Originally conceived as a third-person real-time strategy game for Mac computers, Bungie’s Halo franchise has gone on to become one of the biggest first-person shooter franchises in gaming and an incredibly important one at that. It’s not unreasonable to say that if it wasn’t for Halo , Microsoft’s Xbox brand may not have survived past its first console. Kicking things off with the original Xbox launch title Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001, Bungie effectively revolutionized the console first-person shooter with a game that featured an intriguing sci-fi story and setting, a charismatic hero in the Master Chief, and of course, fluid controls and exciting gameplay. In the decade and a half since Halo first arrived on the scene, the franchise has become synonomous with the Xbox brand and has launched many sequels and spin-offs of varying quality.
Although the franchise isn’t as popular as it once was, with Halo Wars 2 out this year and Halo 6 somewhere on the horizon, Halo isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. As a longtime Halo fan myself, I thought it would be fun to try and rank each game from worst to best (omitting remasters and collections of course). Obviously, that means this will be a somewhat biased list, but I think you’ll find that I’ve justified each of my rankings. Feel free to share your own personal ranking of the Halo games in the comments!
I haven’t been able to play Halo Wars 2 yet, so I haven’t included it here, but I’ll be sure to add it in once that changes. Also, I’m not including Spartan Strike because it’s essentially an inferior version of Spartan Assault and would rank at the bottom of the list anyway.
9. Halo: Spartan Assault
Set between the events of Halo 3 and Halo 4, Spartan Assault is a top-down twin-stick shooter that was originally released on mobile platforms, but eventually made its way to Xbox One and Xbox 360. Unfortunately, the jump to consoles didn’t do much to change Spartan Assault from the unremarkable, though competent twin-stick shooter that it is. This is a genre, after all, that has given us some incredible games over the years, such as Geometry Wars, Super Stardust HD, and Resogun, and Spartan Assault falls far short of those titles.
The game’s online co-op mode and overall presentation are definitely its best features, but at the end of the day, this is more of a passing curiosity for Halo fans than an experience they’ll want to return to. There are much better twin-stick shooters out there that are actually worth your time and money and aren’t laded with microtransactions.
8. Halo Wars
For a console-only RTS, Halo Wars is better than it has any right to be, given how difficult it is make real-time strategy games work properly with console controls. Featuring an honest-to-goodness campaign with a solid story set prior to the events of Halo: Combat Evolved, as well as the usual assortment of multiplayer modes you’d expect to find in a RTS, Halo Wars excels at accessibility and is the ideal game for those put off by more complex RTS games found on PC. However, that accessibility is also what holds Halo Wars back, as it’s too simplistic to appeal to the more hardcore RTS crowd and not compelling enough to sway most Halo fans away from the series’ more traditional first-person shooter experiences.
Additionally, while I’ll concede that Halo Wars does an exceptional job of translating the Halo universe into a competently-made RTS, I’ve never been a huge fan of the genre, which is part of the reason why I’ve ranked it so low. Still, Halo Wars did well enough to spawn a sequel and by many accounts, it’s even better than the original (it probably helps that this one is also available on PC this time out).
7. Halo 4
When Bungie left Microsoft in 2007 to partner with Activision for what would eventually become Destiny, the keys to the Halo franchise were handed to 343 Industries, a Microsoft-owned studio, after the release of Bungie’s final Halo game, Halo: Reach . To say that 343 had big shoes to fill would be a vast understatement, as they not only needed to prove with Halo 4 that they could craft a game that could live up to Bungie’s work, but also justify the return of Master Chief, who had effectively “finished the fight” at the conclusion of Halo 3. To that end, 343 was mostly successful. One area that Bungie never exactly excelled at was crafting games with pretty graphics, so it came as a bit of a surprise to see just how much better Halo 4 looked than its predecessors (seriously, it’s still a wonder how they got it running on the Xbox 360 at all).
The game’s campaign was ambitious, introducing players to a whole new planet and race of enemies in the Forerunners, while also diving deeper into the franchises’ mythology. Spartan Ops was another fun addition, giving players a variety of cooperative missions to play with friends that only got better as they went along. Unfortunately, some questionable design decisions make Halo 4 the worst ‘traditional’ Halo game. While the campaign featured a number of cool setpieces, narratively it was all over the map and near-incomprehensible to the average player, relying heavily on extraneous material such as books, comics, and even a (admittedly pretty good) miniseries called Halo: Forward Unto Dawn to fill in the gaps. However, the biggest problem with Halo 4 was easily its multiplayer, which tried to ape Call of Duty’s loadout and perk design too heavily, resulting in an experience that totally missed the point of Halo’s level playing field mentality. Fortunately, 343 made strides to improve these issues with their next kick at the can, but not without introducing a few new problems along the way.
