Ah, Halo. A long and storied series of games. The first-person shooter franchise traces its roots back to 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved, a title that established the Xbox as a major contender in the console arena and raised the profile of its developer Bungie considerably. The popular franchise has seen many subsequent sequels and spin-offs, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Which Halo game is best is a common point of contention among first-person shooter fans; following in the footsteps of many writers before me, I will be giving my opinion on the matter.
What follows will be a ranked list of each main-series Halo title. Disclaimer: this is all a matter of personal preference; in addition, it is my personal belief that every Halo game is great, so a low ranking does not imply a low quality. When evaluating the caliber of each title, I take into account gameplay, features, campaign/story, multiplayer, and how well the title executed on all these aspects compared to other games of its time. Finally, this list will contain spoilers, so tread lightly! So, without further ado, here’s the list.
#5: Halo 4
Starting out, we have Halo 4. The first title in the main series made by 343 Industries, the Microsoft-run successor to Bungie, Halo 4 is a mixed bag. With a new, unproven studio behind it, there was considerable concern in the months leading up to its release, but also a large amount of excitement as well, given that it was the long-awaited follow-up to Master Chief’s uncertain fate in Halo 3. The result was a game with a great campaign and story but controversial multiplayer. The more personal story of Master Chief and Cortana was a wonderful change of pace for longtime fans of the series. However, changes to multiplayer, such as the addition of customizable loadouts ala Call of Duty, randomized weapon spawns, and the ability to call in “killstreak”-like abilities left longtime fans of the series feeling burned. The traditional Halo multiplayer model had been “modernized” in an attempt to stay relevant, but most would agree that it had the opposite affect, as Halo 4 marked a decline in the series popularity. 343 would attempt a course-correction with the games sequel, Halo 5: Guardians. Speaking of which…
#4: Halo 5: Guardians
In many ways, Halo 5: Guardians is the exact opposite of Halo 4. As 343’s second attempt at a main series game, the pressure to fulfill fan expectations was even higher following the mixed reception to 4. The game’s multiplayer was a particular focus for the development team, and this effort paid off. Improvements to movement and soldier abilities helped adapt the franchise to the modern FPS market while still retaining the unique “Halo” feel of the franchise. Combat was smooth and intuitive, and new and improved features like the Warzone game mode, “Forge 2.0”, and Warzone Firefight gave the game a breadth of content when compared to similar titles. This content advantage continued far into the games lifecycle, with 343 providing constant live-service updates. All was not perfect with the title however. The campaign was among the most controversial of all Halo titles. Cortana, seemingly having survived the events of Halo 4 is back, but this time, she is a villainess hell-bent on galactic domination. The campaign focuses much more on a newcomer, Spartan Locke and his Osiris team, than it does on the original hero of the franchise Master Chief. Pacing issues, a short length, and an overall contentious plot make Halo 5’s campaign the worst of the franchise. The inclusion of fan-favorite Blue Team from the book series and fun level design is enough to redeem the game and put it ahead of Halo 4, but only barely.
#3: Halo: Combat Evolved
The original title, the one that started it all. Halo: Combat Evolved was a truly revolutionary game for its time. A first-person shooter for an unproven console which was expected to be relegated to the dustbin of history, but instead started a pop-culture phenomenon. Combat Evolved codified many features of the modern FPS that we now take for granted; the limit of two weapons, grenades in a separate slot; even the idea of aiming for headshots or using the butt of your gun in a melee attack was seldom used before CE came along. With controllable vehicles and a large variety of weapons, the game gave players many different ways to play. And the story of the mythical superweapon Halo and Master Chief and Cortana’s attempt to destroy it is an iconic FPS campaign that inspired many after it. While its certainly shows its age these days, it cannot be overstated just how well-executed the game was for its time. While somewhat clunky to play now, no feature or mechanic is antiquated, unintuitive, or unfamiliar, a testament to its influence on the modern FPS genre.
#2: Halo 3
Halo 3 holds a special place in my gamers’ hearts. The supposed end of the Halo trilogy, and a title that many consider one of the best of the series, if not the best. Released at a time when younger fans of the original game were coming of age, and online mutiplayer was becoming more and more accessible, Halo 3 is looked on with a unique kind of nostalgia. The epic conclusion to the story first start in CE was a satisfying end to many, including myself, though I and others believe the campaign was a bit of a step down when compared to Halo 2. A larger focus on spectacle and overall plot instead of the more character-driven and unique Covenant perspective of Halo 2 leaves you wanting more for the supposed finale of the series. However, even if you consider the campaign to have missteps like I do, there is not denying that the multiplayer more than made up for it. Competitive multiplayer was among the best you could ever ask for in the series, with new features like equipment adding a fun new twist to the gameplay. In contrast to Halo 2, the game was well-balanced and relatively free of exploits, resulting in an overall more even experience. And who could forget the iconic Forge mode, where players could customize maps to their liking and even create entirely new ones from scratch. The community truly came alive during the days of Halo 3, with custom arenas and game modes (such as the fan-favorite Griffball) changing how players can contribute to the longevity of a game. To many, Halo 3 was the golden age of the series.
#1: Halo 2
This was a tough call. Both the second and third entries in the series do so many different things well, but in my opinion, Halo 2 wins out. It is THE game that popularized online multiplayer for the vast majority of the gaming market. Previously, the realm was dominated mostly by PC games. But with Microsoft debuting their Xbox Live service in 2002 and bringing online play to the average console player, things were about to change. And, in 2004, Halo 2 arrived and brought said change. Phenomenal multiplayer with a great variety of weapons and maps kept casual and competitive players alike playing for a long time. Simple improvements to controls and movement made the game play much better than CE, and the game’s iconic arena designs remain fan favorites to this day, being remade in Halo 5’s Forge mode and included in official playlists. The only thing preventing it from being the perfect multiplayer game for its time was the prevalence of balancing issues and exploits, including the infamous “BXR.” If you were looking to get away from said exploits, you could hop into the game’s campaign, which featured Master Chief in his quest to defend Earth from the Covenant. It also featured a surprise character as well: the Arbiter, a Covenant Elite sent on a quest by the High Prophets of his religion to redeem himself through suicide missions. The story has a wider scale, showing both sides of the conflict, while still managing to greatly expand on the smaller character moments that were less common in the original game. The end result is a memorable and endlessly quotable campaign. Not to mention, replayable, especially if you’re the type of player who loves an extreme challenge. Try this game’s Legendary mode! The Jackal Snipers are harmless, I swear.
And there you have it. My personal preference for the main-series Halo titles. Many will agree, and many will disagree, but its good to repeat the fact that I believe all the Halo games are great, and that just because I rated Halo 4 last does not mean its a bad game. With Halo: Infinite arriving in the near future, one wonders how it will measure up to its predecessors, and what spot it will land on the list.
Oh, and if you’re wondering where Halo: Reach is, its not a main-series title, as it is not an installment of the Master Chief’s story. That being said, if I were to have ranked it, it would be ranked pretty high. Let’s just leave it at that, though!