I think it’s a testament to the overall quality of the Halo franchise that there hasn’t been a single entry which I’d consider to be a bad game. Both Bungie and 343 have put huge amounts of effort into the series and luckily, we are yet to have a complete dud. Not bad when you consider the series spans nine games and two developers.
HALO 5: GUARDIANS
That being said, if it wasn’t for the multiplayer component of Halo 5 it would be in F tier. There was a huge amount of expectations around this game as it was essentially the Xbox One’s main exclusive and Microsoft put a huge amount of money behind marketing it as a true return to form after the divisive Halo 4. Unfortunately what we got absolutely wasn’t worth the wait or money and ultimately contributed to the Xbox one’s brutal collapse in the console market.
Split Screen (a mainstay of the halo series) was stripped out in favour of 60fps and the story was short and poorly written. Rather than learning from the mixed response to the forerunner enemies from Halo 4, 343 doubled down on this and delivered a story that was nothing like the trailers, which made it look like it would be a story about a rogue Master Chief vs the UNSC. To make matters even worse, they brought back Cortana only to have her become the main villain and then ended the game on a complete cliff hanger. It was an utter trainwreck and the fact that Halo Infinite looks to be ignoring the story of 5 stands as testament to just how misplaced it was.
Luckily Halo 5 is salvaged by it’s multiplayer component which was the best we’d seen since Halo 3. Arena playlists brought back the classic Halo ranked experience as a proper arena shooter with no loadouts or abilities, where controlling the map matters. Warzone brought some freshness to the formula as a 24 player mode which combined PVP with PVE set on large maps with multiple objectives. It might not have had the impact of Halo 2 or 3 but it was definitely fun and prevents Halo 5 from being rooted in the lowest tier.
Halo 4 is a very odd game. Bungie had split with Microsoft and the Halo franchise was entrusted to 343 Studios, a newly formed studio dedicated solely to creating Halo games. The story had been wrapped up in Halo 3 so there was genuine interest in the direction 343 would take the series.
The issue is that while Halo 4 is a perfectly fine game and actually surprisingly beloved by certain fans, it’s story and gameplay direction is just not particularly “Halo”. The grounded space war story has been replaced with a more fantasy/sci-fi tale, more concerned with alien magic powers and ancient wars than the series had ever been in the past. The horror elements that the Flood bring to the table were removed in favour of a new enemy type, forerunner Prometheans, who unfortunately were generic and fairly unfun to fight against. Staple elements like power weapons and equipment were removed in favour of Call of Duty style loadouts and the whole game feels very much like a follower in the FPS genre rather than a leader which it had always previously been.
The story in particular proved very controversial. Large elements of it barely made any sense without having read supplementary comics and novels and while the underlying tale about AI rampancy and forerunner infighting is interesting in theory, the delivery is very weak. What saves the story from complete failure is the emotional goodbye between Cortana and Master Chief which is handled excellently. Unfortunately it’s slightly ruined by knowing she returned in the very next game but in isolation, it’s a great sign off to a historic video game partnership.
The final game by the legendary RTS pioneers, Ensemble Studios – Halo Wars was a valiant attempt to bring what was previously a PC only genre into the console market. It was designed from the ground up to be naturally played with a controller and the final product is surprisingly pretty playable.
The story follows the UNSC ship, the Spirit of Fire, as they are sent on a series of missions to combat a secret Covenant plan to activate a forerunner artefact that could destroy the galaxy. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is. It’s not surprising that the developers of Age of Empires and Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds weren’t able to put together a particularly compelling narrative which was disappointing considering it’s one of the main draws of the wider series.
Halo Wars does deserve credit for how ambitious it wanted to be. It’s online multiplayer was generally pretty great and really did feel like a competitive RTS designed to be played with a controller, sat on your sofa in front of a TV. The asymmetrical factions gave the online meta some depth and it had a clever approach to resource management that let you focus more on the action and less on macro base building. Overall it’s a fun game although realistically it’s highly niche, which is why it’s never really enjoyed the success of the main series.
Halo Wars 2
This time developed by Creative Assembly, the creators of the Total War franchise, you’d be forgiven for thinking CA would put together a grand strategy game where you move fleets around the galaxy and engage in diplomacy as much as violence. Oddly Halo Wars 2 is almost identical to its predecessor despite being from a developer known for a totally different type of strategy game.
It’s once again focused on making RTS games playable on console, it once again falls down in the same places. The multiplayer is fantastic with the addition of Blitz mode that sped things up yet again but it’s story is seriously lacking to the degree where I can remember almost nothing that happens in it.
One area where Halo Wars 2 really excels is in it’s presentation. Microsoft contracted Blur Studio to once again handle the pre rendered cutscenes and they do an absolutely incredible job. It’s really got to be said that the way they present the Halo world absolutely nails the feel of the early games and really gets the tone. It seems weird to say but without these cutscenes I do think Halo Wars 1 + 2 and the MCC wouldn’t have been received almost as well.
I’m sure this is where some people will start to disagree with me.
Halo Reach is an excellent game, it’s well made with design choices that are thoughtful, it’s got a gripping campaign mode with some truly memorable moments and it’s got a fantastic multiplayer component. The issue is that it’s simply not as good as the Bungie games that came before it.
Now that’s a high bar and missing it is nothing to be ashamed of, but that’s exactly why we find it in B Tier and not higher.
Halo 3 had finished the original story and ODST provided an interesting side story with a new twist so Halo Reach went to the only place that Bungie really had left and positions itself as a prequel set in the early days of the Covenant – Human war. The larger story beats are really fantastic and you get to see how powerful and threatening the covenant really were, destroying human ships with ease and conquering an entire planet in a matter of days. It’s clear from the start that the game is going to end in tragedy and the famous last level where you simply play until you die is one of the best levels in any FPS game ever.
Where it falls down is that it’s slightly lacking in the character department. NOBLE team just aren’t as interesting as Chief and Cortana or Keyes and Johnson and seeing them die off one by one is a little more expected than surprising. I suppose that’s the issue with making a prequel where you know nobody will survive and the game actually struggles to segway cleanly into the start of Halo 1. It’s great in broad strokes but the details are a little wonky.
The multiplayer is certainly one of the better Halo offerings but it does mark the start of Halo’s descent into follower rather than leader. Loadouts became the norm and sprinting was added in which has never really felt like something that belonged in a Halo game. The DMR ruled the roost and power weapons had a much smaller role to play compared to precision shooting. Generally speaking it feels more like a twitch shooter rather than something influenced by old school slower paced arena shooters.
Much like it’s story, it’s a heroic effort that falls slightly short.
It’s hard to explain to someone who didn’t experience it just how much of a phenomenon Halo 2 was. It was effectively the game that made online console multiplayer matter and basically made the Xbox and Xbox Live successful. There isn’t a single other xbox original game that even comes close to it in terms of ease of access, the options available and just how damn fun it was.
Halo 1 had a pretty great multiplayer but to be totally honest but it was more renown for its story and innovative control scheme. Halo 2 took everything about 1 and super charged it. Graphics were better, levels were more intricate, more weapons, more vehicles and it had some of the most memorable multiplayer maps of all time. Going round a friends house to jump on matches of Slayer or Snipers was an absolute revelation for millions of console players.
As a sequel to Halo 1 it is also a surprisingly experimental campaign that is unfortunately let down by one major flaw. Unlike in Halo 1, you now experience the story from both Chief and the Arbiter’s perspective, learning more about the inner workings of the Covenant and eventually witnessing an all out civil war. Throw a new halo ring into the mix and the accidental release of the flood into the Covenant home world and you have a story that expands the world of the first game in a very natural direction. It’s unfortunate that the game was advertised as a desperate defence of Earth but only really involves that in a couple of levels before it gets into the Covenant civil war story that Bungie was actually interested in.
Personally I loved the Brutes v Elites dynamic with the humans caught in the middle but I know a lot of people were disappointed to find we were leaving Earth after only a handful of missions.
