In the early Xbox days, the console and brand were clearly and widely defined by a single franchise: Halo. No franchise has been so firmly ingrained in a gaming company’s and console’s identity since the likes of Mario and Nintendo, and Sonic with Sega. One could argue that, if Microsoft did have anything at all over Sony and PlayStation, it was the formidable strength and relatable nature of Master Chief. He was the definitive Xbox mascot.
Unfortunately, the character and franchise aren’t quite what they used to be. Bungie, long associated with the Halo name, went out on its own once development on 2010’s Halo: Reach wrapped, cutting ties with Microsoft and Xbox in the process, and handing the reigns over to 343 Industries, the studio behind 2011’s Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary.
Since then, 343’s Halo offerings have been good at best, and firmly “meh” at worst. Halo hasn’t completely died off, but it doesn’t evoke the same sort of excitement and influence as it did in the early 2000s. That’s not necessarily 343’s fault, but it’s difficult not to acknowledge the sheer weight of expectation sitting on the studio and its upcoming Halo: Infinite, a game many old school Halo fans hope reignites the franchise as an industry elite.
With Infinite’s launch on the horizon, alongside the release of the next generation Xbox Series X, what better time to take a trip down memory lane and assess the Halo franchise throughout the years.
Below is my ranking of Halo games, from worst to best. Worth noting that the “worst” on this list isn’t necessarily terrible, but that, weighted next to the absolute best, it’s not all that grand. Once we get 2-3 games into the list, you could probably personally mix and match which games go where, so this is by no means definitive, but rather simply my ranking based on personal taste, as well as my own interpretation of the game’s influence, style, quality and value.
NOTE: This list looks at original releases, and excludes map packs and remasters, including The Master Chief Collection
Halo: Spartan Assault
Xbox 360, Xbox One, 2013
There’s little to praise here, much like its successor. Spartan Assault seemed to be an intriguing new direction for the Halo franchise, especially after the release and subsequent success of Halo Wars.
But it just wasn’t to be. It was released to minimal fanfare on mobile devices, before getting the console treatment. As a top-down, twin stick shooter, it lacked much of the excitement and aesthetic brutality of other Halo titles, thus offering a rather forgettable experience.
Halo: Spartan Strike
Windows, Mac, Android, Mac 2015
For whatever reason – maybe because its predecessor was so not-great – Halo: Spartan Strike didn’t get the console treatment, instead languishing in similarly forgettable fashion on PC and iOS (although it’s been pulled and is no longer available on the latter).
Top-down and twin-stick just as Assault was, Strike was somewhat better overall, with more effort clearly put into level design, structure, and gameplay fundamentals. It’s solid as a budget title, but poor as a Halo game.
Halo Wars 2
Xbox One, 2015
There’s nothing distinctively wrong or poor with Halo Wars 2 that forces it down this far on the list. In fact, it’s far and away better than anything the Spartan games have to offer, and so having it sit this close to them is a bit of an insult to the broader Wars experience.
If any one thing absolutely must be pointed out about Halo Wars 2, however, it’s that it doesn’t really do enough to justify its existence as a sequel to a six-year-old (at the time) game. From a purely lore perspective, it’s actually fantastic, expanding the story and setting of Halo 5.
So in essence, Halo Wars 2 very much is “one for the fans”, but it just always felt like more of a forgettable expansion than a completely new game. Multiplayer offerings were a nice addition, sure, but the core foundations had barely evolved.
Halo 5: Guardians
Xbox One, 2015
Halo 5 is quite arguably the most ambitious game in the main Halo line of games, and for that it’s difficult not to admire what 343 tried to do. Guardians very much felt like the studios first really effort built from the ground up, even if Halo 4 was its first offering: there was no way they were moving away from Master Chief so close to Bungie’s retirement to the franchise, and so Halo 5 proved the perfect opportunity for the studio to really establish its own vision.
The core gameplay was as slick as ever, and Halo had never sounded nor looked so good in its long history. But something just felt … off. The shift in focus to Sparta Locke seemed bizarre given the increased focused on Master Chief in Halo 4, and the forced cooperative focus, even for a franchise so firmly celebratory of co-op play, made it feel less like ”my” Halo adventure.
The introduction of Warzone into multiplayer should probably be applauded, and the industry probably understates how significant and influential it was on the current state of online multiplayer. Large-scale battles was certainly new for Halo, but Guardians did it well without ever really setting the world alight.
Overall, Halo 5 is extremely solid, expertly designed, and slick around the edges, but its biggest achievement is that it left fans wanting more – a lot more – from Master Chief.
