Welcome to a new series, ‘Ranking the Levels’, in which I will list the levels of a game in the order of worst to best, in my opinion. To start with, I have used Halo: Combat Evolved as an example, so let’s get started:
10 – The Library, Mission 7
Alright, this one is a cheap shot. We’ve all heard about how The Library is the worst level in the history of Halo. And although that is not strictly true, The Library certainly comes bottom of the list for Halo: Combat Evolved levels. See, the original Halo game had its issues, particularly with level design, and whilst most levels in the game broke up the repetitive rooms just enough to make it bearable by including sudden shifts in the variety of terrain, going from tight interior corridor sections to a sudden opened-up vehicle section or even a Banshee segment, The Library commits the cardinal sin of setting an entire level in one long indoor segment. The level is essentially one long slog to get from Point A to Point B while navigating through a vast maze of bland, boring and repetitive corridors, all whilst the Monitor hums and stares down at you as you succumb to wave after wave of Flood forms of all different kinds. The only way in which The Library shakes up the gameplay is when you have to go under the doors via a partially-hidden passageway (which you do very rarely) or if you get a column of Sentinels to help you in certain sections. Overall, the level is boring and only worth playing if you want to endure some kind of gauntlet for personal triumph, not for fun.
9 – Keyes, Mission 9
Whilst it is by no means a bad thing that the later levels in Halo: Combat Evolved upped the challenge factor even on lower difficulties, this does create some scenarios in which repeated encounters with the various types of enemies become frustrating as you attempt to balance the weapons you have at hand with the limited amount that you can carry whilst also maintaining effectiveness against as many enemies as possible. Keyes represents the culmination of the crescendo of difficulty in terms of new enemy introductions, as it pits the player against the classic Covenant squads, Flood forms of all kinds, Hunters and the newly introduced Covenant SpecOps squads, which are better armed and throw grenades with more vigor. The poor lighting in and around the ship does make many of these encounters unnecessarily difficult, however, and Flood forms can often overwhelm the player with their vast numbers on higher difficulties. Overall, its more varied than The Library, and has some chilling plot developments, but again represents a kind of gauntlet that must be passed.
8 – Halo, Mission 2
The introduction to the Halo ring itself is fantastic, as you emerge from a tight, enclosed escape pod out into the beautiful open expanse of the inner surface of the Halo ring, complete with waterfalls, forests, canyons and clouds. The detailing on the ring’s environments are most impressive, particularly in the remastered version, and the skybox creates a wonderful feeling of dizzying realisation that you are standing on an artificial world. Once the initial impact of the reveal passes, however, the level becomes slightly less invigorating, since it involves a somewhat tedious rescue mission. In its typical fashion, Halo: Combat Evolved encourages you to see the positives in the less well designed levels, however, as Halo does give the player freedom of exploration, as the checkpoints can be done in any order and must be found. This level is also notable in that it introduces the Needler, the Jackal and the Warthog, three of the most iconic staples of Halo.
7 – 343 Guilty Spark, Mission 6
The highly atmospheric and suitably chilling delve into the jungles and swamps of the Halo is next on our list of levels, as 343 Guilty Spark involves exploring a swamp area (that resembles more of a jungle in the remastered version) to discover what became of the good Captain Keyes, and instead we uncover a horror story as the Flood are revealed for the first time. Since Halo: Combat Evolved is all about evolving difficulty, the abilities that the Flood possess are programmed to progress as the player moves further into the Forerunner structures to teach the player how to kill the Flood before they become powerful enough to simply overwhelm the player immediately. For a start, your initial encounter with the Flood involves killing infection forms only, as combat forms are not introduced until after you discover the infection form’s behaviour traits. Then, you are taught how to properly dispose of combat forms (including an awareness of their ability to reanimate) before the combat forms are able to hold and use projectile weapons, which only comes in later. Then, as a final hurrah for the Marines, you are taught about the Flood’s virile and parasitic nature when you finally emerge from the Forerunner structure and encounter Marines being torn apart by waves of Flood as you all make a break for the landing zone. Overall, a great mission that serves as the perfect introduction for the Flood.
6 – Pillar of Autumn, Mission 1
Much as it serves as an excellent introduction to the combat of Halo, Pillar of Autumn holds back on certain revolutionary details of the nature of Halo: Combat Evolved that only really come to bear in the second level, Halo. To be blunt, Pillar of Autumn is basically what Halo: Combat Evolved would be like if it had been made in the same way as every other shooter on the market at that time. It lacked the wide open space, the variability of gameplay with vehicles and turrets, and the variety of enemies to fight. Instead, it restricts the player to fighting Elites and Grunts, somewhat deliberately in order to start off the Halo: Combat Evolved difficulty curve, which creates rather dull and repetitive gameplay on multiple revisiting. However, the level does stand out as an excellent ‘tutorial’ to the mechanics of Halo: Combat Evolved, and teaches the player about weapon combinations, melee and radar tracking.
