Developer: 343 Industries || Publisher: Microsoft Studios || Platform:Xbox One/PC
Microsoft and its studios have been on a roll of late, churning out some impressive titles like the recent Forza Horizon games and the incredibly well received Gears 5. While the company would pretty much never be able to make up for the mistakes that it made at the beginning of the generation, this hasn’t stopped them from making incredibly smart decisions that would change their approach from being solely on Xbox as a console, to rather adopting the brand as a platform and ecosystem which spans across their consoles and PCs running Windows 10. One of their bigger studios, 343 Industries (343i), has made great strides in covering the PC platform and has also invested a lot of time, money and effort into fixing the problems that plagued 2014’s The Master Chief Collection. One of the most notable things that 343i was doing was bringing the collection of classic first-person shooters to PC. Halo: Reach marks the beginning of Bungie’s genre-defining series making its way to PC and, while imperfect, gives a lot of confidence in 343i’s investment in the PC platform and their focus on optimisation.
Please note, while Halo: Reach has been added to The Master Chief Collection for both Xbox One and PC, this review will be focusing on the changes and optimisations made for PC itself, with a lot of polishes and changes made for PC having a trickle-down effect for Xbox One.
Before we even begin with analysing the game on PC, first we must take a quick look at the history of the series and understand why its PC support is so important. The Halo IP is something of a gargantuan, special IP for the first-person shooter scene and gaming space in general. Taking the reins from games like Doom, Duke Nukem 3D and Quake, Bungie (whose previous works notably included Myth and Marathon), really set the standard for first-person shooters in 2001 with their Xbox exclusive, Halo: Combat Evolved. Never before had players seen such a gorgeous, open environment in a 3D game scape, and it was truly the game that pushed Microsoft’s newly released Xbox forward. After receiving critical acclaim and becoming a beloved game for fans of shooters, the game eventually made its way to PC and Mac (yes, Mac) in 2003, a mere year before the sequel. Halo 2 entered the scene in 2004 and this was a groundbreaking game. Where most second entries in a trilogy serve as mere fodder to advance the plot, often making them quite polarising until the trilogy comes to a close, the sequel to the 2001 classic was positively received by fans and critics alike. While it does serve as a device for advancing the overarching plot, it also did enough to stand tall by itself. Deep, conflicting stories which enriched the Halo world, a glimpse at an overarching enemy that remained dormant during the previous events of the Halo timeline and some new gameplay systems which really helped the game age as well as it has. Once again, the delayed PC release came years later on May 31, 2007. This would mark the end of the mainline Halo games’ PC support. Halo 3, Halo Wars, Halo 3: ODST, Halo: Reach, Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians all ignored the platform and opted to solely support Microsoft’s home console (though Halo Wars eventually made its way to PC by way of the Halo Wars Definitive Edition). Since 2007, PC players have been begging for Bungie’s insanely popular and influential shooter to come the platform, arguably the home of first-person shooters for a lot of people, and the release of The Master Chief Collection only rubbed salt in the wound. PC players only got to see two-thirds of the Bungie trilogy, let alone the spinoff games which were more than strong enough to hold their own, and it would remain this way until now, the end of 2019. To make matters even more perplexing, the end of Halo Wars 2 (which did release on PC) tied in perfectly with the ending of Halo 5: Guardians, so players who never went to Microsoft’s home console to play the shooter series were met with a random plot point that came out of nowhere. In a time where developers seem completely okay with churning out botched PC releases for the sake of money (*cough* Rockstar *cough*), the mere inclusion of PC for the release of games made for consoles doesn’t normally give aspiring players a whole lot of confidence. However, the people at 343i were aware of the hurdles they would have to overcome in order to achieve the ambitious feat of bringing the entirety of Halo to PC (save for Halo 5, but no one wants that) and adjusted their development accordingly.
