I spent most of October playing through every game in the Halo Master Chief Collection on Heroic difficulty. I finished all of them on Legendary except for Halo 4 back in the day, but I just don't have the stamina these days!
I have some thoughts (especially about Halo 2 for some reason...):
It's the core combat, with the grunts, jackals and elites, combined with a weightier more deliberate feel that was smoothed over in the later games, that makes CE shine. The second half becomes a bit of a slog, the flood are over used (as a reveal and a change of pace I've always liked them, but they get boring to fight fast). But that magic 30 second loop against the three main covenant enemy types - remixed and reworked over and over again throughout the game, is perfection. The franchise has been chasing after that lightning in a bottle combination ever since and never quite found it. The 60fps, widescreen, 1080p treatment has an almost Namco arcade game sheen to it. That arcadey feel when pulling off multiple headshots against a squad of grunts feels more arcadey and slick than ever. The persistence of enemy bodies, dropped weapons, wrecked vehicles across levels is still impressive even today.
You can't melee an enemy corpse over and over until there's so many blood decals that the game grinds to a single figure frame rate and eventually crashes any more though which always makes me a little sad.
The remastered graphics on this remain as ill judged as they were in CE: Anniversary Edition with horrific contrast free lighting and textures overloaded with pointless detail that makes surfaces hard to read at a distance and leaves nowhere for the eye to fall naturally. They do serve one purpose though, quickly switch them on and then off again periodically and it really emphasises the skill and craft that went in to Halo CE's visuals. The use of very minimal textures (low texture memory on the original xbox?) contrasted with well chosen patches of high detail and superb lighting all come together to sell these huge, alien spaces. The first light bridge room on the second level? It seems impossibly vast - hard to fathom, the outlines of strange alien structures fading into shadows and odd silhouettes. Stark and monolothic, awe inspiring. Put the remastered graphics on and you can see how small the actual geometry of the room is and how perfect the illusion of the original graphics was.
The less said about the remastered sound track the better.
A flawed masterpiece whose promise was never fully realised but still offers the highest highs in a largely excellent franchise.
There's a new cut scene they've clumsily pasted in at the start with some spartan talking to the heretic about some waffle or other. I don't know who the spartan is. Is he Locke? I don't really know who Locke is to be honest. Years ago I downloaded a fan compiled version of the Marathon trilogy which started the player in some weird mystic cave and presented you with loads of text lore dumps before segueing in to the first level of the first game. It felt off. Reading the FAQs for the fan version the author talked about how chronologically this made sense according to a time loop or something...? It was the worst kind of fan wank bullshit and now 343 have done that in an actual commercial Halo release.
Visually it's a weird one. Bland textures and flat lighting in comparison with Halo CE at its best. Hilariously the remastered graphics massively overcompensate with high contrast shadows everywhere - the exact opposite of the problem with Halo: CE. The character models genuinely look like an early 360 game though, except for that one cut scene Marine who has a head made out of kebab meat. All the texture load in problems are gone now which is cool, but overall it's aged more than the original despite looking a half generation ahead in some ways. Odd to think about.
I feel like some of the criticism Halo 2 got at launch was hyperbolic. It didn't even occur to me to be disappointed until I'd had it for a couple of weeks and I'd run through the game on Heroic, then Legendary and done another big chunk of a legendary co-op run. Even then it was more of a "I think I like the first one better" than an actual sense of disappointment. One major criticism that's faded with time is the duff ending. Playing on the MCC collection, you just fire up Halo 3 and there's your proper ending. I still don't understand anyone who doesn't like the Arbiter levels ("I wanted to be the Master Chief! Waa!"), the hand at the bottom of the screen is a different colour and you get to fight alongside elites and grunts.
First thing that slaps you in the face starting this immediately after the first game, your shields soak up less damage and you have no health, so you're instantly very fragile. Maybe it was an attempt to shift the gameplay on the difficulty levels so normal felt more like Halo: CE's heroic, heroic felt more like legendary. It doesn't work, the possiblity space of any given encounter is flattened because you can't make heroic runs, have less time to pick targets, spend more time cowering. Your shield recharges faster, but if you can only take a couple of hits before you have to dive back in to cover, then that doesn't really count for anything. It's at its worst with the jackal snipers, counter sniping is fun, but not when you can die in a single shot...
Lots of tinkering at the edges of what made Halo great. Some of it good, like Elites laying down suppressing fire and enemies being less aware of your movements which lets you have incredible moments of stealth where you blindside and execute enemies even in the middle of fire fights. Some of it bad, like the enemy AI being completely unable to deal with long range attacks and enemies getting stuck on the corners of physics objects.
It's clear now, after it went away for a few games then came back, how a key part of Halo's identity as a shooter is down to having an overpowered, scoped pistol. The battle rifle is cool, and I like what they did with different types of mid to long range rifles over the franchise, but you need that scoped pistol - it's a major piece of the puzzle. Vehicle sections are frequently just fun park rides now, separate from the core combat loop as opposed to being a complement to it. They're lots of fun, they have a grand sense of scale, but something is lost. The Brutes are clearly unfinished. Janky animation transitions, they get stuck on scenery loads etc, just not much fun to fight - they get refined in later games but never make a convincing replacement for the elites.
A lot of the changes and additions, the wider weapon set etc, got refined down the years through the games that came after - but Halo 2 is the awkward transition between the comparatively minimal weapon and feature set of Halo:CE and the more bombastic, feature packed later games.
There are moments. Big, punch the air, this is fucking amazing moments. I might not be that fussed about fighting the flood again, but fighting the flood with my own squad of grunts and elites backing me up? Fuck yes! ODST drop! Hunters are scary again! Plenty of cool surprises like this throughout the game. There's lots to like, but ultimately plenty to gnash your teeth at too.
Spend longer than I thought I would writing those two up, so I'll write about the rest when I get a chance...
2019 so far: