You’d have to look far and wide to find another video game that received as much pre-release hype as Halo 3 did.
From the moment the very first trailer landed at E3 2006 and asked us to “Finish the Fight,” it was clear that developer Bungie was aiming high with its much-anticipated trilogy-capper. Even though Bungie wasn’t quite under the same ridiculous pressure and time constraints as they were with Halo 2 , pulling off Halo 3 was by no means an easy feat for the studio, which had revolutionized console first-person shooters with Halo: Combat Evolved on the original Xbox back in 2001.
Halo 3 marked not only the first Halo title developed for the Xbox 360 which, at the time, was still in its relative infancy as a console, but an opportunity for Bungie to address the missteps they had made with Halo 2. Despite being both a commercial and critical success, Halo 2 was riddled with problems, most notably its controversial cliffhanger ending that didn’t sit well with many fans of the series. There was never any doubt that Halo 3 would be a sales success, but if it had simply recycled Halo 2’s design and not offered much in the way of improvements, the franchise may very well not have lasted another decade and counting.
Now that Halo 3 is officially a decade old, it’s become increasingly clear to me that this remains the high water mark for the franchise and I’m really not sure if any Halo game will ever truly top it. While Halo: Reach is my personal favorite Halo game, I have to concede that Halo 3 is the best overall … and here are 10 reasons why.
10. Epic Level Design
The first Halo is deservedly considered to be a classic but the truth is that, outside of a few levels, most of its design comes down to recycled rooms and hallways that start to become tedious before long. Halo 2 took steps to rectify this with more expansive level design, most notably in the epic New Mombasa stage, but that game’s rushed development cycle contributed to the campaign feeling unfinished as a whole (see: cliffhanger ending). For Halo 3, Bungie took full advantage of the technological leap offered by the transition over to the Xbox 360 and built a campaign full of more open level design that contributed to a game that was considerably more epic in scope than either of its predecessors.
The most obvious indicator of this change was the memorable Scarab fight from the campaign’s first act. Whereas Halo 2’s Scarab fight essentially operated as an on-rails section, Halo 3’s was busted wide open to allow players to approach as they saw fit. You could drive around the huge, lumbering machine with reckless abandon before bringing down the machine and climbing aboard to take it down from the inside. While the campaign would go on to recycle this same fight in a later level, Halo 3 maintained its expansive design throughout and outside of the terrible “Cortana” mission, each level arguably stands out as a series highlight.
9. Four Player Co-op
One of the main reasons Halo’s campaign modes have always been popular is because each game has allowed you to bring a buddy along for the ride. The first Halo wouldn’t have been half as fun if we hadn’t been able to drive around recklessly in a Warthog with a friend manning the gun in split-screen. Like its predecessors, Halo 3 retained two-player split-screen cooperative play but through online play, you could add two more players to the mix. Even better was the fact that each player got their own character to play as, but only Player One got to be the Chief, creating a nice bit of casual resentment from the other three players forced to play as Covenant Elites (but c’mon, the Arbiter was still pretty cool!)
Granted, having two additional players around made the game almost too easy, even on Legendary difficulty, as the Covenant and Flood really didn’t stand a chance against the combined efforts of four super soldiers, but it was hard to care too much about this overwhelming tactical advantage given how much fun “finishing the fight” with three of your buddies could be.
8. Forge Mode
While later Halo installments have expanded upon it significantly, Halo 3 still deserves credit for introducing the Forge tools, which allowed players to edit existing maps and even create their own. Sure, level editors were already well established by the time Halo finally got one, but thanks to the passion and creativity of the Halo community — and the intuitive design of the level editor itself — Forge helped popularize user-created content on consoles and has become a series staple ever since. Forge effectively made it so that Halo fans would never be starved for content and even though Bungie supported Halo 3 quite a bit with downloadable maps and other additions, Forge helped fill in the gaps and solidified Halo 3 as one of the Xbox 360’s most feature-rich games.
Alright, so it may be cheating a bit to hold up what is arguably a whole separate game as an example of Halo 3’s greatness but to be fair, Bungie did title this game Halo 3: ODST. For those who don’t know, ODST was originally envisioned as a smaller downloadable expansion to Halo 3, but morphed into a full-fledged game over the course of its development. Notably, this was the first traditional Halo game to not feature Master Chief. Instead, the game is set during the events of Halo 2 leading up to Halo 3, and puts players in the shoes of an ODST or Orbital Drop Shock Trooper.
Though smaller in scope compared to other Halo games, ODST features one of the strongest campaigns that features a nice dichotomy between stealth and action gameplay and doesn’t overstay its welcome. So yeah, ODST really has no bearing on the actual quality of Halo 3 but then again, no other Halo game has had a spin-off game attached to it, which kind of puts Halo 3 in a league of its own within the series.
6. “Equipment” Is Still Arguably The Most Underrated Gameplay Addition In The Series
Gameplay-wise, Halo 3 didn’t really do all that much different from its predecessors, with its biggest addition being equipment, an array of power-ups that players could pick up and use in both the campaign and multiplayer. Halo 3’s epic CG trailer notably showed Master Chief utilizing equipment in combat, as the super soldier deploys a bubble shield to block an incoming projectile. In addition to the bubble shield, Halo 3 also included other deployable equipment such as health regenerators and trip mines.
While equipment may not have seemed like a big deal at first, in practice it became a small but important component of Halo’s gameplay loop, essentially adding another system onto the series trifecta of gun-melee-grenade combat. Having players be able to throw down a bubble shield at an opportune moment could be the difference between a win and a loss and added a cool dynamic to multiplayer matches. It’s just a shame that later Halo games have either downplayed equipment or dropped it altogether, as it really was a welcome addition here.