6. Halo 5: Guardians
The first proper Halo game to appear on Xbox One, Halo 5: Guardians doesn’t seem to get enough credit. A big reason for this may have to do with 343’s regrettable decision to cut out split-screen completely in favor of achieving better visual fidelity and a higher frame rate, a decision that pissed off a ton of fans who were used to Halo being their go-to couch co-op shooter (myself included). Once you get past the sting of only being able to play with your friends online though, Halo 5 actually has a lot to offer. While its campaign suffers from many of the same problems as Halo 4’s and ends on a cliffhanger to boot (you would think Microsoft would have put a moratorium on cliffhangers after the enormous backlash to Halo 2’s ending), its level design was a bit stronger (a mission on the Elite — sorry, Sangheili — homeworld is a highlight) and was designed with co-op play in mind, for both better and worse.
Still, as important as Halo campaigns are, the multiplayer is the main draw for most players and it’s this component that gives Halo 5 the edge over its predecessor. Thanks to a number of gameplay tweaks focused on character agility, Halo 5 is the fastest and most fluid game in the franchise and its competitive modes made excellent use of these changes by ditching Halo 4’s CoD inspirations in favor of a return to more traditional design. Simply put, Halo 5 offers one of the best competitive online experiences in gaming right now thanks not only to how well designed it is, but because of 343’s commitment to regularly offering free updates. In an era where gamers are generally expected to pay for extra maps, 343 has taken a different route and made every new update free to all of its players. In fact, they’ve added so much to the game since its late 2015 release that it barely resembles the game it was at launch and in some ways feels like the most fully-realized Halo multiplayer offering to date.
Shame about that lack of split-screen though.
5. Halo 3: ODST
Beginning life as a piece of expansion content to Halo 3 called Recon, ODST morphed into something a bit more ambitious during development and effectively became an independent entry in the franchise, despite what the ‘3’ in its title might suggest. Set on Earth during the events of Halo 2, ODST switches things up by casting players not as the Master Chief but rather as ‘the Rookie,” a member of the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers who gets separated from his squad after dropping into the devastated city of New Mombasa. Featuring a somber score by former Halo composer Marty O’Donnell, ODST dropped players into a rain-soaked city and put more focus on exploration than past Halo games, with the Rookie searching the city for evidence of what happened to his missing squadmates. Each piece of evidence triggers a flashback mission that are typically more action-oriented than the Rookie’s, helping lend some variety to the proceedings.
Although the Rookie still controls similarly to the Master Chief, he’s no Spartan and is much more vulnerable as a result. This small change has a big impact on the moment-to-moment gameplay, as players have to take a more measured approach to combat than they did in previous Halo games, even on lower difficulties. ODST also introduced the horde mode-inspired Firefight to the series, a co-op mode that tasks players with holding out as long as possible against waves of increasingly difficult enemies. Unfortunately, ODST loses points for its brevity and lack of competitive multiplayer, but it is definitely a game that punches above its weight and scores points for trying (and succeeding) to be a decidedly different kind of Halo experience.
4. Halo 2
Halo 2 has become infamous for its cliffhanger ending, which admittedly is still one of the worst in gaming. The other main problem that fans often raise is that the campaign spends too much time on the Arbiter, who was introduced as a new playable character in this installment, at the expense of the Master Chief. To be honest, I preferred the Arbiter’s missions overall and thought he was a fascinating addition to the cast (it helps that he’s voiced by Keith David, who never disappoints). That being said, Halo 2 could have no campaign at all and would still be among the best Halo games thanks to its multiplayer, which represented the franchise’s first foray into online gaming.
There’s a good reason Halo 2 was the most popular game on Xbox Live in its heyday, as there was simply no other multiplayer experience like it on consoles. The map selection is arguably the best in the series, with all-time favorites like Lockout and Zanzibar making their debut here, and the introduction of new gameplay systems like dual-wielding and vehicle hijacking gave players a lot more options on the battlefield. You can definitely see the signs that Halo 2 was rushed to market — probably most evident in its distracting texture pop-in and abrupt ending — but it’s also one of the most important games in Xbox history and offered an early blueprint for how to do online multiplayer right on Xbox Live.
