Gaming has changed a lot since then, but the industry owes a lot of that to Halo. It was Halo that introduced many players to the future of online gaming, creating a party and matchmaking system that’s become the industry standard today. The culture around Halo also spawned Rooster Teeth, the now-expansive entertainment company that started by creating comedy videos using Halo character as puppets in multiplayer. A huge chunk of early YouTube gaming content revolved around these and other Halo videos, and machinima, a genre popularized by Rooster Teeth, played a big role in popularizing gaming content on YouTube.
And yet, for 12 years, the Halo franchise was absent from PC. That changed this Tuesday with the release of Halo: Reach on Steam and the Windows Store, and gamers are showering the title with love — even if it has some weird and annoying bugs.
Halo: Reach was the last game in the Halo series made by the franchise’s creator, Bungie, before it moved out of Microsoft’s Xbox Game Studios umbrella. It’s the latest addition to The Master Chief Collection, a package of all the main Halo titles except 5. While the Collection has been available on Xbox since 2014, Tuesday’s PC release only consisted of Reach. The rest of the titles will be released on PC in the coming year. Priced anywhere from practically free (via Game Pass) to $40, The Master Chief Collection is now the best deal in gaming.
Reach rocketed to fourth place on Steam’s list of most-played games on the service on the day of its release. According to Steam’s data, it’s still the sixth most played game as of Thursday, a remarkable feat for a 9-year-old game with barely any new bells and whistles. The game also sold more than 2 million copies on Steam alone, according to analytics tool SteamSpy. That figure doesn’t include numbers from Microsoft’s Windows Store or Xbox Games Pass, the subscription service that offers the Collection for free.
Reach is the finishing touch on The Master Chief Collection, a game that’s become more than a compilation. It’s part of the emerging future of Microsoft’s space in gaming. Since offering the entire collection on the $10-a-month Game Pass subscription service, 343 Studios has reformatted the game to function more like the ongoing live service games of today. With Reach comes the introduction of a free Season Pass that unlocks new armor sets and other pieces of content. This is a big departure from the Reach of 2010, which had a credits system where players could simply save up for what they wanted. Now, it’s closer to Fortnite and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, except it’s all free.
The simplification of progress is disappointing, and it might feel like a grind. But Reach was also a grind in 2014. It took me months to reach the lieutenant colonel rank and get the helmet I wanted. And it’s important to remember that this collection is more than half a decade old, yet 343 Studios continues to keep it alive and relevant. Heaven forbid a gamer logs onto a game every day simply to enjoy how it plays, rather than sweating over another lootbox.
The Xbox One X and Steam versions run very smoothly. Still, revisiting Halo: Reach in 2019 comes with some challenges. For one, the PC port surprisingly lacks graphics options PC players love to fiddle with, offering only “performance” and “enhanced” modes. Tech analyzers Digital Foundry did an early breakdown of the differences in modes, and “enhanced” basically means more details visible at a distance. Mercifully, the game does come with a field-of-view or FOV slider, which gives players better peripheral vision.
The game also launched with some strange audio issues, including some that were immediately noticeable. I recently played the original Xbox 360 release of Reach, and this new release sounds decidedly more muted and muffled. Some sounds are mixed too low, while others are too loud. Developer 343 Studios, the new steward of the series, says it’s aware of the issue, among several others, but warns it won’t be a quick fix.
After the first title, Reach has been my favorite Halo campaign. The story of an ill-fated planet helped Bungie focus purely on mission design rather than creating a galaxy-hopping epic. The missions are diverse, and paced well with diverse locales and action set pieces, including a flight to the stars. And playing Halo in 2019 reminds me of how artificial intelligence in games has yet to catch up to Bungie’s early efforts. Halo’s battlefields leap with activity, from scrambling, panicking Grunts to the whipsmart Elites, an enemy smart enough to push offensive attacks against the players. Even the enemies of Bungie’s current Destiny games lack the verve of the Covenant forces.
Halo’s resurgence highlights the only issue holding Xbox back: a lack of killer exclusive titles. Microsoft has been well aware of this deficiency. This fall’s Gears 5 was a surprise hit for another Xbox franchise that’s been quiet for the last few years. The status of the mysterious Halo Infinite, announced last year, is unclear at the moment.
And the other five Halo titles have yet to reach the PC. With every subsequent release, interest in the Collection is likely to spike throughout 2020, and with that, momentum for the next Xbox. Banking on nostalgia may seem like a cheap move. But far from being just museum curators for aging console games, 343 Studios are preserving and perfecting the Halo legacy, going back to Xbox’s roots to show the value of the brand today. To paraphrase the vernacular, this is it, Chief.