5. Map Selection
Multiplayer games live and die on the strength of their map selection (okay, there’s a bit more to it than that, but it’s important!) and no Halo game has had a better overall selection of maps than Halo 3. From small-scale skirmish arenas like The Pit to giant battlefields like Sandtrap — a map so big that it introduced mobile bases called Elephants — many of Halo 3’s original creations are series highlights. However, Bungie didn’t stop there and also brought back many of the best maps from Halo and Halo 2, albeit with some changes and improvements.
Most notable was Valhala, which took the classic Halo map Blood Gulch and gave it a visual lift as well as some significant terrain alterations, culminating in what is arguably the best overall Halo multiplayer map next to Lockout (which, fittingly enough, was also remade for Halo 3 in the form of Blackout). While Halo 3 multiplayer not be every fan’s favorite (mine is Halo: Reach, for instance), it’s hard to deny that, pound-for-pound, Halo 3 features the best selection of arenas in series history.
4. The Last Halo Game To Feature A Good Master Chief Story
Halo 3 concluded with a definitive end to the story introduced in the original Halo, but it was clear that it would only be a matter of time before we saw the Master Chief fight again. After putting out their final Halo game in 2010 — the prequel installment Halo: Reach — Bungie handed the reigns over to 343 Industries, who would bring back the Master Chief in 2012 for Halo 4, the first entry in a whole new trilogy. While both Halo 4 and its sequel, Halo 5: Guardians are unmistakably Halo games and introduced some great ideas of their own, one area where 343 has struggled is in the story department.
Simply put, Halo has only become more convoluted and obtuse under 343’s stewardship. While it’s been great to see the Master Chief in a starring role again after ODST and Reach sidelined him, his presence alone hasn’t changed the fact that it’s become increasingly difficult to make sense of whatever’s going on in the story department. Admittedly, Halo 3 had moments where it dipped into obscure, poorly-explained lore (something that Bungie has continued to do with the Destiny games) but overall, its story was pretty straightforward: Master Chief returns to Earth to finish the fight, some stuff happens, he finishes the fight. While 343’s games deserve praise for their ambition, they could learn a thing or two from Halo 3’s relative minimalism when it comes to crafting an effective narrative.
3. The Best Online Multiplayer
While I personally think that Halo 5: Guardians may very well offer the best online experience in the franchise thanks to the way 343 has continued to regularly release huge updates for that game, Halo 3 still arguably has the best multiplayer. The reason for this, I think, is balance, as no other title has quite been able to nail that classic Halo balance of giving each player the tools they need at the outset of a match to be competitive. Sure, it’s hard to go back to Halo 3 now since it doesn’t even have a sprint button, but I can think of very few games that offered such a finely-tuned multiplayer experience that privileges player skill over cheap tactics and exploits. If you died in Halo 3, 99.9% of the time it was because the player you were facing outplayed you. Factor in all the other multiplayer benefits this article mentions, such as map selection and the introduction of Forge, and Halo 3 stands as the best realization of Halo multiplayer.
Plus, you could bring three other players online with you in local split-screen and Halo 5 doesn’t allow this. Therefore, Halo 3 > Halo 5.
2. It Addressed Almost Every Problem People Had With Halo 2
Halo 2 was an important game not only for Bungie, but the Xbox brand as a whole, as the game’s excellent online multiplayer really helped Microsoft’s Xbox Live service take off. However, if you set aside the game’s multiplayer and our collective nostalgia for it, Halo 2 is easily one of the weakest games in the series. Fortunately, Bungie took a lot of the criticisms from that game to heart and addressed nearly every one of them with their sequel. The most obvious change was that Halo 3 didn’t split up the campaign between the Master Chief and the Arbiter and instead was designed from the ground up to be the Chief’s story.
While the campaign was the area that received the most attention, I’d argue that Halo 3 also took steps to iterate on the gameplay mechanics of Halo 2 and improved things for the better. Most notable was the reduced emphasis placed on dual-wielding, which had been a big gameplay addition in Halo 2, but one that that game relied on too much, to the detriment of other combat styles. Halo 3 kept this system in place, but tuned things so that it didn’t feel like you had to be wielding two guns at a time in order to be competitive. In other words, Halo 3 essentially took a kitchen sink approach to improving on its predecessor, resulting in a game that was recognizably Halo, but Halo at its best and most balanced.
1. It’s The Last Halo We Really Needed
As someone who has been a Halo fan since the original Xbox years, I’ll always have a vested interest in the series and will check out each new installment as they’re released. That being said, even I recognize that the franchise has diminished in terms of popularity and overall significance over the last decade. While it’s possible that the franchise will rebound and recapture some of its former glory, it’s hard to imagine that the series will ever again return to being as relevant as it was when Halo 3 was first released. The game was not only a critical and commercial success but taken as a whole, it still stands as the pinnacle of the series.
Halo 3 delivered the best overall representation of the Halo experience: an epic campaign with high production values; fluid first-person shooter gameplay; a deep and robust online experience. While subsequent Halo games have largely kept these elements intact, monotony and repetitiveness have begun to creep in and we’ve had so many Halo games at this point that it’s increasingly difficult to get really excited about a new release. The series probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and Halo 6 could very well be the game that revitalizes the franchise and brings the masses back to the fold, but it’s hard to imagine any Halo title being able to pull off what Halo 3 accomplished again.