The big issue with Halo 2 is really the final mission. It is one of the most brutal, neck snapping, cliffhangers of all time and was rightly criticized as an awful ending. The final Chief mission is the second to last level and you actually end the game as the Arbiter which rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way. The game ends with Chief stowed away on a Covenant ship heading back to earth but really doesn’t resolve anything, leaving a huge amount of narrative pressure on Halo 3. It doesn’t seem so bad now that we’ve had the finale but at the time people couldn’t believe just how much had been left unresolved.
If you can get past this, which should be easy now that we have Halo 3, the campaign is fantastically enjoyable and the multiplayer deserved massive credit as the starting point of the online console movement. A fantastic game still worth revisiting.
HALO 3: ODST
This is probably the one that is going to catch me the most flack but I absolutely love ODST. I think it’s probably one of the greatest spin offs ever made.
Releasing hot on the heels of Halo 3, which was both a critical and financial blockbuster, Bungie could have easily released a small expansion game that simply kept the Halo money pouring in. Instead they put together a game that twists the Halo formula in just the right way to keep it fresh while still feeling like a mainline Halo game.
Instead of playing as a Spartan, you now play as a regular UNSC soldier, caught up in the warfare raging on earth while the Master Chief is away fighting for the galaxy. Now you’re vulnerable and running into a covenant patrol requires planning and stealth rather than simply flying into combat knowing you are more powerful. Health doesn’t regenerate and enemies can kill you really easily so it truly feels like the odds are seriously weighted against you.
Most of the game is set in one location, the sprawling but ruined streets of New Mombassa, which you have to sneak through while avoiding massive confrontations,searching for your missing teammates. Cleverly though, there are regular flashbacks which develop the story and allow Bungie to craft intense set pieces which still give ODST enough Halo action to counteract all the moody atmosphere.
Speaking of the moody atmosphere – the soundtrack is absolutely incredible. I know it seems odd to say about a game series with one of the most memorable themes of all time but the ODST soundtrack is so incredible that I seriously believe without it, the game is considerably worse. It just perfectly encapsulates the hopelessness of being isolated, deep in enemy territory and a hair’s breadth from death at any one moment.
It’s also impossible to discuss ODST without bringing up Firefight which is one of the best elements added to the franchise. It’s a wave based PVP multiplayer mode which might seem fairly generic now but was absolutely fresh at the time. ODST’s firefight maps were fantastic and the addition of skull modifiers and points based competition gave it a ludicrous amount of replay ability. It’s telling that it’s still the best example of this in the series and overall, an incredibly underrated game.
Here we go. The best of the lot. Two games which I think are not only the two best Halo games of all time but easily two of the best video games of all time. Shining examples of what can be done in this medium
Everything about Halo 3 is incredible. I genuinely don’t think it has any flaws and the fact that I can load it up on my PC now, in 2020 and still have as much fun in any one of it’s game modes is a testament to truly just how good of a game Bungie made in 2007.
It’s hard to explain just how big of an event the release of Halo 3 was. It was like a major blockbuster movie. Everyone was playing it. It was on the news. People queued for days to get it at midnight. It may not statistically be true but I do believe that this marks the moment when video games overtook movies as the premier entertainment form as it was literally everywhere.
The story line is a suitably epic finale to the original Halo trilogy which acts like a “best of” from Halo 1 and 2. The wide open levels with multiple ways to approach them are back but they’ve still kept the tightly designed gameplay from Halo 2. The art design and variety in the levels is incredible – you go from a destroyed african highway to the depths of a flood infested ship, from a huge desert with half buried forerunner buildings to deep jungles filled with snipers. The way the game ramps up to its conclusion out on the forerunner “Ark” is absolutely fantastic, the covenant is destroying itself around you, the flood has broken out everywhere and the humans are caught in the middle of it all trying to prevent the destruction of the galaxy. It’s just absolutely excellent sci fi action goodness.
Thing is, it wasn’t just the satisfying conclusion to the story that made Halo 3 incredible (although the final warthog race to the Pillar of Autumn calling back the finale of Halo 1 is absolutely inspired), the game was packed full of features that would go on to be incredibly important in the history of video games.
The multiplayer retained all of the best elements of Halo 2 but went even further with more modes like big team battle and action sack, more classic maps were introduced like Guardian and Construct and finally, an incredible map editor so custom maps were brought into the world of console games.