For a game that was released in 2010, the original visuals of the game hold up incredibly well. This is mainly due to the blending of realism and sci-fi for it visuals. It was never pushing the available technology to its limits but it still did a pretty good job at leveraging the power of the Xbox 360 at the time. Naturally, technology has made vast improvements since then, with the current Microsoft flagship console being the Xbox One X, a console which hits an excellent price/performance ratio. With how far console technology has come since the Xbox 360, PC technology has gone even further. AMD has come and made a huge dent in Intel’s market share with the incredibly successful Ryzen series CPUs and still offers formidable GPUs in the form of the 5700 and 5700XT, though the impact on the GPU market share wasn’t as powerful. With all that, there is a lot of room to work with when it comes to bringing Halo: Reach up to date and its polishes and updates in the form of its remaster/MCC release show the limitations of an engine that was made solely for consoles.
Halo: Reach’s visual suite has been updated to include some higher detail and higher resolution textures, including native 4K support, and 343i’s focus on optimisation shines through in its performance. By no means was anyone expecting a nine year-old game to stress a modern system, but the game scales incredibly well. On PC, there are three visual options which you can choose from: Performance, Original and Enhanced. Yes, it is a bit strange that a PC port that has been handled as carefully as Halo: Reach’s to only have preset options for visuals rather than the flexible and customisable options that most PC games offer, but it is also quite forgivable. Like I mentioned earlier, Halo: Reach is an old game made solely for console and so its visual scalability would not be as high as something like Gears 5, where different levels of visuals are made in order to cater for the nuanced nature of PC building/gaming. While it is a downer, the fact that you can choose between the original, enhanced and even performance oriented visuals is a nice touch in a port that could otherwise feel even more restrictive if no such options existed. I’ll be honest and say I just spent the entire time playing Halo: Reach on PC with the enhanced set of visuals and the difference is quite noticeable. There are some really nice details put into Noble Team’s armour pieces as well as some great details subtly put into the black undersuit that the Spartan team wears and not once has my framerate ever really dipped very far. Yes, there was the odd occasion where my frames would sit around the low to mid 70s but this was in areas where there was quite a lot to render in the scene. When games built on engines that are created to leverage more modern hardware features (like high core count, high clock speed CPUs) have insane performance issues, it’s nice to see an older game built on a decrepit engine running quite cleanly – a stark contrast to Bethesda’s games which also run on a decrepit engine and run like hot garbage. With the visual presets out of the way, how else does Halo: Reach cater to its PC audience? Much to my surprise, 343i has put in the work to include Field of View [FoV] sliders for both the first-person camera and the vehicle camera. While a lot of games will tie these two camera positions together 343i has gone above and beyond by allowing the player to run different FoV levels for those different perspectives. It’s a brilliant choice made by the team and I hope to see more of it when the other games in the series make their way to PC.
In addition to Halo: Reach’s admittedly surprising suite of features for the PC, it also bolsters a robust and comprehensive level of support for non-standard aspect ratios. Back in the day, the only aspect ratios that were really used were 16:9 and 4:3, with the latter almost dead by the time Reach was released. Today, the game still supports those aspect ratios but also adds support for 3:2, 16:10 and 21:9. What’s even better about this support for ultrawide resolutions is the fact that you can choose to anchor your HUD and UI elements to the edges of the screen, much like 16:9, or you can elect have all that centred, so even when you run at an aspect ratio like 21:9, the important information that you need to succeed at the game is still readily available to you on screen as opposed to stretching your focus across an ultrawide screen. Now, the ultrawide support found in Halo: Reach is by no means perfect, with screen effects often only covering the screen space that would normally be found in 16:9, but what else can you expect from a game that was never made with the intent of supporting the PC platform, let alone an aspect ratio whose consumer standard had barely even begun to exist in the same year of Reach’s release. In a lot of cases, properly supporting ultrawide resolutions is done by one of two methods. The first method, which some developers unfortunately opt for, is stretching and compressing the normal display to fit the wider screen. When done well, this can be an okay enough solution but it usually isn’t done well. The other method is to code the rendering solution for the game to actually render things in the wider periphery. This is hard to do because it can come at exponentially higher performance costs as the resolution of the display increases – the difference between 1920×1080 and 2560×1080 (1080p and 1080 ultrawide, respectively) is minimal but the difference between 3840×2160 and 5120×2160 (4K and 4K ultrawide, respectively) is crazy, the result of increases in pixel density. The good news is that 343i has put in the work and updated Halo: Reach’s rendering solution to properly render the game in the wider periphery. It’s incredible that 343i went through this gargantuan effort to modify how the game rendered in order for it to truly support ultrawide resolutions. The fact that a nine year-old game can support ultrawide but Devil May Cry V (a 2019 game) can’t is just astounding. Something that does need to be outlined, however, is while the cutscenes are in-engine which allows them to run at 60 frames per second they do not support ultrawide. I don’t particularly understand the way Halo: Reach is built enough to properly know why this is but my guess would be that the ultrawide perspective doesn’t really fit with the framing and placing of the camera during these cutscenes, which would make sense.
