Halo: The Master Chief Collection is a remastered compilation of 6 games in the acclaimed first-person shooter series, including Halo 1 through 4, Halo 3: ODST, and Halo: Reach. It was first released on the Xbox One in November 2014, then later on the PC in December 2019, and finally on the Xbox Series X in November 2020. MSRB is $40. I played the PC version.
Throughout most of my life, the First-Person Shooter was the one game genre that I actively disliked. Scratch that — it was more than just dislike; I saw these games as a personal attack.
To make a long and complicated story short, my teenage years in the 2000s were defined by my religion’s overbearing male gender roles and how I struggled to fit into them. According to scripture and sermons, I was born to be a leader and a fighter… but I was neither of those things. I was supposed to be strong and athletic; I was actually introspective and artistic. I was supposed to be brave and charismatic; I was actually shy and awkward. Even with the privilege of being White, heterosexual, and cis-gendered, I never felt like I could fit in. I began to blame popular games like Halo, Call of Duty, and other First-Person Shooters for reinforcing these overwhelming expectations.
It’s been over 10 years since that time in my life, and now I’m in a much healthier headspace. I don’t see the world in black-and-white anymore. I don’t live according to someone else’s rigid definitions. I don’t feel ashamed of who I am, or who I’m not. I can look at a piece of art, even an FPS video game, and come to my own conclusions about it.
And so I bought Halo: The Master Chief Collection on Steam and decided to give the genre a real shot (pun intended). And I’m so glad that I did.
Getting Reacquainted with Master Chief
Most of the discourse surrounding Halo: Combat Evolved is about how it revolutionized First-Person Shooters with its controls, enemy A.I., and online multiplayer. So I was surprised when the first thing that hooked me was actually its story. I didn’t expect to experience this grand space opera about humanity’s fight for survival against the onslaught of The Covenant, a religiously fanatical alien empire. The dramatic set pieces and dynamic cinematography pulled me into this universe. The first time I set foot on the Halo ring, I just stared at the ground curving up in front of me, piercing the sky… with the vast expanse of space on either side. What a bizarre feeling. I was so entranced, I’d almost completely forgotten about my enemy, the Covenant. That is, until they started attacking me.
While it’s true that the story Halo is thick with military-themed sauce, I didn’t mind it as much as I thought I would. Master Chief is a blank-slate super-soldier. He’s as masculine as his suit is green. You can always count on him for a tough yet silly one-liner. However, for periods of time I forgot that he existed; the game got me to insert myself into the role instead, to the point where it was almost as immersive as Metroid Prime. Almost.
Combat Evolved‘s story got particularly interesting at around the half-way point, where a terrifying secret underneath the Halo ring is revealed and we learn about the true purpose of the Halos. The buildup to this moment is superb storytelling, both through environmental design as well as in cutscenes.
It only gets better with Halo 2. Right as the game boots up, we see a Covenant officer publicly shamed for his defeat on the first Halo ring. We get a peek behind the curtain about how the enemy operates. This alien is then given the title of Arbiter, and sent on hopelessly dangerous missions to help save face. But get this: you actually play as the Arbiter on these missions. Not only does this show us the direct effects of Master Chief’s actions, but we begin to see both sides of the conflict — Humanity’s and the Covenant’s. The second game becomes more than just a war about “Good Guys versus Bad Guys.” You experience the Arbiter’s journey from a devotee of his empire, to a questioning soldier, to a complete faith crisis once he too learns about the truth about the Halo rings.
Halo 3 is an epic conclusion that has Master Chief and the Arbiter working together to save the galaxy from the Covenant. Set piece after set piece is filled with drama and tension with just the right amount of downtime to keep the pacing going. But even after the main trilogy ends, the Halo games still manage to create interesting stories within this universe. Halo 3: ODST is a side-story about what was happening on Earth at the same time as Halo 2 and 3, only this story is more quiet and mysterious than heroic. Halo 4 takes a deeply personal turn, focusing on the relationship between Master Chief and his ever-present A.I. companion, Cortana. It’s a story about friendship and loyalty that also explores more of the background lore of the series. It seems like some people disliked Halo 4 when it came out, but I quite enjoyed it. Sure it’s the weakest of the bunch, but that’s like calling Skyward Sword the weakest Zelda game — it’s still insanely good quality.