3. Halo: Combat Evolved
Where does one even begin with Halo: Combat Evolved? This is the game that launched the Xbox and revolutionized first-person shooter design in a way few other games have done before or since. What’s remarkable about the first Halo is that it still holds up remarkably well today, more than 15 years after its original release. Sure, it now looks quite dated and its level design starts to fall off a cliff around the halfway point, as Bungie recycles corridor-after-corridor in order to pad out the game’s length, but this is definitely a case where the positives far outweigh the negatives.
Who can forget the first time they jumped into the driver’s seat of the Warthog and started driving around Halo, the second level in the game, or storming the beach on The Silent Cartographer? These are gaming moments that stick with you and they were anchored by an interesting sci-fi story, incredible weapon design (has there ever been a better weapon in a FPS than Halo’s pistol?) and, oh yeah, a ridiculously addictive multiplayer mode that was played religiously in many a dorm room in the early 2000s. Later Halo games improved on Combat Evolved’s design in many areas, but it’s hard to think of many other first kicks at the can that turned out this well.
Plus, there is no better title screen in all of gaming. That music …
2. Halo: Reach
Bungie’s final Halo games was also one of its finest, as Halo: Reach is a near-perfect sendoff from the storied developer. Even though it doesn’t feature the Master Chief, Reach arguably has the best overall campaign in the entire series, as each of its nine missions is a winner and there’s no Library level in sight to drag the whole thing down. A prequel entry detailing one of the biggest conflicts between humans and the Covenant, Reach details the fate of Noble Team as they desperately fight to stop the Covenant from annihilating the planet Reach. Whereas every Halo game that puts you in control of Master Chief is designed to make you feel like an unstoppable super soldier, Reach takes the opposite approach and quickly becomes a game about failure. Sure, your character (the blank slate known as Noble Six) is just as capable in combat as the Chief, but he and the rest of his team are fighting a war they have no hope of winning. While the game does end on a hopeful note, Bungie’s decision to throw players into a losing battle that only gets worse as the story progresses is a bold one and few games, FPS or otherwise, have achieved the same level of melancholic sacrifice as Reach is able to convey in its campaign.
If that weren’t enough, Reach also features one of the better multiplayer experiences in the franchise, with both Firefight and the usual suite of competitive modes present and accounted for. While Reach’s overall map selection is a bit weaker than the likes of Halo 2 and Halo 3 and the inclusion of armor abilities was cool, but restricting — remember, this was before sprinting became a permanent ability in Halo — I firmly believe that Sword Base is the greatest Halo map of all time and its inclusion alone elevates Reach to all-time status in my eyes.
1. Halo 3
Halo 3 may not be my overall favorite game in the franchise, but I can’t deny that it is the best. Bungie’s trilogy-capper not only addressed pretty much every problem people had with Halo 2, but is arguably the most complete Halo game ever made. Starting with the campaign, Microsoft marketed the game as Halo that would “finish the fight” and in this regard, Halo 3 did not disappoint. The game finally gave fans the full-scale Earth invasion they had expected from Halo 2 and while the levels set on Earth are great, the back half of the campaign ups the ante with levels set on the Ark, the installation that created all the Halo rings in the first place (that being said, the level Cortana can go die forever). After the polarizing inclusion of the Arbiter in Halo 2, it was great to play through a campaign as Master Chief again, but Halo 3 also gave the Arbiter his due with its cooperative play, with support for up to four players.
Moving onto multiplayer, Halo 3’s map selection was a slight step back from the stellar designs of Halo 2, but it made up for this with its near-perfect balance. It’s simply hard to find fault with much of anything when it comes to Halo 3 multiplayer, as it feels like it was designed with every fan in mind. Want to climb the ranks in competitive play? Done. Want to just hang out with friends and play with your buddies online, with split-screen guests to boot? You can do that too. Heck, Bungie even figured out a way to balance out dual-wielding with the rest of the weaponry, to the point where either felt like viable options as opposed to way Halo 2 privileged dual-wielding at the expense of everything else but the power weapons. This is also the game that introduced Forge, which has become a mainstay mode ever since.
Bungie managed to cap their Halo trilogy off with the best game in the series and I can only hope 343 can follow suit with Halo 6, which will represent the end of their Reclaimer trilogy. Until then, it’s Halo 3’s fight to lose when it comes to the best overall Halo game.