How Xbox One makes Halo feel like a new game

Now that the dust has settled on Gamescom and my game-addled mind begins to file away the unimportant stuff into subfolders of my psyche, a few standout moments remain in my mind’s eye. That amazing Batman: Arkham Knight demo (opens in new tab), playing as Claptrap in Borderlands: the Pre-Sequel (opens in new tab)… But the main thing that really sticks in my mind is the experience of playing Halo: Master Chief Collection (opens in new tab) on Xbox One.

For someone who is a lapsed Halo fan, and is underwhelmed by Xbox One so far, it is significant that I should be so enamoured with this remake. Microsoft has made a point of explaining that the games themselves haven’t been changed at all–in terms of how they play–so the only difference is the quality of the port and the visual upgrade. At risk of sounding like a Microsoft advert (I certainly am not, these days), this is the Xbox One difference.

It isn’t even that the graphical overhaul is that pronounced. I must have blinked at the switch-over moment during the presentation because I was still waiting for them to say “and now the Xbox One version” when they showed off the improved visuals. I wouldn’t say it looks massively new-gen. Here’s the new version of Halo 2 (top-left) above the old. As you can see, the new visuals are better, but not miraculous.

But even though it isn’t a revolutionary upgrade, it does look pretty damn perfect when you’re playing it. It looks how you remember Halo looking (at least the first two–I was never impressed with Halo 3 (opens in new tab), right from the first time it appeared as a playable beta). Sure, it’s nice to have smoothly-rendered creepers winding around tree trunks, and the special effects like burnish on metal are high quality, but what Xbox One really brings to the game is a feeling of solidity. You feel like you could fall forward, put your arms out to break your fall and feel cold metal or sun-warmed earth under your outstretched palms.

Perhaps the main reason for this–even more noticeable than the improvements in texture rendering and lighting–is the frame-rate. I don’t believe any graphics at 30fps can ever look truly solid. It’s why Dreamcast’s arcade conversions still look good almost a decade and a half later. It’s why CoD4 (below) still plays so well. Sure, Infinity Ward’s textures from 2007 are starting to look comparatively ropey now, but it still moves beautifully. Halo on Xbox has never been as smooth as modern Call of Duty games on the same hardware, but now it is. The Master Chief Collection is like having your eyes opened.

You know those occasional moments you get sometimes where you feel truly awake? Where everything you’re looking at suddenly has crystal clarity and it’s like you’ve had a thin veil pulled away that used to separate you from the real world? No? OK, just me. Well, if you do know what I’m banging on about, then this is like that. And it’s wonderful.

It’s like the ‘HD difference’ of a few years ago, only we’re used to Halo in HD anyway by now, so this is just like a super-deluxe version of what we already know and love. Imagine this enhanced environment scene moving at 60fps. It’s beautiful. And beautifully playable with it. But it isn’t just an aesthetic boost; it also means more responsive controls, as there’s twice the refresh rate there used to be.

This is coupled with the precision and weighting of the Xbox One pad. The feeling of solid environments from the rampant frame-rate carries over into the ergonomic chunkiness of the peripheral in your hands and makes it feel like and arcade game. Hey, don’t look so disgusted! The series is, and always has been, an arcade-oriented shooter at heart. The chunky movement, the bullet-sponge armour with replenishing shields… it certainly isn’t a real war simulator. The remastered Halo feels even more like a video game, and I’m all for that.

So what if elbow blows are still more powerful than guns? Or that the lack of a sprint button makes sedate trots away from enemy fire looks and feels just a little bit silly? These are still some of the finest multiplayer shooters ever made and they’ve never felt so self-assured. The fact that they’re all on one disc and all online-enabled is really exciting.

I don’t even really mind that these aren’t ‘new’ games (though that’s another debate entirely). It just restores some of gaming’s most iconic shooters to where they should be. Halo 2 fans don’t have to mourn the loss of the original Xbox servers any more. It’s all there on Xbox One… but feeling better than ever. In fact, it almost feels like a whole new set of games.

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