5 – The Maw, Mission 10
The Maw is so wonderful, looking back, because it creates a genuine sense of urgency that later Halo games lack, not least due to the fantastic soundtrack but also the inclusion of the countdown during the final run, which neither Halo 2, Halo 3 or Halo 4’s final missions had despite all of them involving a task needing to be completed before something is activated, fired or blown up. As a level, The Maw does a great job of streamlining the player towards their goal and provides an interesting gauntlet to overcome in order to destroy the ring. As a final level, however, The Maw does seem somewhat lacking – the final Warthog run is explosive and impressive, but it lacks the openness of many of the earlier vehicle sections and seems somewhat ‘on-rails’. What could have been more fun is if the player had to drive their Warthog along the top of the ship, perhaps to reach a dropship positioned at the end of the ship by the bridge and the Chief has to drive from the engines at the back all the way to the front of the ship, a great sendoff for a vessel like the Pillar of Autumn.
4 – Truth and Reconciliation, Mission 3
Sniper missions are always fun, and Truth and Reconciliation is no exception. What begins as a night-time raid on a Covenant camp involving night-vision sniper rifles and tactical unit positioning eventually culminates in a raid on a Covenant vessel to rescue Captain Keyes and our first real look at the architectural preferences of the Covenant. The interior of the ship is unlike anything a Human would ever produce, with organic-looking pink and purple interior design and wholly alien layout and design. The bridge is a mystifying room of crystalline lights and holographic panels, the brig is dark and ominous and the main hangar is a frustratingly designed yet stylistically impressive three-tiered cavern. The level also introduces Hunters, and the idea that the Halo ring is some kind of weapon that the Covenant wish to use to destroyed humanity.
3 – Assault on the Control Room, Mission 5
This is the mother of all vehicle missions in Halo. For the first time, You can drive every vehicle in the game in this level, and the game invites you to with glee. The level fluctuates between tight and enclosed interior corridors to vast snowy landscapes, with certain sections taking place on thin bridges above a snowy chasm. The gameplay is broken up into distinct sections in this level, beginning on foot before opening out into a Ghost or Warthog section which then transitions into a Tank segment, the first and only one in the game, and after that the game closes in again for several repeating interior rooms, a massive outdoor double-bridge, and yet more rooms, before opening up again for the final segment where fast and tactical players can kill an Elite pilot before he reaches his Banshee and finally take flight for a faster route to the control center, skipping the final indoor section for the final control room fight. Atmospherically, this mission is arguably the best in the game with tracks like Covenant Dance, On a Pale Horse and the infamous Lost Song. This level also includes the Siege of Madrigal Easter Egg, a great addition to an already fantastic level.
2 – The Silent Cartographer, Mission 4
The first real open vehicle level in the game, The Silent Cartographer is unique among Halo levels outside of Halo 3 ODST, as this is the first ‘open-world’ level in the game, in which the player can go anywhere from the get-go. The game sort of cheats, however, when upon exploring the player is confronted with a locked door, and must progress to a specific location to find it, essentially making the level more linear than it could have been. It earns its ‘open-world’ status with the details that can be found upon exploring, however, such as a stray Jackal pair guarding an incongruous silver block, a Terminal guarded by two Hunters, a downed Pelican with Rocket Launchers and ammo, and an upturned Warthog with four bodies near it (odd, since three is the maximum…)
Overall, The Silent Cartographer is a fantastic open-world experience that breaks up the linear nature of most of the other levels in the game to make the world seem more alive.
1 – Two Betrayals, Mission 8
This mission is my favourite for two reasons. First, it is a perfect example of a three-way enemy AI war as Covenant, Flood and Sentinels all fight each other whilst the player is stuck in the middle, and Second, it has one of the greatest plot reveals in video game history. This level opens with the realisation that your new friend, 343 Guilty Spark, is actually set to destroy all life in the Milky Way by tricking you into activating the ring. It is only when Cortana steps in to stop you that the Chief finally realises what the Halos are and what they can do, officially making 343 Guilty Spark your enemy. Speaking of new enemies, this level has the first instances of Sentinels fighting against you, coupled with an increased number of Elite Zealots and Covenant vehicles to fight. This level does have the option of simply allowing the various AI factions to fight it out and then mop up the survivors, depending on which playstyle best suits you. And finally, it has a fantastic Banshee segment, a feature that is rare in more modern Halo games.