Eventually, it had to be done. A comprehensive ranking of every Halo game, so that’s Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST, Halo: Reach, Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians. Not included are Halo Wars and Halo Wars 2, because comparing strategy games with first person shooters is ultimately pointless. So, to begin:
7 – Halo 4
I can’t express how hard it is to actually rank Halo 4 as the lowest. I compare ranking Halo games to ranking Doctors from Doctor Who, in that they’re all good in their own way so picking a worst one essentially comes down to picking what everyone else considers the worst one. In ranking the Doctors, this means that Colin Baker usually comes last, and when ranking Halo games, it’s Halo 4. Why? Well, because Halo 4 seemed like the biggest missed opportunity in Halo history. It was a decent game in it’s own right, and the multiplayer was prematurely killed off by rapid release of various DLC until the release of The Master Chief Collection, but what really brought Halo 4 down was the campaign. The story was ultimately quite good if you bothered to read the multitude of deep-lore novels (which the average player does not) but without the added understanding of the in-game terminals and a very acute knowledge of the Halo expanded universe the story was baffling to most players, with the Didact appearing as ‘just some guy’ instead of the threatening villain he was supposed to be. Added to this is Cortana’s death, which in the narrative of the game is a beautiful and emotional ending to a fairly moving (if nonsensical) sci-fi story, but in the wider context of the Halo universe seemed like a cheap ploy to make 343i’s first game somewhat memorable. Added to that is the music, art and sound design radically changing from the previous game, again to make 343i’s games seem more distinct from Bungie’s games, when it really didn’t need to. Why does everything suddenly look totally different from how it did at the end of Halo 3? The Anniversary games showed us that it is possible to update graphics without changing the overall look of a game, so why was this sudden and unexpected change necessary? If anything it only served to distance Bungie fans even more from 343i’s games, which is ultimately what it came down to with Halo 4 – it split the userbase between new and old fans, with a growing number of Halo players backing the ‘it was better how it was’ camp rather than accepting 343i’s takeover of the franchise.
6 – Halo 3: ODST
If you haven’t already, be sure to find some way of checking out Firefly, a fantastic Space-Western orientated series that aired on Fox between 2002-2003, it’s an absolutely fantastic show even accounting for the fact that because it was unfairly cancelled the last few episodes of the first season were never made. Some of the cast of Firefly later worked on a game called Halo 3: ODST, including star Nathan Fillion. Like all the Halo games, Halo 3: ODST had an engaging story, interesting characters and a swath of fun gameplay. The problem with Halo 3: ODST is that it is just too short. The campaign consists of Halo’s first (and until now, only) open-world experience, as you awaken in an enemy occupied city and try to figure out what happened to your squadmates by finding and activating certain ‘memories’ related to them, that take the form of flashbacks to your squadmates prior missions in the city. These flashbacks are essentially the levels of the game, but there are not many of them and they are often short compared to normal Halo levels. For some context, in Halo: The Master Chief Collection the par time is used to determine how quickly a Halo level should be finished in, even for someone who isn’t speed-running. Normally, a par time in The MCC is about 10-15 minutes, but many of the Halo 3: ODST levels would struggle to hit 5 minutes. Added to that is the lack of multiplayer, and although ODST does contain the debut of the Firefight mode, Halo: Reach did this much better without sacrificing a multiplayer mode.
5 – Halo 5: Guardians
The most recent 343i-made Halo game was not without its fair share of controversy – from microtransactions to updates that really just added in the bits of the game that were missing on release, Halo 5 somewhat divided the Halo community. But, in many ways, it also somewhat united it too, since it added features into a Halo game that the community had never seen before, such as a Custom Games File Browser that allows players to search for player-made games online, and the most advanced Forge system to date that also got its own port on PC. The campaign is what really let this game down, with a story that didn’t live up to the hype that the trailers whipped up around the game, and characters that barely meet the standards for being described as ‘paper-thin’. Other than Buck, who had received development in Halo 3: ODST, practically every squad member – even Master Chief’s Blue Team from the novels – felt under-developed and underused. Overall, if it weren’t for a pretty decent multiplayer (once all the updates were released) and a fancy new engine (that apparently got split-screen removed) Halo 5: Guardians would hardly be worth considering. But with such a strong potential for community-driven direction and a platform for user-created content, Halo 5: Guardians has pushed 343 industries further in the right direction for what to do next with the franchise.
