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Halo: The Master Chief Collection is a dazzling package of all four Halos, plus so much more

By Mike Jackson on Monday 9th Jun 2014 at 7:10 PM UTC

We'd have been happy with the long-rumoured Halo 2 Anniversary Edition alone, but it turns out Microsoft was planning a much bigger beast than that.

Halo: The Master Chief Collection brings every main Halo game so far to Xbox One. It's a banquet of Master Chief action on a single disc, and as if that wasn't already enough, this package is brimming with new and innovative content.

Let's start with the bullet-point contents list; you get four Halo games in one - Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3 and Halo 4, each with their full single-player campaigns and multiplayer offerings intact. Plus, various new prologue and epilogue cinematics will be used to bridge the narrative between each game, as well as set up the events of Halo 5: Guardians, coming in 2015. Those cinematics will come courtesy of video production firm Blur Studio, which previously provided the massively impressive CGI cutscenes seen in the RTS spin-off Halo Wars.

There's more. The compilation will come with a new original episodic Halo digital series called Halo Nightfall, which will be 'aired', for want of a better word, weekly starting on the game's release date of November 11, 2014. Helmed by Hollywood producer Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner), Nightfall will bridge the gap between Halo 4 and 5, and introduce new characters that will apparently play "very interesting roles" in Halo 5.

To top that all off, the disc will also come with guaranteed access to the Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer beta which will take place in 2014, presumably commencing shortly after the game's launch.

Plenty of stuff to sink your teeth into then, and for the price of a regular game - $59.99 - some would suggest it's reasonably priced too. But the meat of the package is the games, and each one is handled slightly differently by the Xbox One compilation, and bundled together with innovative new features that will make returning to Spartan 117's previous adventures far more interesting than a simple collection of ports.

Halo: Combat Evolved will appear in its 'Anniversary' form - the remake that hit Xbox 360 in November 2011 - complete with its new-to-old graphics switching mechanic that lets you flick between the spruced-up visuals and the original blocky polygons of the first Xbox game. But, unlike in the Xbox 360 remake, which re-imagined Halo 1 multiplayer with the Halo Reach engine, The Master Chief Collection will feature Halo 1's original multiplayer engine.

"Crucially, all four games will come complete with their original multiplayer engines and physics"

"We got non-stop complaints that we didn't bring back the original Halo 1 gameplay," admitted the game's creative director Frank O'Connor at a pre-E3 event.

"That was a matter of scope and scale at the time and we knew we were going to get those complaints. People really wanted to play Halo 1 the way they remembered playing it."

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Crucially, all four games will come complete with their original multiplayer engines and physics. This commitment to recapturing the feel of source material was something that, according to developer 343 Industries, was core to the creation of The Master Chief Collection, even when going so far as to retain some of the original games' known glitches.

"The real interesting thing is that you're playing with the original game engines in each [title], so any quirks or tricks that you have learned over the years will still be in there. It should feel almost verbatim," said O'Connor. "There may be some tiny little changes to the renderer or some weird jump bug, but we're trying to really recapture the exact verbatim experience."

While Halo 3 and Halo 4's single-player campaigns (and visuals) will remain largely untouched, there will be one noticeable difference across the entire compilation; in the shift to Xbox One all four games will benefit from a standard frame rate and resolution boost, now running in full 1080p at 60fps. Microsoft showed CVG a demonstration of Halo 4 running side-by-side on Xbox 360 and Xbox One, and while both versions looked almost identical, the resolution boost clearly enhanced the finer details in the environment and gun textures on Xbox One. It also looked like the lighting had been spruced up somewhat, with darker areas now lit more delicately and bloom lighting effects appearing to 'pop' more in the newer version.

But, as the rumours suggested, Halo 2 is the real star of the show here, getting 'the full Anniversary treatment' to mark 10 years since its original release in November 2004. That means a significant visual upgrade for the entire game, again with that nostalgia-inducing graphics-switch mechanic, which transitions from old to new visuals.

"All four Halo games will benefit from a standard frame rate and resolution boost, now running in full 1080p at 60fps"

One thing to note at this point is that the updated visuals added to Halo 2 appear to be on par, technically speaking, with those of the assets in the Halo: Combat Evolved remake. In other words, it looks like an Xbox 360 makeover, which may come as a slight disappointment to those who were expecting to see Halo 2 sporting super high-end new-gen visuals.

