Halo is a game series that I've been playing since I was a wee lad. I've got extremely fond memories of playing co-op and multiplayer via LAN parties, and early Xbox Live. While I've enjoyed the multiplayer elements of the games, the campaigns are what I really hold dear. I've continued playing the games to this day, and want to rank them from worst to best. What's my criteria for judging the quality of each campaign?
My criteria for rating the quality of the Halo campaigns is pretty straightforward:
- Are the enemies enjoyable to fight, and are they easy to discern from one another?
- Is the level design good?
- Does the weapon pool allow for most weapons to be viable?
- How balanced is the campaign?
I will not be factoring in the story, art style, or soundtrack as part of my rating. This is purely gameplay focused. I'll be sharing my favorite and least favorite level for each game too. Also, I will not be covering the Halo Wars RTS games.
To me, Halo is meant to be played on Legendary difficulty, so I will be using that as the baseline. Some of the games might play better on a lower difficulty, however, the higher difficulty tends to show the good and bad elements much more.
Oh, and I feel the need to state that this is my opinion. If you disagree with my ranking, let me know in the comments below. While it might sound like I am trashing some games, I still enjoy every Halo game. Even Halo 4. Speaking of that...
"I don't suppose you're any good at clearing LZs?"
Halo 4's campaign kind of sucks. This game fails every one of my criteria. It has bad levels, an unbalanced difficulty and weapon pool, and bad enemy design.
The level design just blows. Most of the game is fairly linear corridors, without much opening to big arenas. When we do get arenas, they feel like they were plopped there, rather than woven into the level design. There is an entire open level (Shutdown), but it is as on-rails as can be. If you decide to venture into Spartan Ops, you'll be greeted by more mediocre level design too.
The weapon pool is not good. On Legendary, you are stuck using precision weapons to fight your opponents. The automatic weapons are nearly useless. Aside from being pigeonholed into this, the ammunition reserves are low too. 343 Industries wanted the player to experiment with weapons, so the ammo reserves were kept low. However, this just leads to frustration rather than experimentation. The game's balance suffers for this, as it often becomes "find the BR/DMR/Covenant Carbine/Lightrifle".
While the returning Covenant enemies are alright, the new Forerunner enemies are not. The Promethean Knights are easily some of the most frustrating foes in the series, with ultra fast shield recovery, and the ability to teleport. It feels as though these enemies were not play tested at all.
I don't love or hate Halo 4. I just tolerate it.
Favorite Level: Dawn
Least Favorite Level: Shutdown
"If they came to hear me beg, they'll be disappointed."
I'm gonna catch some ire for this. Halo 2 was an important game for pushing Xbox Live and console multiplayer function along, but the campaign is not great. The notorious scramble to redo the campaign post-E3 2003 lead to a messy, unbalanced single player.
Halo 2's balance is non-existent. The player is the second weakest entity in the game, only behind the Flood Infection Form. Chief/The Arbiter die extremely quickly, and the game is unforgiving. H2's weapon pool is decent, but many non-precision weapons are nigh unusable. The noob combo will help carry you through the game, when you can use it. While dual wielding is cool in concept, it generally has little use on Legendary.
Enemies in H2 vary from great, to horrid. The Jackal Sniper is the bane of many players. However, I'd argue that the Flood in H2 are much worse. They have the ability to wield power weapons and drive vehicles, which makes the middle portion of the campaign some of the worst in the series. The Brutes can also be frustrating enemies, as they are quite spongey.
Level design is also poor. There is an overreliance on elevator/autoscroller sections, where the player has to fight enemies and wait. These are tedious, and exist to pad the runtime. H2 features bad boss fights too, that feel out of place. Poorly designed, they also feel like a way to pad time. The level, "Gravemind", might actually be the worst in the series. On Legendary, you can be killed before the game fully loads the player in at the start of the level. Oof. There are good levels in this game however, with Cairo Station and The Great Journey (up to the boss fight) being standouts.
I love Halo 2, but not for the campaign's gameplay.
Favorite Level: Cairo Station
Least Favorite Level: Gravemind
Halo 5: Guardians
"Light is green."
I'm gonna catch even more ire for this ranking. Halo 5 has a garbage, convoluted story, but the actual campaign gameplay is pretty enjoyable.
Level design isn't amazing, but it is certainly better than the two aforementioned games. A good mix of tight corridors, medium arenas, and large vistas exist to wage combat in. H5 featured new movement mechanics, and the levels were designed with this in mind. Many are quite vertical, and with this, combat is more interesting. The vehicular combat in H5 is quite enjoyable too.
The weapon pool is big, and most weapons are viable on Legendary. H5 added Aim Down Sight(ADS) to all of the weapons, making the pool more versatile. Some of the power weapons were nerfed (Rocket Launcher), but the standard weapons are generally pretty good.
Halo 5's balance is decent. The player is not very tough, however your AI allies now have the ability to revive you if you get downed. Mechanically, this is similar to Gears of War. Some parts of the game can be seriously frustrating. However, the balancing is generally fine.
The enemies of H5 are generally enjoyable to fight. The Covenant is enjoyable, as always. 343 managed to make the Forerunner enemies fun to fight too. The annoying Knights were promoted to a mini-boss enemy, and as such, are less common, and more enjoyable to fight. The standard rank-and-file Forerunner enemies are pretty enjoyable too, certainly a step up from H4. However, there is a 900lb elephant in the room; The Warden Eternal.
The Warden Eternal is a boss that you fight six times in H5. During the last two fights, you combat multiple copies of the Warden. This is not fun. I don't know who at 343 Industries thought repeating the boss fight was fun, but they should have lost a job over it.