And then finally, there’s the story of Halo: Reach, a tragic prequel to Combat Evolved starring a different set of characters doomed to fall during the Covenant’s invasion of the human planet Reach. It was a fitting ending to the entire saga setting in motion the events for Combat Evolved. It made the story come full circle. By the time I reached the credits of Halo: Reach, I honestly had tears in my eyes.
Halo makes a strong case against the notion that stories in games don’t matter, or that they only play a minor role. As someone new to the genre of First-Person Shooters, it took me several hours to finally master the controls and get a handle on the gameplay. I needed a compelling story to keep me motivated through the learning curve, and Halo provided plenty of that. Thanks to its story, I could hang around long enough to start enjoying the gameplay on its own as well.
A Different Kind of Sandbox
For the past several years I dismissed Halo and other First-Person Shooters as shallow experiences. Run here, shoot all the bad guys, repeat. I was quite wrong. Once I got used to the controls and the gameplay mechanics, I began to appreciate the depth and nuance hidden underneath the simple “aim and shoot” gameplay.
Halo’s hidden depth is built upon two pillars: 1) its weapon sandbox, and 2) its artificial intelligence systems.
Let’s start with the sandbox. Every weapon in Halo serves a specific purpose. For example, the plasma pistol is good at reducing enemy shields, while the shotgun is good for close-range crowd control. To have this kind of versatility for dozens of different weapons and vehicles is no small feat — it must’ve taken a lot of work to balance it just right. As a player you can only carry two weapons at a time, meaning you have to carefully consider which guns to bring with you and when to switch out. You may ask yourself: “Is it better to keep the assault rifle, or should I pick up the enemy’s energy sword? Should I look for a rocker launcher, or should I just steal the enemy’s land speeder?” It reminds me of Breath of the Wild, how you need to scavenge and use whatever tools you can find, with usually more than one solution to your problem.
The level designers smartly placed only a handful of weapons in each mission, and carefully crafted various encounters where each weapon could shine. It’s just enough options to give you meaningful choices, but not too much that you feel overwhelmed and confused. The linear mission structure provides perfect pacing not just for its story, but also for its gameplay, alternating between claustrophobic hallways and sprawling open areas, and everything in-between.
Let’s move on to the second pillar, the A.I. systems. The Halo games utilize some advanced (for the time) Artificial Intelligence for both the enemy Covenant and the Human allies, adding a strong sense of realism, tension, and epic scale to every conflict. Enemy grunts will rally around a leader, and they’ll scatter if that leader is killed. Marines will follow you and take cover. If you’re skilled enough, you can keep your allies alive to help you further along in the mission. Both allies and enemies make pretty comedic remarks about your actions, which is something that I appreciate.
The series shines the best when multiple factions are present in the battle at the same time, and you find yourself in the crossfire between them. You may stand back and wait for them to wear each other out; or you could pick a side and deal with the other faction later; or you could just eliminate everyone senselessly, it’s all up to you. Halo accomplishes an impressive variety of choice, experimentation, and replay-ability with relatively few tools.
The further I traveled through the series, the more I appreciated even the smaller things. The game feel for aiming and shooting is blindingly polished. It’s satisfying to see Master Chief yank a clip out of a gun and slap a new one in. It’s satisfying to feel the push and rhythm of each weapon as it fires. It’s satisfying to see the immediate — if overtly violent — feedback of your skill getting better. It’s the same sweet feeling you get from jumping in a 3D Platformer, or hitting a combo in an Action RPG. That visceral cause and effect game feel is vital for First-Person Shooters, and Halo has superb game feel.
In conclusion, if you’re like me and have no idea where to begin with First-Person Shooters and need a strong SciFi story to get you through the basics, then I’d strongly recommend playing through the campaigns of the Halo: Master Chief Collection. It’s one amazing deal.