When “Halo: Combat Evolved” released in 2001, it created a foundation for the future of first-person shooters. Next to the Half-Life series, the Halo series has a long-standing legacy in informing how first-person shooters would be structured, from single-player to multiplayer features, visual presentation, how music and audio add to immersion, and how a gaming phenomenon might look like when it goes global.
Ranking the Halo games is a tricky proposition, considering their mostly excellent but varied qualities and the impact each game may have had on the larger industry landscape. I am fortunate to have grown up with the series since its inception, absorbing the meteoric impact of every release until the series started to slow down. I’m also fortunate to have “Halo: The Master Chief Collection,” which offers the original campaigns for modern platforms.
I will rank each Halo game’s campaign and multiplayer separately, as they each have their own legacies. In this list, I’m considering each game’s influence on the first-person shooting genre and gaming as a whole, in addition to how well each game has stood the test of time. With a series as modern as Halo, there are a handful of games that excel at both.
8. Halo 5: Guardians (2015)
Skepticism of 343 Industries’s ability to shepherd the Halo series is strongly rooted in distaste for “Halo 5,″ specifically how the game was marketed as a “Master Chief gone rogue” story and the developers did little with that. The story instead split the focus between Chief and another Spartan, Locke, as well as a cast of six other characters, many of them known only from the novels. This game was a hodgepodge of ideas, developed around the idea of four-player cooperative action. Instead, we got large maps filled to the brim with enemies with very little attention given to pacing, with controls and gameplay that mirrored Call of Duty. It did address some issues from the fourth game, making 343′s new enemy type, Prometheans, more engaging to fight, as well as featuring larger levels. But the intro cinematic, a noisy showcase of heroics reminiscent of a bad Marvel movie, is your first sign that this was a franchise beginning to lose its sense of self. This is the only game in the entire series that feels unnecessary to play.
The first mainline Halo game from 343 Industries was a valiant effort, focusing on the fraying relationship between Chief and his AI partner Cortana. Then-franchise creative director Josh Holmes said the story came from the painful experience of his mother being diagnosed with dementia. That sincerity glows through the campaign, even as its linear levels and enemy AI felt like a step back from every other Halo game. The aforementioned Promethean enemy type is at its worst here, with teleporting Knights and rushing, dog-like Crawlers disrupting the flow of combat. Still, there’s a real sense of urgency as Chief weighs personal duty and his friendship in trying to save Cortana from oblivion. Its ending is the most touching and complete in the series as well, and could have even acted as a series finale.
Bungie’s swan song for the series moved away from the Master Chief to tell a tragic tale of ill-fated Spartans defending Reach, the planet mentioned in the first Halo game as the first to fall to the invading Covenant forces. As a result, it’s yet another Halo game packed with ideas, including a stand-alone space dogfight that seemed thrilling at first, but was just an empty shooting exercise in the end. The Reach Spartans all hit different “cool soldier” archetypes, leaving them feeling a little cardboard-like and disposable. By the end though, once the inevitability of tragedy starts to set in, the battles become more pitched and desperate, giving the Halo series its darkest entry yet. Stripped of humor and optimism, “Reach” was a worthy exploration of what the Halo universe could look like beyond Master Chief’s lens.
The third game was easily the most anticipated of its time, and one of gaming’s breakout crossover hits into the mainstream consciousness. It mostly didn’t disappoint, with a plot that ended the Covenant invasion story arc on a definitive note and gave Master Chief a proper sendoff until his reappearance in “Halo 4.” Its levels were better paced than even its two groundbreaking prequels, and featured a moment we haven’t seen before or since: the unforgettable fight against two giant Scarab robots and a full-court press of human resistance armed with tanks, jeeps and fighter jets, all playable in real time. The writing was hokey, focused way too much on cheap deaths of main characters, and didn’t really expand on the Halo formula besides refining it. It’s a must-play for any Halo fan, and one of gaming’s most satisfying trilogy finales.
This was Bungie at its most confident, finally armed with the technology it needed to make exactly the game it wanted to. Everyone who played this will instantly bring up its neo-noir jazz soundtrack, a perfect companion to set the mood for your real-life rainy nights. Replaying this, I noticed that this was easily the best-paced of Bungie’s output, flowing between boots-on-the-ground combat in an African city and lengthy vehicle sections that showcase how easy it is for the Halo series to scale any big game. And before “Halo Infinite,” this was the first game in the series to explore the open-world format, as you explore the war-torn New Mombasa as a powered-down shock trooper, abandoned and looking for any signs of life and hope. In a series about robots and artificial worlds, this is the Halo story with the most soul.
While it’s early to assess the impact of a game just released, it’s easy to rank this among the best in the series if only because it expands the possibilities set forth in the first game. It’s a campaign that makes the best moments of any game on this list easily accessible at almost any instant in the game. While it lacks the diversity of storytelling, characters and setting of the other games in the series, “Halo Infinite” is handily the best-playing, best-feeling game since 2007. It’s not just one of the best Halo games ever, it’s one of the best first-person shooters released in the last decade.
Production on this sequel became one of the most famous examples of big-budget video game crunch in mainstream consciousness. A documentary included with a special edition of “Halo 2” detailed much of the sleepless nights, scrapped plans and bad decisions that caused this game to get delayed several times. All these decisions could be felt in probably the most frustrating cliffhanger ending in the video game medium, with the Master Chief returning to Earth and the story immediately fading to black. It’s remarkable, then, that “Halo 2” remains the best-written, best-acted game in the franchise, with the most memorable line readings in gaming history. Although its linear levels betrayed the freedom offered in the first game, Bungie still experimented with the possibilities of the first Halo within level designs that felt far more confident. And by exploring the enemy Covenant side of the story, “Halo 2” outlined important parallels across the war’s lines, including the reasons to fight. “Halo 2,” if anything, is impossible to forget.
1. Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)
First-person shooters, including Call of Duty, would incorporate this game’s regenerating health system, forever changing the dynamics of the genre. Faced with the limits of the Xbox console, Bungie would force players to keep only two weapons at a time, introducing a new strategic element to the shooter genre known for giving players dozens of guns at their disposal at any time. Its music reacted dynamically to the player’s on-screen progress and actions, a groundbreaking audio storytelling technique that’s everywhere today. And, of course, it finally cemented the right analog stick’s function to controlling cameras, forever changing how players would aim and look around in shooting games for the next two decades and beyond. Even after 20 years, it’s remarkable how modern and evocative the Xbox launch title can be. “Halo: Combat Evolved” is a game so future proofed, it’s as easy to pick up to play today as a Super Mario game would be to anyone who grew up in the 1980s. It isn’t just the best Halo game, it’s one of the most important games ever made.
If the Halo campaigns began to lose their identity with the fifth game, the fourth game’s multiplayer started that work earlier by implementing a loadout system similar to Call of Duty’s. This was simply a betrayal and misunderstanding of Halo’s core tenet of every player starting out on an even playing field with the same equipment. This game also introduced bipedal mechs into the vehicle sandbox, but they were too slow and cumbersome to really add anything to the play possibilities besides team imbalance. Of all the multiplayer offerings of the series, “Halo 4” had the least to contribute.
Spartan armor abilities threw a wrench into the “guns, grenades and fists” gameplay of classic Halo, and this was the first divisive multiplayer offering from Bungie. Some of these abilities, like jetpacks and the overpowered armor lock, were simply too disruptive to the flow of play, and the maps that doubled as campaign settings were lackluster. But “Reach” also introduced an arduous but rewarding progression system that let players customize their Spartans to great lengths. It was also the most customizable when it came to game types, but this sadly split the players between different objectives. This is an issue “Halo Infinite” is trying to address with its forced playlists — to the frustration of many players. Sadly, not enough people remember “Reach” and its empty lobbies.
Yes, it’s the best-playing Halo game since “Halo 3.” It’s this low on the multiplayer list because, at least as of this moment, it is the series entry with the least amount of player-available options. Without the ability to select your own game types outside of custom matches, the free-to-play model of “Halo Infinite” essentially comes down to gambling with time if you prefer deathmatch-style gameplay over objective matches, or vice versa. While it’s become 2021′s best multiplayer shooter, it’s worth grieving over the fact that the Halo series, once a leader and innovator in the multiplayer space, is now a follower of the free-to-play business model, a decision that resulted in the most sparse multiplayer Halo offering at launch. What “Infinite” nails is the combat dance — how players move and feel throughout each battle. It has the potential to topple “Halo 3” and at least reach the No. 2 spot on this list, but it simply needs more content.
Before “Call of Duty: Warzone,” there was Warzone in “Halo 5.” This mode was an ambitious evolution of the classic Big Team Battle games of Halo, mixing enemy artificial intelligence with player opponents, completing objectives in a tug-of-war match back and forth across the largest multiplayer maps the series has ever seen. It’s the best new idea in the series since “Halo 3,” throwing the chaos of the campaigns into a multiplayer setting. The multiplayer was marred by a microtransaction-heavy card system called Requisition, which gave players cosmetic items and equipment to use. But despite the awful campaign, “Halo 5” showed that 343 Industries knew how to make a fun, ambitious multiplayer experience.
The first Halo game laid the foundation of professional organized esports in the U.S., as the first tournament played as part of Major League Gaming back in 2004. Right at launch, this was an extremely balanced shooter that catapulted it to the forefront of competitive gaming, right next to “Counterstrike.” Its iconic Blood Gulch map would not only be replicated across the series, but it was also the setting for the groundbreaking machinima animation genre, which launched the careers of Internet video production company Rooster Teeth. If only it had been able to connect to the Internet, “Halo” would likely be at the top of this list, instead of its two groundbreaking sequels.
Forge mode brought player-driven map creation to consoles, making “Halo 3” one of the most complete packages in gaming both then and since. The equipment system worked well to keep combat flowing. Favorites like the bubble shield ensured that equipment not only helped the player, but the rest of their team, changing the dynamic of a battle at a moment’s notice. This entry also had some of the biggest maps available at the time, and featured movable elements in the levels, like the Mammoth, a base on wheels that housed game objectives like flags as well as vehicles. “Halo 3” was also the most confident Bungie had been in its controls and systems. (Also, for the record, I’m including “ODST” as part of “Halo 3” since it’s essentially an expansion pack for that game.)
This is the game that forever changed how multiplayer worked, giving players a party system and eschewing the need for dedicated servers. This allowed Xbox friends to group up and move from one game type to another together. “Halo 2” also pioneered playlists, letting players pick a mode and connect with players of similar interests and skills. If you liked the random players you matched up with, sometimes you could just end up partying with them indefinitely, and online friendships were forged and strengthened. “Halo 2” also just happens to have the best maps ever designed for the series, with missed classics like Lockout, Ascension and Zanzibar, killing fields that haven’t been topped since. Multiplayer online gaming in general, not just in the console space, owes a large debt to “Halo 2.”