Price: £6.99 Inc VAT (£29.99 for Master Chief Collection)
Developer: Bungie/343 Industries/Saber Interactive
Platform: PC (obv).
The original Halo has always been the flakiest of partners to the PC. Back in the late nineties, Halo totally promised to go out with the PC, then shacked up with the Xbox for its 2001 launch. It then had a brief affair with the ol’ power rectangle via a shaky Gearbox port in 2003, but the relationship soon broke down due to minimal extended support. Since then, Halo and the PC have been estranged, with Combat Evolved never seeing a digital release on PC.
With the surprise launch of the Anniversary version of Halo on PC earlier this month. The staggered release of the Master Chief Collection has finally corrected this. This version of Halo provides access to both the HD remaster of Halo created by Saber Interactive, and the game as it looked when it launched in 2001 (or 2003 for the PC version). I’ve never been the biggest Halo fan, but having re-played it to test this version, it’s difficult to deny its credentials as an intense and rousing FPS (albeit one with some enduring problems that have not got better with age.) As for the remaster, frankly I find Saber Interactive’s visual overhaul to miss the mark quite dramatically.
Chiefly, Saber Interactive’s remaster updates the game in three key areas. It retextures the game’s levels, updates the weapon and character models to be more in-line with Halo: Reach, and introduces modern lighting effects. All of this brings Halo up to the standard of a late-era Xbox 360 game (bear in mind, the remaster itself is now ten years old).
If you never played the original Halo, and exclusively played this version in its remastered state, you’d probably think it looks quite pretty. And it does in certain areas. Seeing the verdant landscape of the Halo orbital for the first time is still a great moment after fleeing through the cramped corridors of the Pillar of Autumn. I also like the gleaming new interiors of the Covenant structures such as the Truth and Reconciliation. The Silent Cartographer has probably fared best in Saber’s conversion, giving the landing on the beachhead a more distinctly “tropical” vibe.
However, if you press TAB while playing, the game will seamlessly revert to the original graphical style. Upon doing this, it becomes clear that Saber’s remaster drains a huge amount of character from the original game. Halo’s landscapes have a haunting, austere aesthetic to them that the Remaster loses almost completely. The skyboxes suffer particularly poorly at Saber’s hand. Halo puts green fields under your feet and a starry sky above you, which is a key element in lending Halo its alien vibe. The remaster switches this out for more Earth-like daylight that nullifies this alienating effect. The daylight and distance haze also wash out Halo’s ring, making one of the most distinctive and dramatic skyboxes in gaming barely visible.
It’s a classic example of a misguided remaster, believing that simply adding more modern visual effects will result in a better-looking game. It’s a stark comparison point to Black Mesa, which painstakingly ensures that the character of Half-Life is never lost, even when the developers redesign entire sections of the Black Mesa facility.
While the remaster’s “improvements” are mixed to say the least, the good news is that they’re based upon the same fundamental game. This means what always made Halo stand out, the combat, is as good as it ever was. The free-flowing, organic firefights have lost little of their allure. Having the spectacle of battles driven by AI behaviour is so much more satisfying than hard-scripted sequences. Crucially, the audio mixing doesn’t suffer from the weird “muted guns” issue that affected Reach, which means the weapons have the appropriate sense of weight and impact. The standard Assault Rifle is like a bullet-drill, shredding enemies with its insanely high fire rate, while the shotgun is still gloriously powerful, a crucial weapon for battling the Flood.
It’s good the combat still rocks, because other elements of Halo have aged less well. The level design particularly suffers the ravages of time. The outdoor sections are mostly okay, but the interiors are dreadfully boring in terms of their geometry, an endless parade of flat, square corridors. The worst offenders are the Library and the two chapters that bookend it. Assault on the Control Room basically has you fight across the exact same bridge about three times. Even the combat systems can’t withstand the sheer amount of repetition involved in Halo’s mid-game.
As for multiplayer offerings, it’s fantastic to see classic Halo multiplayer back on PC. Dropping in for some CTF on Blood Gulch brings back fond memories from my teenage years, and while I’m not such a fan of Halo’s slower, more inertial movement in single-player, in multiplayer it does give me a slightly better chance of not sucking than the twitch fests of CoD and Apex Legends. I should point out, however, that while I didn’t experience any bugs myself, some players have reported encountering serious issues on the multiplayer side, such as high-frame rates affecting weapon spread, putting players who play above 60FPS at a disadvantage to those who don’t.
Multiplayer isn’t limited to competitive matches. Unlike Gearbox’s 2003 port, this new port of Halo also allows you to play the campaign in online co-op (2-player, as with the original). Beyond the visual updates, this is probably the most significant new addition to Halo on PC. It’s great to have this functionality available for the first time. That said, split-screen co-op is not available with this version, which is a shame given how modern streaming tech enables the PC as a local multiplayer device.
In short, Halo on PC is a good game with great combat and a middling remaster. It isn’t quite the ideal Halo experience, still lacking a few key features that have been on Xbox since way back in 2001, but I’m nonetheless surprised by how warmly I feel toward the return of the prodigal gun.
July 1 2020 | 17:34