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Like the first Halo Anniversary, Halo 2's 'anniversary treatment' will include a ton of new content besides spruced up graphics, including Terminals, Skulls and new achievements. The game's campaign will now be playable in online co-op, although this will be done through friend invites, not matchmaking. The campaign will additionally feature completely redone cutscenes, also handled by Blur Studio, using super high-detailed assets.

Every Halo 2 map will be present in multiplayer, including all of the DLC maps. But 343 has additionally chosen six of those maps and remade them "from scratch" for Xbox One.

During a pre-E3 presentation, the developer showed an "early development screenshot" of the map 'Ascension' running on Xbox One. While these re-baked maps will retain the Halo 2 engine, they will also feature "some modern FPS elements that people just expect nowadays", according to 343.

Fans of Halo 2's original multiplayer will remember how the new dual-wielding mechanic opened up new layers of strategy and, intriguingly, 343 promises some more "surprises in multiplayer" around that mechanic to be revealed at a later date.

Typically that would already be more than we'd expect from a retro game compilation, but 343 has gone further, by creating a package that serves up the wealth of content from four previously separate games in an innovatively holistic way.

First off, all of the campaign missions in the four games are unlocked from the moment you first play The Master Chief Collection. This means you'll have the freedom to play any mission in any order you please, be that in their original chronological order or in piecemeal chunks. If you never want to play that Halo 1 Library stage ever again, you won't have to.

"If you never want to play that Halo 1 Library stage ever again, you won't have to."

With 14 years of Halo campaigns on offer, 343 saw the opportunity to create more interesting ways of delving into missions. "That's a huge amount of gameplay - in the ballpark of something like 60-plus hours of content if you're just playing through the campaigns. We had to think of a way to tie it all together," said O'Connor.

343's solution was to remove any barriers separating the content of each game. All four games are navigated via a single all-encompassing menu system that 343 is calling the 'Master UI'.

Easily one of the most intriguing aspects of The Master Chief Collection, instead of a title splash screen that gives you the option to access each game as a separate entity, The Master UI allows you to dip into chunks of the four games, all moulded together into a single package in various clever ways.

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One of the most interesting concepts within Master UI is the 'Playlists' feature, which groups up missions from all four games based on various categories or gameplay attributes. For example, a Warthog Missions playlist instantly serves up all the levels in the entire compilation that feature Warthog gameplay. Another playlist brings together the final missions from each game, so you can enjoy one finale after another.

These cross-game playlists will be joined by game-specific playlists that focus on the content of each game in the saga so, for example, if you don't like Halo 4 you can ignore playlists from that game entirely.

As it stands, only playlists created by the developer will be featured, but player-created playlists are "certainly something we're looking at", said O'Connor during a Q&A.

Master UI also does some clever new things with multiplayer. Again, instead of simply choosing the game you want to play, the Master UI gives you a list of gameplay modes (Slayer, Team Slayer, Oddball, King of the Hill, etc...). Picking a mode instantly brings up a list of maps from all four games that are compatible with that mode, each map clearly marked with the logo of the game they're from. Enter the map of your choice and you're instantly launched into a match with the original engine and physics from that specific game intact.

"Multiplayer aficionados can also rejoice in the introduction, finally, of dedicated servers for all four games"

And so what you end up with is four generations of multiplayer - all unique in the way that they play and feel - all mashed together into one almighty multiplayer offering. That's over 100 maps - including all the DLC map packs released, and the aforementioned six additional Halo 2 map remakes.

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This all-in-one system is a bold move from 343, and one that it hopes will prevent fragmentation among the community, who might have otherwise split off into their games of choice, never to peer over the fence at something perhaps a little unfamiliar.

This throws up one interesting problem, however; how will the game deal with player stats? 343 is still working out the details, but O'Connor confirmed that the studio is working on an aggregate stats system that will span the the entire multiplayer mode. And in honor of the unique leveling system in Halo 2, players will face the risk of being leveled down should they put in poor performances.

Multiplayer aficionados can also rejoice in the introduction, finally, of dedicated servers for all four games, meaning the quirks of peer-to-peer server hosting are a thing of the past for Halo.

It might not be the Halo people were hoping for this Christmas, but Halo: The Master Chief Collection could be a game that rarely leaves your Xbox One.