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Halo: The Master Chief Collection is a nostalgic compilation featuring Microsoft’s classic first-person shooter titles, but the reworked games come bundled with a good share of controversy. The previously released Halo: Reach and Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary had problems out the gate, including audio bugs, graphics issues, and online connectivity problems that weakened the otherwise excellent games. Halo 2: Anniversary is a better overall game than those titles, but unsurprisingly, it has several flaws, too. This updated Halo 2 is a great PC game, as it features fast-paced shooting action, wonderfully overhauled graphics, and the ability to dual-wield weapons, but visual hitches, multiplayer glitches, and the occasionally wonky enemy AI sours the experience a bit.

Halo 2: Anniversary can be enjoyed as a part of the $39.99 Halo: Master Chief Collection or on its own for $9.99. It’s also one of the games available in Microsoft’s excellent Xbox Game Pass for PC service.

The Legend Continues

Halo 2: Anniversary picks up where Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary ends, with Master Chief and the marines celebrating their victory, only to have the alien Covenant crash the party with a small scale invasion. This time around, the story also follows a disgraced Elite alien, who takes on the role of Arbiter to serve the Covenant elders as a covert assassin and lapdog as they search for Halos. Master Chief and Arbiter have identical control schemes and weapons, with the only exception being that Arbiter also has Predator-style camouflage for discreetly navigating environments. As a result, Arbiter can speed through areas and avoid being targeted far more easily than Master Chief.

Guns Blazing

Much like its predecessor, Halo 2: Anniversary is a movement-heavy, mission-based shooter that takes you on an intergalactic quest to save the human race. It also introduces several powerful new weapon and enemy types that aren’t in Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary.

The expanded weapon list includes weapons from Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary that only enemies wielded, such as the powerful Energy Sword, the laser-spewing Sentinel Beam, the grenade-launching Brute Shot, and the bullet-spraying Sub-Machine Gun. Halo 2: Anniversary brings dual-wielding to the Master Chief Collection, so one-handed firearms can be equipped on either arm, effectively doubling your shooting power. Needlers, guns that launch explosive darts, is my go-to weapon for mid-range engagements, as they absolutely shred enemy shields. They’re great dual-wield weapons. The downside is that you must drop a gun to toss a grenade or use a melee attack, so you must be choosy about when to lob a bomb or throw elbows.

Halo 2: Anniversary also has thrilling vehicular combat. You’ll find military rovers, alien hovercraft, flying ships, and tanks. These vehicle sections spice up the gameplay, so the pace stays brisk even when you aren’t staring down the barrel of a gun. 

Halo 2: Anniversary expands Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary’s enemy framework by adding new foes and more variants into the mix. Drones are insect-like aliens that fly around the area and cling to walls whenever they’re not shooting at you. Brutes are ape-like bruisers that are just as likely to charge at you as they are to shoot you. Many enemies come in colored tiers that determine their rank; these colors indicate how much abuse they can take and how hard they hit. Just as important is their armament. An Elite with an Energy Sword is useless at range, but devastating in a melee. Grunts are pretty easy to gun down, but they can easily drop you in one hit if they bring a big gun to the party. As such, prioritizing targets is the key to success. Unfortunately, on occasion, enemies would idle about uselessly instead of shooting or pursuing. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary didn’t suffer this issue.

Halo 2: Anniversary features online play, including the classic, arena-based player-versus-player modes that the original game popularized. While these games are incredibly fun, they suffer baffling bugs that can hamper your enjoyment. The scoreboard can simply stop working, and you can teleport projectiles across the map by shooting at the ground. The latter is a big reason to avoid competitive multiplayer action at the time of this writing.

Another issue: At times the game occasionally froze. These instances didn’t last very long, perhaps half a second. I encountered this sparingly at first, but the problem became much more prominent around the fourth mission and onward.

Halo 2: Anniversary's gunplay

The Old and New

As with the previously released Master Chief Collection games, Halo 2: Anniversary lets you switch between the classic Xbox game and the updated Anniversary game on the fly. This swaps character models, environments, and music, letting you play with whatever aesthetic suits your fancy.

With that said, Halo 2: Anniversary wonderfully updates the graphics without radically changing the art design, quite unlike Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. That game’s overhauled graphics had busy, over-designed textures and tweaked colors that changed the world’s look and feel. This is not the case in Halo 2: Anniversary, so the updated graphics are a faithful improvement over the original game’s visuals. The Anniversary graphics make great use of modern shadow and lighting techniques to breathe life into the world. It should be noted, however, that much like Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Halo 2: Anniversary has many graphical flaws when played in Classic mode, including level of detail (LOD) issues and absent lighting, so the game looks worse than the original Xbox version, at times. This is a known issue that the development team is aware of, so we’ll just have to wait for a fix.

Interestingly, the Anniversary graphics also come with new CG cutscenes for several story sequences, which leads to some pacing issues when swapping between visual styles. The Anniversary CG doesn’t sync with the Classic mode’s in-engine cutscenes, so you can find yourself at different points in a scene if you swap visuals.

Audio is another significant improvement in Halo 2: Anniversary. The original game’s soft music and tinny gunfire sounds are replaced by a music-forward soundtrack with fresh flourishes and weapons with beefy sound effects. In fact, I experimented with all of Halo 2’s weapons in no small part due to the sounds they made, which is a testament to what good sound design can do for a shooter. 

Under the Hood

Halo 2: Anniversary runs fairly well on mid-range hardware. My Intel i5-4690/ Nvidia GeForce GTX 970-powered desktop gaming computer pushes polygons between 60 and 80 frames per second at 1080p resolution. You can crank the frame rate up to 120fps if your computer can run it, and the game does very well at these higher frame rates, with one odd exception. Hand animations, such as reloading, sword-swinging, and grenade-lobbing, are locked to 60fps, so when you run the game at a refresh rate higher than 60, the animations look a bit choppy.

To play this game, your PC needs at least an AMD Phenom II X4 960T or Intel i3550 CPU, with an AMD HD 6850 or Nvidia GTS 450 graphics card or better. Halo 2: Anniversary features full controller support, ultrawide monitor support, 4K graphics, Steam Achievements, and Steam Trading Cards. Much like Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Halo 2: Anniversary allows two-player online co-op as well as online PvP action. There is no local split-screen play, and its anyone’s guess when developer 343 Industries adds it, if ever. You need to create an Xbox Live account if you don’t already own one, but you don’t need a paid subscription to play on PC.

Fantastic and Flawed

Halo 2: Anniversary offers great bang for your buck, but the game still needs improvement. It runs well on mid-range hardware save for the inexplicable stuttering at times. Multiplayer is loads of fun, yet the bugs can ruin the experience at the same time. As a stand-alone $10 game, it’s a fantastic value, but it could be better than it is now. If you’ve never played the game, it’s well worth the buy. But if you’re on the fence about Halo 2: Anniversary, or the Halo: Master Chief Collection as a whole, maybe wait a bit for the inevitable string of bug fixes that follow.

For more Steam game reviews and previews, check out PCMag’s Steam Curator page.

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