I came into a recent Halo: Master Chief Collection preview event expecting to think, "Yep, it's Halo alright" and be on my merry way. Instead I encountered a surprising number of problems.
Halo 2 Anniversary, specifically, left me curiously cold, which is worrisome because the game is only a couple months from release. I got to play a bit of the campaign's first level (largely to try out the totally redone graphics/art, which can be instantly toggled on and off with the press of a button) and a few multiplayer maps. I have concerns about both.
Let's start with the single-player, because it lost me among a forest of red flags. Most notably, the frame rate dipped pretty significantly when I switched to upgraded graphics. The effect of seeing the old original Xbox version of Cairo Station instantly repainted in dazzling last-gen calibre visuals was neat as ever, but the game suddenly felt chuggy and slightly awkward to control. Truth be told, I ended up switching back to dull, washed out original Xbox graphics for a lot of the bigger firefights. They just felt better that way.
And that wasn't the only weird thing for a game that's right around the corner, at the point where many big-budget games are in spitting distance of the finish line. Enemy AI was only partially implemented according to developer 343 Industries, and the new sound effects (which are supposed to toggle on with the new graphics) weren't in at all. The portion of the level I got to play was extremely brief, too. I didn't even get to see the now infamous "give the Covenant back their bomb" scene.
The rest, thankfully, was Halo 2. The level layout was exactly the same (read: decent enough but fairly repetitive and corridor-heavy), the enemies were exactly the same, and Sergeant Johnson was as endearingly grumpy as ever. It was solid, but hampered by some odd hitches and omissions.
Executive producer Dan Ayoub chalked all of this up to a final polishing pass — business as usual, in other words. "Obviously we're showing work in progress," he said. "Right now is the point where we're optimising everything. So yeah, you're absolutely right. There's a frame rate dip. There's other stuff. It's still a work in progress."
I just haven't seen many works in progress that are this rough around the edges so close to release, especially when they're slightly enhanced remakes of games from a decade ago. UPDATE (7:43 PM): Microsoft got in touch to explain that the single-player build shown at the event was four months old rather than current. Presumably, then, the campaign is in much better shape already. Here's hoping.
Multiplayer, meanwhile, ran a lot more smoothly. I got to try out a few maps including classics like Zanzibar and Lockout, and I pretty much immediately fell back into the swing of things. Admittedly, it was a lot slower than the modern shooters I've grown accustomed to, but that had its own sort of charm.
And oh Halo 2 battle rifle, let me count the ways. You feel so right in my hands, like a warm, purring kitten that fires bullets. Pop goes one shield, pop goes another, pop goes a third. What's that in the sky? It's a bird, it's a plane, it — doesn't matter now, because I headshotted it with perfect, pulse-shattering precision.
Problems enter the multiplayer picture, however, when you consider that Master Chief Collection will contain over 100 maps scattered between four separate games. I worry that certain maps will be ghost towns, that it could end up very difficult to find matches sometimes when the audience is so fragmented and — on top of that — not that many people own Xbox Ones yet.
Ayoub said 343 is hoping to make the experience of finding a match as seamless as possible, and they will be monitoring matchmaking extremely closely so that certain maps and match types don't fall by the wayside.
"It's a challenge," he confessed. "When we decided to go down this path, we realised we have all these maps and they're all running on their own engines. That only adds to the problem. If they were all running off one multiplayer engine it'd be a lot easier for us. But if you launch a map from Halo 2, you play in Halo 2. If you launch a map from Halo 4, you play it in Halo 4."
"We're going to be managing very closely, making sure we keep the matchmaking experience vibrant and ensuring that there's a good population. The other thing we're doing is having two ways to get into multiplayer. You can select an individual game like Halo 2 or 3, or you can select by gametype. You can say, 'I want to play slayer,' and then you'll go to a screen with different options from different games."
"But it is a challenge and it's gonna force us to pay very close attention so we're kinda nudging the experience in the right direction."
Even so, all the monitoring in the world can only do so much. I'm concerned, then, despite the fact that on the whole Halo 2 Anniversary's multiplayer played quite well. It feels a little ancient these days, but it will come in the company of its less creaky siblings, Halo 3 and 4. If nothing else, you will not be at a lack for options, and the ability to leap between them relatively seamlessly — like you're binge-watching on Netflix — is a really smart way to handle a collection like this.
Fingers crossed that 343 uses these next couple months to really iron out the Master Chief Collection's kinks. It has the potential to be a massive walk — or days-long marathon, really — down memory lane, but potential issues abound. I want to give the Covenant back their bomb, not be given one myself. Here's hoping I get another chance to do just that.