Microsoft's Master Chief Collection bundles together Halos 1,2,3 and 4, along with all their multiplayer maps, in a remade 60 frames per second, 1080p HD extravaganza.
The rumors are true. The next Halo release for Microsoft's Xbox One console will be a compilation of older games, updated for the 60 frames-per-second, 1080p generation.
The Halo Master Chief Collection from 343 Industries includes the original Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3 and Halo 4, all retooled to look spiffingly lovely. Halo 2, celebrating its tenth anniversary, will be the centerpiece, the formidable old warrior reborn.
Obviously, the first Halo was retooled already for Xbox 360 in 2011's Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. And with Halos 3 and 4 being fairly young puppies, it is Halo 2 that looks the most transformed.
343 looks to have done a fantastic job in re-hashing these old games. Halo 2's creatures look gorgeous on Xbox One. The space-station environments are crisp and shiny. All the multiplayer maps are there. Seeing these games again is to be reminded just how good they were, how important they were to console gaming in the last decade.
You can play any part of the games in any order and connect them together like playlists. So, if you just want to play Warthog levels, in any order, you can do that. Some of the original bugs, that fans have come to enjoy, are being left in on purpose. The user interface is a triumph of design.
Listening to 343's Frank O'Connor answer questions about the minutiae of this package, it's obvious that 343 Industries does not regard this repackage as a chore, or view it as a cynical cash-grab. It is a labor of love, though some might view the $60 price-tag as steep, particularly in an age when old games are sold for a handful of coins. The package also offers pre-launch access to Halo 5's alpha.
To some extent, Microsoft can rely on nostalgia to fire the passions for these games. And, of course, they are very good games. There are lots of people who will buy, play and love this package, because they recall the originals with great fondness. It will also be a good introduction to younger players who missed out on the magic of the originals.
Still, there lingers a sense of disappointment that 2014 will not play host to a new Halo game, that the best Microsoft can muster in its second year of Xbox One, a year in which the company has much to prove, is some high definition remakes.
The Master Chief Collection is being lauded as a connecting piece between Master Chief's "past and present." But the fact remains that by the time Microsoft actually manages to release a new Halo game, Xbox's central first-party franchise, Xbox One will be two years old.
During a brief question and answer session with 343 representatives, including general manager Bonnie Ross, I piped up with a question about whether or not this absence of genuinely new Halo content might be construed as a failure of planning, a regrettable lapse in judgment.
"We can only do one game at a time," replied Ross. "Halo 4 was our first game. It was a super hard learning experience for us. Starting two games at once was not the right thing to do for the franchise. Keeping the same team is important to us. This is our second [new Halo game] and it has to be amazing."
This is a fair enough response from a 343 Industries perspective. But the developer is owned by Microsoft, one of the wealthiest organizations on the planet. It is disappointing that no one thought to figure out a way to get a new Halo done, if not for Xbox One's launch, than at least for its first year.
Microsoft has been continuously wrong-footed by rival Sony. Its insistence on initially focusing on Xbox One as a connected device, rather than a games machine, was palpably dim-witted. The Kinect experiment was a failure. Senior people behind the launch have gone. Perhaps they should have invested more in building great games rather than constructing castles in the clouds.
A compilation, no matter how well constructed and presented, is weak beer, compared to a new game. It's like showing up at a fancy restaurant and being served yesterday's leftovers straight out of the microwave. Nice enough, but hardly Michelin-starred.
I heard one argument that it's all OK, because, after all, Halo 3 didn't come out until two years after the launch of Xbox 360. As if a planning snafu in the middle part of the last decade somehow justifies all subsequent errors. In any case, Xbox 360 was looking a lot more rosy against the competition than Xbox One does, outside the hyperbole of E3.
There is nothing wrong with a compilation of old games refreshed for a new audience. Especially one that is as well constructed as The Master Chief Collection.
But there is something disconcerting about Microsoft holding up a compilation of old games as the standard bearer for a struggling console, one year into its launch, as a noble tribute to a beloved character, rather than as a stop-gap to fill in for poor planning.
Microsoft has the power and the budget to find the necessary talent to create great games. If third-parties can manage to roll out major franchise games — including 343 arch-rival Bungie, backed by Activision — then so should Microsoft.
343 Industries and Microsoft might consider allocating fewer of its mindspace on TV shows and movie projects, and more of its resources on creating a new game, targeting those of us who have been Xbox owners for as long as there have been Xboxes and those people who are drifting towards PlayStation 4.
In the meantime, Halo Master Chief Collection is a useful exercise in paving the way for Halo 5, and in delivering a renewed experience with some of the best action-shooters of the past 15 years.