relying on sprint for positioning.
A legacy system that leaves a lot to be desired is the spawning, where most of the time I have no idea what is going on. Multiplayer spawns for anything above 2vs2 modes have enemies and allies materializing around you like it's a fight from Dragon Ball Z. At times, the game decides it is a great idea to spawn what looks like both teams in their entirety in the same location. Numerous times I've also spawned right in front of allied vehicles that are happily speeding along, leaving those poor Spartans a nasty 'me-shaped' surprise on their tank treads. I now have a habit of doing a quick 360-degree turn whenever I spawn to spot any surprise deaths coming my way before continuing the hunt for those elusive sniper rifles.
Apart from those weird spawning problems, I've had a terrific time playing the multiplayer in all its Battle Rifle and Energy Sword-less glory since aiming for the head has proved to be an effective tactic across both released games.
Graphics, audio, performance
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary certainly isn't an ugly game, and there's a certain charm to all the retro-ness surrounding it. But in the end, even after the remake's polish, it is almost 10 years old. Adding to that, when compared to Halo: Reach that originally launched a year before this anniversary remake, its visual style has aged better in my eyes.
This really makes me wonder if Microsoft should have ordered another remake aimed at the modern systems we use today. After all, the game's 20th anniversary will be next year, and that new SlipSpace engine powering Halo Infinite sounds mighty fine.
Just like the graphics that you can switch between the classic and Anniversary versions, the sound can also be toggled to the version you prefer. While this was only a feature dedicated to the campaign in the 2011 release, thanks to some new developments, we now have the ability to also change this in the multiplayer portion on PC. Listening to the iconic Halo theme music kick in during missions as well as other original tracks was a delight, something I certainly missed when going through Reach.
However, although the muffled audio problem that plagues Reach thankfully isn't there in Combat Evolved Anniversary, it has its own share of sound-related issues. I found that the audio levels were wonky in the campaign. For example, the music, while being awesome, was overpowering the dialog from the beginning, and needed multiple adjustments during the campaign to be balanced in context. I suggest increasing the base sounds while dropping the music levels a few ticks down to get a better experience.
Adding to that, another audio problem was the looping. For example, the firing sound of the Plasma Pistol is almost guaranteed to get stuck on a loop every time you use it, making the crackles and buzzing sounds overlap until reaching a painfully loud point. Exploring this issue, it looks like this has been a problem at least since the Anniversary edition landed on Xbox One via MCC. That's one bug I wish the developer would have managed to fix considering its age.
On the other hand on the performance side, it's all clear skies. As expected, the game will probably run on almost any PC configuration made in the past decade, maybe even older. The video settings are shared between the two currently available games of the collection - while keybindings are game-specific -, so all of the upgrades like FOV adjustments, up to 4K resolution support, uncapped FPS, and other PC-specific features are already here doing good work. This makes it the second consecutive home run in the performance department of Halo: The Master Chief Collection on PC. Hopefully, this trend will continue as the development teams move towards porting the more demanding games.
Halo: The Master Chief Collection
This is also a good time to round up some of the improvements that have arrived to Halo: The Master Chief Collection as a whole since Halo: Reach landed on PC last year. The MCC launcher on Steam and Microsoft Store now lets you install components separately just like the Xbox One version. Say you want to just play through the Reach campaign but only like playing Combat Evolved multiplayer, now you may just install those two components to save up space and download times, which are guaranteed to balloon up to behemoth sizes when all of the games are here.
Don't forget that Reach is still getting updates as other studios are working on the rest of the upcoming games. With the latest update for the title that landed alongside Combat Evolved Anniversary, you can finally crouch while moving when using keyboard and mouse controls, as the developer has managed to find a workaround that changes the original crouch mechanism made for controllers.
That muffed audio of Reach is still its primary ongoing issue sadly, but there may be some good news coming soon. 343 Industries has partnered with the original minds behind the Xbox 360 version's audio processing plugins, Waves Audio, to preserve and bring over the audio without any of the issues present currently. Halo 3 and ODST also used those same audio plugins, and I'm hoping the muffle will be a thing of the past when they make their debut on the new platform.
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is a grand adventure that you should definitely experience if you're interested in the Halo saga. Sure, there are tedious sections, but the origin of the Flood, witnessing the first Halo discovery by humans, getting to know Master Chief and Cortana on their first outing, and meeting 343 Guilty Spark are just some of the iconic moments that are too good to pass up on. Even if Halo Infinite is supposed to be a reboot of sorts, there is no way I would skip the original trilogy.
While some issues persist, I can easily say that this release with all of its improvements is currently the best way to experience the classic across all available platforms. Getting to play such an old game on modern PC hardware without needing to tweak any files, compatibility settings, or apply custom patches is simply amazing. Most of all, thousands of players are active and playing the multiplayer modes, which is probably the hardest thing to accomplish for older games. In addition, it was quite interesting to see the contrast between Reach and Combat Evolved playing them back to back. The former was the final game Bungie made for the series, and the latter was the studio's first.
They are certainly not game-breaking and are completely unrelated to each other, however, the audio issues of the two released titles are becoming a concern, and hopefully won't be a recurring theme with the collection going forward. The development teams are obviously working on resolving them, but I'm hoping this is the final game from the collection that launches with any noticeable audio complications.
Now with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary out the door, the countdown has started back up for the next arrival, that being Halo 2: Anniversary. It will be followed by Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST, and finally, Halo 4, completing the ultimate collection. All of these games are planned to land in 2020 on PC, perhaps making the MCC a handy countdown towards Halo Infinite's release during the holiday season.
You can purchase Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary as a standalone experience on PC through the Microsoft Store as well as Steam for $9.99. Those who want to get the full Halo: The Master Chief Collection package can pick it up for $39.99 from both Microsoft Store and Steam as well. Finally, Xbox Game Pass for PC subscribers also have access to the title as part of their library.
This review was conducted using a Steam copy of Halo: The Master Chief Collection provided by Microsoft.