4 – Halo: Reach
The controversial younger cousin of the Bungie games, Halo: Reach has the dubious honor of being the final Bungie game of the series and is therefore seen by many fans as a turning point in the franchise. Despite the inclusion of several questionable additions such as Armor Lock, Halo: Reach stands out as a shooter that has maintained its population for nearly ten years and experienced a renaissance following the release of its backwards-compatibility on the Xbox One. One of the best aspects of Halo: Reach is the campaign, which tells a relatively simple story but in a way that draws the player close to one particular team of Spartan soldiers among hundreds, and depicts their fate with startling stone-cold sincerity as characters that it is easy to feel close to are killed off one by one. Add to this a vast variety of interesting levels that often use in-game events to embellish the melancholy story with visceral detail, such as the destruction of the civilian transport in the level ‘Exodus’ or the annihilation of the frigate Savannah in the level ‘Long Night of Solace’ that add to the sense of helplessness as the player watches the tragic events play out. A lingering standout feature of Halo: Reach is its multiplayer, which served as the epitome of community involvement for the Bungie era, as the heavily modified Forge mode allowed for more intricate map creation. Also, the variety of gamemodes and the ability to customise the character’s armor allowed for a vast freedom that few Halo games before or since ever offered the player.
3 – Halo: Combat Evolved
The game that started it all cannot be underestimated, even nearly 20 years after its initial release. The story is intricately woven throughout the campaign levels that are specifically designed to invoke a feeling of wonder and intrigue as the game takes the player on a journey through an ancient and mysterious fortress-world that combines stark, metallic structures and caverns with rolling hills, tall forests, snowy valleys and festering swamps. The campaign is structured so that as the locations advance, so to do the difficulty levels of the enemies, ensuring that a smooth learning curve guides the player through the variety of levels and enemy types. Add to this the incredible music, that served as the inspiration for many tracks on Halo soundtracks afterward, and perfectly sets the tone of every level with a provocative soundtrack that enhances the alien-ness of the setting. The only real drawback to Halo: Combat Evolved is the multiplayer, which was designed for system link and is woefully unbalanced, meaning that online play via The Master Chief Collection is largely pointless. Whilst the MCC does a great job of transitioning the game to the next generation, the best way to experience Halo: Combat Evolved is in its original form, on an original Xbox, and preferably with the original Duke controller that gave everyone RSI.
2 – Halo 3
Halo 3 is considered by many to be the definitive Halo experience, and it has definitely earned that title. This game delivered the immense hype that built up prior to its release in 2007, and it rounded off the story of the original Halo trilogy with dignity. The multiplayer was and still is stellar, with a wide variety of maps and modes and even an inclusion of a rudimentary Forge mode, since this game was the initial debut of the mapmaking system that Halo: Reach would eventual expand greatly upon. The greatest thing about Halo 3 is how all the elements come together, both from a production and marketing perspective but also from an in-game story perspective, since this game sees the Master Chief and the Humans in the UNSC side with the Arbiter and the Elites of the former Covenant, which has now been taken over by the Prophet of Truth and his Brutes. The campaign picks up where Halo 2 left off and although it doesn’t quite meet the level and enemy variety that Halo 2 did, Halo 3 still delivers an action-packed campaign in which almost every level is definitive, apart from that one we all hate.
1 – Halo 2
Halo is indeed a great series, and Halo 2 is what made it so. Aside from being the biggest video game of all time on its release, Halo 2 gave the first person shooter genre its big break on consoles, with the inclusion of a revolutionary online and matchmaking system that allowed players from all over the world to battle each other online on Xbox almost instantly, and also a ranking system that introduced a competitive side to online play that drove gameplay hours up. Halo 2 also had a much more cinematic campaign experience, with a story that built on what had already been established in Halo: Combat Evolved and pushed Halo further into the grounds of high-concept science fiction whilst keeping the gameplay fun and refreshing. An overhaul of the health system from Halo: Combat Evolved made the gameplay more fast-paced, and Halo 2 saw the inclusion of the most diverse and varied selection of enemies yet, from the Heretics with their Grunt-Needler army, the Sentinels with their massive Enforcers, the Flood with their newfound ability to drive vehicles and the debut of the Brutes who play a vital role in the story. Halo 2 also saw the surprise inclusion of the Arbiter as a playable single-player character, with his own story that runs in tandem to Master Chief’s throughout the game and offers a new insight into the Covenant and their society. Overall, although the game itself has been dwarfed by subsequent releases, the impact of the release of Halo 2 on the gaming market at the time was great, and to this day it remains the greatest Halo game.