Xbox 360, 2009
After Halo: Combat Evolved successfully transition from its initial state as a top-down strategy game into the first-person shooter we’ve all come to love, no one could have ever predicted that the franchise would eventually return to its true roots. And especially not that it would do it so damn well. Halo Wars is an achievement in game design for a number of reasons. Firstly, it proved that you can expand a franchise’s lore and experience beyond its core genre, and still offer a AAA experience in the process. And secondly, it demonstrated that the strategy genre need not be exclusive to PC.
While its sequel wasn’t anywhere near as revolutionary, Halo Wars still did enough to create a strong and passionate community, therefore justifying a second game. Additionally, it paved the way for a number of other franchises to make their console transition, including the likes of Civilization and XCOM, and even Cities Skylines, previously PC-only franchises that found a home on console.
Halo 3: ODST
Xbox 360, 2009
Halo 3: ODST has a place in most Halo fan’s hearts, if not because it truly did expand on Halo 3’s gameplay with a stronger strategic and stealthy focus, but because it successfully transition away from Master Chief without forcing narrative growth and characters on the player. It felt like a story that sat next to the original Halo 3 tale, whilst offering the awesome Halo 3 gameplay that had defined the Xbox 360’s early life.
It may not be a standout by any means, but it was a welcomed addition and expertly crafted expansion, making for a nice little stop-gap between major Halo releases.
Xbox 360, 2012
Halo 4 I feel gets a bit of a rough turn. This was 343’s first offering as series developer, and it had a lot to live up to at the time. Bungie had ended Master Chief’s story with Halo 3, but 343 came in to expertly craft a strong tale with an added element of human conditioning.
It offered a rather fascinating insight into the character’s backstory, and while the gameplay felt a little too formulaic at times, it was fascinating to dive deeper into the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana.
The multiplayer took a huge leap with loadout creation and selection, which initially prompted community backlash, but it was soon established that 343 were masters in their craft, with Halo 4’s multiplayer outing undoubtedly one of the best in the series.
Halo: Combat Evolved
This is where it all began. You could certainly argue that from a historical standpoint alone, Halo deserves to be at the top of this list, but I think it lacks some of the more ageless gameplay design elements that define its predecessors. In other words: Combat Evolved has not aged all that well.
You might say that this is an unfair criticism to hold against a game that’s almost 20 years old, but the likes of Halo 2 and Halo 3 hold up much better now, 16 and 13 years out from release, respectively, than Combat Evolved did in 2014 and 2017.
That’s not to take anything away from this game: it defined a console, a generation, and a genre, and rightly should be placed high on the list of most revolutionary video games ever. On that legacy scale alone, it’s high on this list.
Xbox 360, 2010
Halo Reach was to be Bungie’s final entry in the franchise, and it is without a doubt one of the strongest across all series developers. Its outstanding campaign, set before the events of Combat Evolved, introduced an emotional element not yet seen in the franchise to that point.
It also arguably influenced the likes of both Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians to change the core multiplayer offering up a bit, adding customisable power suits to the fold, which greatly impacted and shifted the competitive focus of online matches.
Importantly for me, however, was the sheer scale of some of the battles in the campaign, and whilst just like Combat Evolved I don’t feel that the game has aged terribly well, it still holds as a well-designed story-based offering, and is alone reason enough to return to.
Xbox 360, 2007
Halo 3 was quite possibly the biggest video game release of the 2000s. Everything from the “Finish The Fight” tagline, to its place at the forefront of a vicious console war battle between the Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii, made it an absolute must-have, and still to this day one of the most satisfying and exhilarating FPS games ever.
If Halo 2 hadn’t established Xbox Live as the definitive online gaming service, then Halo 3 definitely did, exploding onto the scene and strengthen Microsoft’s foothold in the console market ahead of the PS3. Halo 3 was perhaps the Xbox brand’s last true “system seller”, too, even with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare releasing a mere two months later.
The franchise’s hasn’t quite reached the same heights since, but if Halo were to have ended after this game, it most definitely would have gone out on a high note.
You could probably argue that without Halo 2, Microsoft may have taken much longer to establish Xbox Live as the definitive console multiplayer service. This game set the scene and was essentially the system seller Microsoft needed to sell Xbox Live, and it did wonders for the brand.
Aside from its multiplayer prowess – of which it had plenty – Halo 2 could easily be classified as the perfect sequel, The Godfather: Part 2 of video game sequels, if you will. Instead of staying firm and consistent with Master Chief’s linear story from the first game, we got two different perspectives on the battlefield, with narrative layering rarely seen in games at the time.
It was the blockbuster the industry needed to kickstart the online revolution, and it’s hard to look past Halo 2 as the best of the best here, if not for what it established and set up for the industry, then because it stood the test of time much longer than other shooters, and even still has an active community of passionate fans.
It may seem controversial on the face of it, but Halo 2 stood as a trailblazer at the time, propelling Master Chief into the gaming hall of fame.
What are your thoughts on the list? What’s your favourite Halo game? Sound off in the comments below!