The forge maps were so incredible because not only did they allow players to create their own maps and game modes but allowed for entirely new ways to play the game. The MLG movement which was born out of the high skill competitive side of Halo entirely relied on this and essentially helped catapult esports to what it is today. Some custom maps became so popular that Bungie even ended up implementing them in the actual official playlists under the title “Action Sack” and who can forget Griffball which is essentially violent football played on the Halo 3 engin, it’s incredible.
On top of the map ediors there was a fairly comprehensive video editor inside the game, which when paired with xbox live, allowed people to film clips and export them. While most people used these for the notorious sniping compilations with linkin park playing over them, the more creative players ended up using these to film entire shows which were uploaded onto youtube. Series like Red vs Blue and Arby n’ the Chief were some of the biggest youtube series during the early days of the website and were incredibly influential in the massively video game centric direction the website would go in. Literally none of that would have been possible without the release of Halo 3.
Even now in 2020, with its release in the Master Chief Collection, it is still one of the most played games on Steam, 13 years after its release and rightfully so. It is one of the greatest games of all time
And now the one that started it all. To say that Halo 1 is an influential game is literally not doing it enough credit. This is the blueprint for not just all console FPS games that would come after it but for the majority of AAA games. It didn’t just create a massive franchise but it literally single handedly made the Xbox a major player in the video game industry and set the bar for how other developers wanted their franchises to be received.
Really it comes down to two major factors – the first is that the story was fantastic. The second was that it revolutionised how FPS games controlled on consoles.
I remember sitting down to play the first level of Halo 1 – The Pillar of Autumn at a friends house. Yeah it’s a pretty awesome space story and the enemies are very cool and it’s all very exciting. It’s not until I got to the second level – Halo – and walked out of the crashed escape pod, looking around at the huge map, the expansive skybox that wrapped around itself and that I was blown away. It was genuinely like nothing on console I’d ever seen. FPS games up until that point were generally either Doom or Half Life rip offs – lots of guns and lots of corridors. Halo was like something else entirely.
On top of it’s ambitious design it also didn’t pull any punches with its narrative. It’s an almost perfectly paced sci fi story that begins with a human ship fleeing from Alien aggressors and over the course of the game, it ramps up to a battle for the safety of the galaxy. Half way through the game you discover that the Halo ring is actually designed to wipe out a malevolent alien infection that once ravaged the galaxy, only it doesn’t actually kill the monstrous “Flood”, it kills all of its food. It’s a masterful twist as the Flood are absolutely horrifying and give the story an element of not just moment to moment scares, but of lovecraftian cosmic horror. The final few missions are particularly fantastic, with the humans all dead except for Chief, set as battles between the flood and the covenant rage around you, desperately trying to prevent the ring from going off. It’s absolutely thrilling.
It wasn’t just a fantastic story that propelled Halo to the top of the pile though. FPS games on consoles before Halo weren’t the juggernaut they are now. FPS games were generally considered to be a PC genre that didn’t work particularly well with a controller. Controls were often clunky, button layouts didn’t work fantastically and the mouse was always preferred to the stick. Games like Goldeneye and Turok were considered very good games but there was never an expectation that an FPS could be better on console.
That’s until Halo came along and completely changed the game. It approached the genre from a completely different direction, not trying to replicate what was happening on PC but creating something entirely new. You could now use a gun, grenade and melee all at the press of a button rather than needing to select them beforehand. Levels were designed to mix vehicle sections with on foot combat seamlessly. You could only carry two weapons at once and were encouraged to constantly swap out, adjusting to situations as they presented themselves. It just made the whole experience so smooth and seamless despite also allowing for more creativity than most PC shooters.
This revolution was so successful that Microsoft’s new console, the Xbox, ended up beating out Nintendo’s own offering that generation and their follow up, the Xbox 360, was the most successful console in the US during the following generation. It’s safe to say that without the revolution that Halo brought to the console FPS market, the Xbox would never have been successful like it is today. It is a game so singularly influential and revolutionary, that one of the three video game console manufacturers in 2020 would not even be around if it had not been made.
If that doesn’t deserve a spot at the top of the tier list I don’t know what does!