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Multiplayer bugs undercut the Master Chief Collection's biggest launch yet

(Image credit: Microsoft)

I can't quite say this is the one I've been waiting for—that's Halo 3—but Halo 2 joined the Master Chief Collection on PC Tuesday night, and it's an ideal place to start really devoting time to Halo's online multiplayer. The first MCC entry on PC, Reach, notoriously overcomplicated the combat with sprint and armor abilities. It's still fun, but not a game I'd dump hours of time into. Halo 2, even after 15 years, feels just deep enough. It's still the kind of multiplayer game that can demands precision aiming, tight teamwork, and intricate map knowledge to master.

This is the moment on PC many Halo fans have been waiting for and after a few hours of testing I can say that if you plan to jump in now, be prepared to run into some bugs.

As I wrote in my feature on 343 Industries' journey to bring the Halo series back to PC, there are some significant features still absent from the Master Chief Collection. Alternate keybinds are coming in a future update, and the developers are continuing to work on issues around screen tearing, which I ran into while testing Halo 2's campaign. Halo Reach's audio issues remain, and are taking a long time to fix. Halo 2 doesn't exhibit identical problems, though its audio isn't perfect, either.

Campaign

I tested Halo 2 on a low-end system with a GTX 650 Ti graphics card (still roughly twice as powerful as the minimum spec stated on Steam), while hardware writer Jorge Jimenez tested on a much more powerful rig, with an RTX 2070 Super. On my system, even with the framerate limited to 60 fps, VSync on, and trying fullscreen and borderless windowed, I saw screen tearing that proved distracting. I got the same result on the "Unlimited" fps option (I really want to see the developers add a 144 fps lock in the future) but did notice less tearing when I turned the settings down to best performance rather than Enhanced.

It's worth noting that I experienced the same tearing in Halo Reach, which is actually a less demanding game than Halo 2 Anniversary, even when playing on a GTX 980. The issue clearly isn't completely based on performance.

I've seen players of the Master Chief Collection games on PC complain about stuttering which I haven't experienced, so there is some variance in how these games run even on high-end systems. On his RTX 2070 Super, running the game at 1440p, Jorge didn't encounter any screen tearing.

Jorge got an average of 150 fps during a campaign co-op session with the graphics set to Enhanced, and a whopping 450 fps whenever he swapped graphics engines to the classic graphics. That was with V-sync disabled, fullscreen mode, and the frame limiter set to unlimited.

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Original graphics

Original graphics (Image credit: Microsoft)
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Anniversary graphics

Anniversary graphics (Image credit: Microsoft)
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Original graphics

Original graphics (Image credit: Microsoft)
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Anniversary graphics

Anniversary graphics (Image credit: Microsoft)

We played a campaign mission in online co-op and the experience was nearly flawless on my end, with a couple 2-3 second hangs that may have been a network issue rather than a game issue; Jorge experienced harsher network issues with numerous 2-3 second hangs every other minute when he joined my game. This would explain some of his erratic driving during a long vehicle segment (or at least that's what he's blaming it on). This was with one player in California and the other in New York, so distance likely played a factor.

Thankfully, outside that tearing and a couple short hangs in online play, I didn't run into any other issues in the campaign, and the Halo 2 Anniversary graphics hold up surprisingly well for being 6-year-old paint on a 15-year-old game. The difference between them and the original graphics is stark and impressive. Original Halo 2 looks drab and flat. And it still feels like wizardry to be able to swap between graphics engines instantly by pressing Tab. This even works in the pre-rendered cutscenes! 

Cortana kinda looks like she's been posessed, a la The Exorcist (Image credit: Microsoft)

The cutscenes by Blur look technically terrific, far more detailed than the in-engine graphics, but I don't love them. Compared to gameplay they're too dark, the facial models for Johnson and Cortana just look off, and the Master Chief's armor doesn't look quite right, either. There's something about the lighting and coloration of the cutscenes that clashes with Halo's aesthetic, and I largely prefer the in-engine overhaul of Halo 2 Anniversary.

