The Master Chief Collection for PC adds another classic game to its ranks - and the arrival of Halo 3 brings with it terrific performance, the best support yet for high refresh rate gaming and even some nice enhancements to existing games in the collection. Beyond the fact that a genuinely great game is now available to PC gamers, what I particularly like about this release is that running it at 4K 60fps actually gave me a much better appreciation of some of the original game's technical achievements - elements that were hard to spot in the sub-720p Xbox 360 original.
While I definitely recall Halo 3's visual blemishes - like its character modelling and some of its choices for animation, sound, and lighting technology - seeing the game again at higher resolution and frame-rate serves to liberate the original assets from Xbox 360's technical limitations. While the console lacked substantial system RAM - certainly by today's standards - Bungie worked around this by using a lot of decals and tiling detail textures on a lot of the game's asset. On today's PC hardware running at 4K resolution, a lot of fine detail you may have missed is resolved - the scratches on metal, for example, or the highly detailed ground textures. On close inspection, I was even surprised to find that Halo 3 very rarely uses a form of offset bump mapping or rudimentary parallax mapping on some textures. It was all there back in 2007, just hidden behind low resolution and murky anisotropic filtering - something that is not an issue for today's technology.
There are some proper upgrades in this new release too - such as a field of view slider and an enhanced graphics option that delivers visuals in excess of the Xbox One version of the game. Halo 3 doesn't get a full-on remaster like its predecessors in the Master Chief Collection, but similar to the other PC ports you can push out the draw distance of static and dynamic world objects. Dynamic models like enemy corpses or smaller objects render out further into the distance away from the camera. This applies to elements like grass as well, but even the standard original distance for grass is not exactly bad. Below the original graphical option, you have a performance mode as well, which further reduces the distance of draw to levels very close to the camera - useful if you have a particularly old PC.
If you are GPU-limited, going down from enhanced to original increases performance by around four per cent and going down to performance mode with all of its cuts to draw distance increases performance by 17 per cent over the enhanced setting. This effect has a generally more transformative effect on CPU performance, which I tested by playing the game at 720p and leaving the GPU under-utilised. Here, moving from enhanced to original graphics increased performance by 24 per cent on the CPU and going down further from enhanced to performance mode increased CPU performance by 55 per cent. However, Halo 3 is a title that's very light on the CPU - a Ryzen 9 3900X delivered over 400fps barely touching most of its cores, so I suspect that any modern CPU will blaze its way through this game.
As long as you have DX11 support, the GPU requirement is minimal too, to the point where our mainstream graphics stalwarts - Nvidia's GeForce GTX 1060 and AMD's Radeon RX 580 easily ran the game in excess of 60 frames per second at 4K resolution. However, the light systems requirements make this game perfect for a high refresh rate display where you stand an extremely good chance of maxing a 240Hz screen or higher. And it works. Prior Halo releases have had issues with frame-rate interpolation, meaning that the game can run in excess of 60fps, but animations do not, ruining the HFR experience.
With Halo 3 though, I played the game through beautifully at 120fps with almost all elements of the game animating as they should at full frame-rate. Only two elements stood out - plasma shots and Brute spike shots do not render correctly above 60fps, while the crouching animation also seems to be pegged at 60fps, looking rather jerky in the process with everything else running at 120fps. Other than that, the game plays out nigh-on flawlessly - and the fact that the animation issue seems to have been fixed suggests that a small patch could address the areas I've noticed that aren't quite perfect. Given how Halo 3 shares commonalities with Halo Reach and ODST, I hope the developers can take the lessons learned from the frame-rate interpolation used in this game to go back and fix Halo Reach, which still has utterly broken animation at above 60fps.
There's further good news too. While Reach still doesn't present properly beyond 60fps, its audio issues have been largely corrected. To recap, Reach suffered from a bizarre audio muffling issue which essentially meant that the game didn't sound anywhere near as accurate and dynamic as it should compared to the Xbox 360 original. The good news is that Halo 3 sounds great, while Reach is drastically improved. It's not quite on par with the original release, but the fundamental issue has been addressed and it sounds so much better as a result. Along with the audio update to Reach, the latest Master Chief Collection patch also adds in optional weapon skins for Halo: Combat Evolved. In general, these weapon textures increase the resolution of those assets on weapons that had a lot of compression artefacts in them or were of a glaringly low resolution.
Returning to Halo 3, it's a simply excellent release - the bug count is minimal, while the performance demonstrates beautifully how a vintage 2007 game should scale onto today's hardware. My only regret is that HDR support is absent. According to the Steam page for Halo 3 ODST, that game should feature HDR - so perhaps Halo 3 will receive an HDR upgrade with that release, whenever that may occur. It's a small gripe but one that I would genuinely like to see addressed - especially as internal HDR rendering was a key objective for Bungie back in the day.
The good news is that Halo 3's issues are minimal and absolutely do not get in the way of the playability and the pure enjoyment delivered by this 2007 classic. I just hope that this is a sign of things to come: that the frame-rate interpolation fixes here roll back to the other games in the Master Chief Collection, and that features like HDR and indeed split-screen multiplayer get added to the PC game too. There's still the sense that the collection is a work-in-progress, with key issues left unaddressed before 343 moves on to delivering a new game but the direction of travel is undeniable: the competence in the conversion work with each Halo is getting better and better with each new release and while this lacks the ambition of the prior anniversary editions, the original game still holds up rather well.