Visuals and performance aren’t the only areas where Halo: Reach’s PC port excels. While it is true that one of the benefits of PC gaming is the ability to tailor visuals and performance to what you need, another strength is being able to tailor smaller facets of a game to benefit the player. Halo: Reach has taken a page out of Destiny 2‘s PC port and allows the player to move the crosshair to one of two positions. The first, which has been made the standard setting, is a centred crosshair. Something to note is that the only Halo games to feature a centred crosshair are Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 5: Guardians, with the latter not factoring in how animations would have to change for that altered perspective. It’s one of my many grievances with Halo 5, but we aren’t here to talk about that. The other position is actually a lowered position. There are quite a few benefits to this but the main takeaway is that due to the verticality of Bungie’s art and level design, the lowered crosshair allows the player to be a little more alert to hazards that might be lurking higher in the sky but this didn’t stop Bungie from also flexing their artists’ talents and used that perspective to show off some incredible skyboxes and vistas. Seriously, the landscapes and backgrounds which are featured in this game will give a lot of modern games a run for their money.
In terms of the general user interface, Halo: Reach is a bit of a hit and miss situation. Menus which were specifically made for the platform look and function very cleanly. Things like settings and the matchmaking UI are incredibly easy to use and translate quite easily between keyboard/mouse and controller. However, there are some areas where the UI clearly was not designed with PC in mind and so design that works quite well on a controller translates to a clunky and annoying experience on keyboard/mouse. The main offenders are the season pass UI and the UI for changing your avatar. With a controller, scrolling through the hundreds of possible avatars is quite easy as you just hold either left or right to scroll in either of those directions. On PC you can use the scroll wheel, but the speed at which it scrolls through these options is abysmally low and there is no scrollbar for you to click and drag to go through quickly. You either have you aggressively scroll yourself or click the arrows on either end of the UI to scroll over by one step. Honestly, this would not be so bad if there was a scroll bar, same goes for the season pass which opts to have the seasonal rewards put into tiers and selecting each tier requires you to click on a fairly small circle. This is where a simple arrow to change to the next tier would be appreciated as it currently feels like it was designed solely with a controller in mind. Admittedly, this is a very minor problem and can be quite easily overlooked in the broad scheme of things.
I do wish that the UI elements were the only mistakes that the PC port of Halo: Reach made, but they are not, unfortunately. Something which I have really come to love about PC gaming is the ability to customise my controls to whatever I please. In most games I’ll have crouch and melee bound to the side buttons on my mouse, the result of getting cramps from trying to use Warframe’s mobility to the fullest. A lot of games will allow you to set these secondary bindings which achieves a couple of things. Firstly, secondary key bindings can be incredibly beneficial as their use may cater to the more situational kind of use. Something as simple as having two grenade buttons on your keyboard which you use depending on the movement that your fingers are already making can be a game changer for quite a lot of people. Another benefit is just that a secondary binding allows the player to get used to the new binding without stripping away the use of the standard control. Imagine if you heard about this new trend where melee is bound to your right click so you can easily change between shooting and punching. Naturally, you’d want to try it out. In Halo: Reach you can, at the cost of being able to melee with the normal keybinding so you better adjust quickly to your new binding or else you are going to have a bad time.