Halo 2 Anniversary is a bit dark on the whole—it feels like it overcompensates for the lack of lighting in the original game by going too far in the other direction. The cutscenes are especially bad, but even for gameplay, I'd suggest increasing the gamma some to ease up on the black levels.

Sound is also an area that just seems off—with the classic graphics and sound, and in classic multiplayer, the audio is more muted, which roughly fits my memory of the game circa 2004. The remastered sound is obviously much fuller and punchier, particularly the music, but dialogue sounded surprisingly low quality, like it was recorded at a poor sample rate. It's possible they sounded like that in the Xbox One release because that was all 343 had to work with, but my guess is something again went wrong in the translation to PC.

Multiplayer

I played about an hour of multiplayer, and I love the classic Halo 2 experience even when maps feel a bit empty and the UI feels absolutely ancient. I'm eager to play more, but concerned by discussions online that indicate the presence of multiplayer issues more significant than any I ran into with Reach back at its launch.

There are a lot of positives to the experience here: As more games are added to the Master Chief Collection, I especially appreciate its matchmaking options, which let you set a particular size game and type of match you want to play, and then get matched with other players searching for the same. It's especially cool to be able to toggle which Halo games to search within; if you feel like playing Halo 2 and Halo Reach but not Halo 1, that's as easy as ticking a box.

The distinction between Halo 2 multiplayer and Halo 2 Anniversary multiplayer is still a bit jarring. When this remaster was released in 2014, it came with an updated multiplayer mode that adds weapons, overhauls the UI and sound and graphical effects, and is playable on seven remastered maps. It looks and sounds far better, of course, but being able to play on only seven of the game's 23 maps feels like almost a waste of the effort involved in the multiplayer makeover. The gameplay differences between H2 and H2A are just significant enough to make for a jarring experience playing a match in one and then the other.

Classic multiplayer (Image credit: Microsoft)

Thankfully the MCC's options let you simply tick either version separately, so you can focus on matches in either version of the game. Halo 2 Anniversary's multiplayer stands out as a huge opportunity for modding and a custom server browser; if skilled mapmakers take on the task of reskinning the original game's entire map roster for the Anniversary multiplayer, it would feel like a far more complete mode.

I didn't run into any online performance issues or lag in multiplayer, even in 16 player Big Team Battle matches. But there are apparently still glitches that need to be patched out, and a thread on Reddit contains a lot of complaints about performance issues, hit registration inconsistencies, and enemy kills counting as betrayals.

I did notice a couple instances where grenades I threw seemingly didn't appear but didn't encounter the other issues. Still, they're widespread enough to make me think Halo 2 multiplayer could've done with another round of flighting (aka beta testing) before this release.

Anniversary multiplayer (Image credit: Microsoft)

So far, 343's plan with the Master Chief Collection has been to get the games up and running on PC and fixing issues as it goes along. Instead of releasing complex side features like the Forge mapmaker at the same time, they're taking more time to get those right, putting the focus on the core multiplayer and campaign modes. Generally I think that approach has been fine, because there's a long-term commitment to patching this collection. But Halo 2 clearly could've used more polishing.

Halo 2's multiplayer launch is a bigger deal than the games that came before it, and Halo 3's will be an even bigger deal still. This is a game that revolutionized FPS multiplayer on consoles and still has terrific gunplay and some of the best designed multiplayer maps of all time. Forget Forge—multiplayer, at least, should be launching with all the bugs from last month's flighting eradicated.

Even if the issues posted in that Reddit thread aren't widespread, they're still disappointing for a game that could've easily had more testing time before it launched. They should be fixed before work focuses on the next release—and Halo 3 should get as many rounds of flighting as it needs to ensure it has the debut it deserves.

When he's not 50 hours into a JRPG or an opaque ASCII roguelike, Wes is probably playing the hottest games of three years ago. He oversees features, seeking out personal stories from PC gaming's niche communities. 50% pizza by volume.