Conceptually, Halo: The Master Chief Collection is unique in the history of videogames. It's the first proper games equivalent of the DVD box-sets we've become accustomed to - on its single disk, you will find Halos 1, 2, 3 and 4 in all their glory, plus multiplayer and a whole lot more besides. And given that it was Halo which single-handedly put Microsoft on the map as a force to be reckoned with in the games industry, it amounts to nothing less than a lesson in the history of videogames.
A much more interesting lesson, that is, than one of the ones you sat through at school. Because 343 Industries, the developer which took over the Halo reins after originator Bungie bowed out after making Halo 3, has not merely contented itself with chucking all the Halo games onto one disk. As we expect from DVD box-sets, everything has been lovingly remastered.
If you've played through the Halo series before, does The Master Chief collection make it worth dipping in your pocket for this high-def history lesson on Xbox One, or is it a game largely for the new generation of gamers?
Back to school
343 Industries set that precedent with 2011's Halo CE: Anniversary, its remastering of the original game for the Xbox 360, and the graphics have been lightly overhauled again for The Master Chief Collection. Halos 3 and 4 have also been upscaled in graphical terms, to mark their jump from Xbox 360 to Xbox One. But by far the most interesting component of The Master Chief Collection is Halo 2: Anniversary, which has been specifically remastered for the Xbox One.
As a result, it has jaw-droppingly gorgeous cut-scenes that comprehensively outshine those of Halos 1 and 3, although not 4, which offers proof of how much better 343 Industries is at making cut-scenes than Bungie. Confused by the numbers game? You'll see what we mean when you play it.
Another innovation in The Master Chief Collection is Halo TV, a video and web-based resource that fills in all sorts of back-stories from the Halo universe
Gloriously, in Halo and Halo 2, you're able at the press of a button to switch between the upscaled graphics and the original ones, hence the history lesson. Doing so in cut-scenes is a great source of hilarity, and returning to the original in-game visuals will give those of a certain age a frisson of nostalgia.Curiously, the extra detail, longer draw-distances and so on don't affect the gameplay at all, so you'll probably opt for the consistency of modern visuals, although Master Chief's head-up display does alter slightly game by game.
A campaign masterclass
Fortunately that gameplay is a masterclass in first person shooters. Halo put Microsoft on the map for a reason and while none of the content could be portrayed as original, the Halo series represents one of the strongest single player campaign games ever. It might lack some of the giant set-pieces of modern shooters, but it's still a blast.
You can jump into any of the four games at any time but cannily, 343 Industries has introduced the concept of Playlists, which string together missions in themed chunks. Again, you can select Playlists game-by-game - Playlists featuring things like all missions involving the Flood, boss-battles, missions centred on driving vehicles or missions enacted in tight or open spaces are on offer.
But most interestingly, 343 Industries has created a bunch of cross-game Playlists which include a seamless romp through the entire four-game saga, a juxtaposition of the most epic battles, all the Flood missions and all four of Master Chief's epic end-of-game escapes. Plus you can create your own Playlists.
Multiplayer-wise, there's such a vast amount of content that it's difficult to know where to start. All the maps from all the games are included, and it's lucky that Halo kept things simpler than it could have by sticking to a small number of multiplayer game modes. The Master Chief Collection adds a "featured multiplayer" message-box which invites you to sample a particular type of game.
The multiplayer we tested felt reassuringly familiar, even with the upscaled graphics, but those who tend to stick with the single-player are likely to find The Master Chief Collection's online side bewilderingly complex. Creating custom games is easy enough, though, and The Forge, which lets you design your own maps, has been included (although it can only be applied to Halo 2 onwards).
And that's not all you get. Another innovation in The Master Chief Collection is Halo TV, a video and web-based resource that fills in all sorts of back-stories from the Halo universe. You can actually access Halo TV from within the game. For example, in the Silent Cartographer mission in the original Halo, you can operate a console which switches out to Halo TV and shows you beautifully rendered footage of the Silent Cartographer himself hovering around.
Plus, you can unlock episodes of the forthcoming live-action series directed by Ridley Scott, Halo: Nightfall. And you get access to the Halo 5 multiplayer beta, which will be switched on at some point in the near future (we've not had access to this yet - but can see the lure it adds to buying The Master Chief Collection for avid fans).
Halo: The Master Chief Collection crams in a lot of content. Too much, it turns out, to fit on the one provided disk, so you'll be hit with a big day one download package.
In terms of bang for your buck The Master Chief Collection will be one of the best-value games you could ever buy, since it will keep you occupied for aeons. If you're a newcomer then you can explore the wonders of the Halo universe for the first time, while older players will want to buy the package for the upscaled Halo 2 alone.
We do have a few quibbles though: the head-up display in the remastered Halo and Halo 2 makes it annoyingly easy to inadvertently swap weapons when you're trying to reload (Halo 3's original head-up display is much better in that regard). Completists might also ask where the prequel Halo: Reach has gone. Although that, as diehard fans will know, was set before Master Chief had been conceived.
Halo: The Master Chief Collection is not just a game, but a history lesson like no other. It's a glorious, beautifully executed folly that lets you wallow in the Halo universe like never before. For all Xbox One owners and first-person shooter fans, whether you've played through the Halo series before or not, The Master Chief Collection is an essential purchase.