Master Chief’s return to PC was uncharacteristically quiet. Without warning or fanfare, Halo: Combat Evolved arrived on Steam this week as a simple update to Halo: The Master Chief Collection. Bringing the 19-year-old shooter’s campaign and multiplayer offerings into 2020, it’s not so much whether Halo holds up. Instead, it’s worth asking what 343 Studios can offer to folks who’ve spent the last two decades molding Halo on PC into something unique.
Fire up a quickstart campaign, and it’s not Bungie’s 2001 original you’ll be greeted with. Combat Evolved arrives in the MCC as Halo: CE Anniversary, Sabre Interactive’s 2011 remaster for the Xbox 360. While the bulk of Halo’s running and gunning remain the same, Anniversary boasts a total audiovisual overhaul—rebuilding Halo’s environments and characters with new textures, models and a completely new soundscape.
That’s the idea, anyway. But Anniversary is a deeply contentious work for Halo fans. Playing through it myself this week, it’s clear why. Sabre’s approach to remastering is decisively maximalist. Every floor and wall a gnarled mess of greebles; every room packed with light-shafts, volumetric fog and post-processing effects. It’s a noisy mess, one that shatters the muted, often isolating tone of Combat Evolved’s functional corridors and sparse alien landscapes.
It doesn’t even look particularly sharp, being almost as old today as Bungie’s original was at the time of Anniversary’s release. If there’s an upside, it’s that the MCC retains Anniversary’s neatest trick—the ability to snap between original and remastered graphics at the press of a button, instantly shifting you between 2001 and 2011.
For all it’s missteps, that remaster is also one of the largest things setting this week’s release apart from a version of Halo that’s lived comfortably on PC for nearly two decades. Gearbox’s 2003 port for PC and Mac has held steady (save for a brief scare in 2014 when server provider Gamespy shut down—threatening Halo’s future on PC until online service GameRanger stepped in). It might not be thriving, but it’s survived well enough. If you wanted to hop into a round of Slayer on Blood Gulch in the last decade, you’d find one.
That’d be all you’d get, mind, as the small playerbase converged on a scant handful of popular maps and modes. Halo’s multiplayer made it over to the MCC intact, including maps and weapons once exclusive to the Gearbox port. And while I’ll lament the fading of dedicated servers, MCC’s matchmaking uses every part of that toolbox.
Halo’s new players are being ferried into games they’d maybe never seek out themselves. Free-for-all flamethrowers on Derelict’s open lobby. All shotguns, no shields across notorious teleporter labyrinth Chiron TL-34. In 15 years of playing Halo on and off, I’d somehow never played a full 16-player capture-the-flag match on Sidewinder ‘til this week.
But when Halo hit PC last time, it didn’t arrive alone. Free expansion and abbreviation nightmare Halo: Custom Edition—a different add-on for the Gearbox port —gave owners a free, highly-moddable version of the game complete with development tools to tear into.
In the 17 years since, Halo’s modding scene has exploded. Wildly imaginative maps ranging from bizarre jeep rollercoaster Yoyorast Island to massive, Battlefield-scale expanses like Coldsnap. It’s a scene that’s still finding new ways to reinvent what Combat Evolved can be; whether that’s a decade-spanning community overhaul like SPV3, or one man’s simple attempt to make Halo as uncomfortably "cursed" as possible.
This new release doesn't offer that same kind of freedom. 343 stresses that it wants to keep that modding tradition alive, but the tools to do so are still under wraps. Until then, those creations remain in a tentative state—unclear on whether they’ll have a future under the MCC ecosystem.
For most folks though, Halo: CE Anniversary will be more than enough. It plays smoother, keeps a stronger connection, and if you picked up The Master Chief Collection for Reach last year you probably already own it. But even as Halo PC creaks under two decades of technical wear, it’s hard not to feel like something’s been lost in the transition.