Halo: Reach on PC is full of surprises and mod support is one of them. While not officially supporting mods just yet, 343i and Microsoft have truly embraced the nature of PC gaming and included a version of Halo: Reach with Anti-Cheat and public matchmaking disabled. This version of the game exists purely for people to muck around with the game’s programming, create and install mods to make the game as big or as silly as they want while also being able to play with friends. This isn’t even the end of it as 343i has already confirmed that official mod support is making its way to the game, it just is not quite ready yet. This is what developers should be doing. Rather than trying to punish their players for having their fun with the game, developers should be figuring out ways where mods and competitive gaming can coexist. I doubt the official mod support will have Anti-Cheat enabled but it will allow for the easier installation of mods – perhaps in an incredibly flexible and robust manner like Skyrim.
On the technical front, Halo: Reach does a pretty solid job at delivering a consistent experience. High framerates allow for Bungie’s crisp animations and the fluidity of Halo: Reach’s combat to really shine. It can have the odd hiccup but this is incredibly rare and I’ve only heard about it happening, it’s never actually happened to me. There are currently a few other issues which I have encountered, however. Firstly, the audio can be a little subdued but not in its entirety. I had moments where the general game sounds were quieter than normal and then the dialogue audio in the cutscenes was insanely loud. 343i has already addressed this problem and a fix is actively being worked on, so it’s not going to remain an issue. My biggest technical fault with the game has to do with its online input latency. It’s pretty common knowledge that the original Bungie games were quite laggy at the best of times but it was always network lag and not input lag. Quite a few games of that generation had the same issue so it wasn’t isolated solely on the Halo games but it was still an issue. While I have not really encountered any network lag, even on my terrible excuse for internet, when playing the campaign cooperatively anyone who is not the host has noticeable input lag. At some points it was very small and at others it was massive. I’m not sure why this is but it is souring the experience for a lot of players so I hope the issue is resolved soon. Outside of that, there are some cases where the physics don’t handle the higher framerates well, like in the elevators where your character just begins floating until the vertical movement has stopped. Once again, this is quite a minor issue and I have not really encountered it outside of the example given.
The biggest issue I have with Halo: Reach in The Master Chief Collection is its rewards system. I adored Halo: Reach for the incredibly flexible customisation options that were afforded to the player and being able to change individual pieces of armour and it actually show in the campaign was incredible and its reward system was generous for both online and offline players. The Master Chief Collection version of Reach is not as generous. While you can quite easily and quite consistently level up for completing matches of firefight and PVP, the cosmetic progression is tied to the Season Pass which also spans across the entirety of The Master Chief Collection. While not the worst implementation of the Battle Pass system that I have ever experienced, it undermines the cosmetic progression of Halo: Reach and locks out that cosmetic progression for people that play offline – a problem further compounded by the fact that trying to access the Season Pass while in offline mode will crash the game. I’m not exactly sure how 343 could implement a Season Pass without undermining the original rewards system of Halo: Reach but it can still be quite frustrating having to level up an additional arbitrary system to get some customisation options. The Season Pass also gives player one unit of its own currency to buy/unlock the most recent level reward which is a bit of a silly decision in and of itself and would only make sense if you could bank this currency for later seasons, which I doubt you will. The only positive I really have for the Season Pass is at least it comes at no additional charge to the player, so there’s that.
Is the PC port of Halo: Reach perfect? No, not by any means. Does that mean that it’s not worth your time? Absolutely not. 343i has done an incredible job at bringing one of the most iconic games of the previous generation to PC. The game already supports more than what I expected with its aspect ratio support, crosshair positioning, graphics settings and great performance but there is still more to come. 343 has already confirmed that Forge, the tool that allows players to customise the maps to their heart’s content, will be coming early next year (2020) which might work brilliantly with its mod support as well. There definitely are a few faults with the game, which includes its pervasive Season Pass that undermines the core cosmetic reward structure of Halo: Reach, but there is far more good than bad here and I believe that 343i has put out one of the most admirable PC ports this year in Halo: Reach. I would highly recommend picking it up.
+ Enhanced visuals bring quite a lot to the table
+ Very comprehensive aspect ratio support
+ Solid performance
+ It’s Halo: Reach on PC
– The Season Pass system can undermine Halo: Reach’s original reward structure
– A couple clunky menus for keyboard & mouse
– A few technical issue like input lag during cooperative campaign and subdued audio
– Lack of secondary key binding options