Overall, H5's campaign is enjoyable, if you avoid the story. That is a big "if", however.
Favorite Level: Evacuation
Least Favorite Level: The Breaking
"I've got the mass."
The final Halo game from Bungie, Reach is a fitting sendoff.
Reach's level design is excellent. Combining elements from earlier entries, the game has enjoyable combat arenas, fun vehicle sections, and is paced well. We return to areas from the start of the campaign near the end, albeit they are destroyed and in shambles. This helps to tie together the game a little better. Reach only has one bad level, "Long Night of Solace". On Legendary, the Sabre fighter dies fast, which makes the space combat unfun. There is little cover in space, so expect to die often. Aside from that section, the rest of that level, and the campaign, feels well made.
The balance and weapon pool are both great. Reach features a shield and health system, so the time to kill (TTK) on the player feels appropriate. Health packs are not abundant, but there will be enough to get you through the campaign. The weapons are also generally great feeling. The precision weapons are the best to use, however the automatic and support weapons aren't bad either.
The gallery of enemies in Reach is rich, and wonderful. From the lowly Grunts to the Elites and Hunters, the enemies are generally enjoyable to fight. Reach introduced the Jackal Skirmisher, a fast but weak enemy, one that has been a favorite of mine. Headshots and kills are extremely satisfying here. My only gripe with the enemies is that the color palate in Reach is a little muted, so differentiating ranks can be hard. Despite this, the enemy pool is wonderful.
While not a perfect campaign, Reach is extremely enjoyable. My gripes with the game generally lie with the story and plot, rather than the campaign.
Favorite Level: New Alexandria
Least Favorite Level: Long Night of Solace
"Pays to be the strong, silent type."
Halo 3: ODST was sold as a standalone Halo expansion, despite having Halo 3 in the title. The campaign takes place in New Mombasa during the events of Halo 2, and centers on a group of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (ODST). For many gamers, ODST is their favorite Halo campaign. It's near the top for me.
During the opening to ODST, our character, The Rookie, is knocked unconscious when his drop pod hits the ground. He awakes hours later, and has to piece together what occurred while he was out. This dovetails into the level design for ODST. The Rookie has to move through New Mombasa at night, finding clues as to what events transpired. Every clue leads to a new linear level, in which we play as another member of the ODST team. This is both a great storytelling tool, but also a fun way to get the player into different combat environments. From fighting in the city, to the nature reserve, to the tops of high rise buildings, we get to see the fall of New Mombasa. The level design fits well, with a good combination of infantry and vehicular combat.
The weapon pool of ODST is mostly copy and pasted from Halo 3. While not bad, it makes sense within the game's universe. We do have new additions, namely the suppressed Magnum and SMG. Both are great weapons, and are viable and fun to use. The returning UNSC and Covenant weapons are enjoyable too.
The enemy variety and color palate are the same as Halo 3, which is stellar. However, this does lead into a minor issue. In ODST, many of the levels are nighttime maps. We have access to the "VISR", essentially a set of night vision goggles that outline enemies, and items of interest. This puts a green tinge on everything, making it a little harder to discern enemy rank. While not a massive complaint, it is one nevertheless.
Balance is a little lopsided in ODST. ODSTs are elite soldiers, but are not cyborgs with modified bodies like the Spartans we play as in the other entries. However, with the stamina and health system of the game, our characters can withstand more damage than Chief can in Halo 3. This is the only entry in the series that tilts the balance too far towards the player, as the game is a little too easy on Legendary.
Despite some minor issues with balance and color palate, ODST is certainly a great game.
Favorite Level: Coastal Highway
Least Favorite Level: Uplift Reserve
"The missions change, they always do."
2021's Halo Infinite was a controversial game, at least for a while. The game was wrought with a lack of content and features, however, the campaign itself is excellent.
Infinite set out to combine the standard linear level design of the previous entries with an open world map. I think that the game really hit the mark with this. Level design is excellent in the linear levels, and spot-on for the open world. From the opening on a Banished scrap ship, to the various Forerunnner mazes on Zeta Halo, the level design is just wonderful. The movement and armor abilities of Infinite dovetail into the level design, as each level was made to pair well with the player's abilities. The player can find upgrades for Master Chief, with my favorite being the ground pound with the grappling hook.
The weapon pool of Infinite is great too. Familiar weapons return, with new ones joining the roster. Favorites of mine are the Skewer, Sidekick, and the trusty Battle Rifle. We've got 4 enjoyable types of grenades, and can now throw fusion coils, and other explosive barrels. I can't help but think that the combat was a little bit inspired by Doom Eternal, as it is faster paced and features swapping between abilities on the fly.
Infinite's enemy list is long, but every entry is good. The Covenant is gone, and the Banished are here. While many of the familiar enemies return, they have new color palates, and are easily distinguished. Grunts, Jackals, Brutes, Elites, and more are on display. Their AI is intelligent, making combat pleasant. A pleasant surprise in Infinite was the inclusion of good boss fights. Throughout the campaign, there are mandatory and optional boss fights, and they have been done better than ever before. Most are fairly hard, but not unbeatable.
Balance in Infinite is fairly well done. Chief isn't overtly tanky or weak, and feels appropriately scaled to the enemies. The player can level up Chief's shields to make him a little stronger, but not to a point that the game becomes easy. Enemies do not feel overly tanky either, as dropping shields and well-placed headshots still dispatch them satisfyingly.
Overall, Halo Infinite came to be one of my favorite FPS campaigns of the last decade. The campaign gameplay is wonderful, and (while not factoring on this list), the story kept me glued to the game.
Favorite Level: House of Reckoning
Least Favorite Level: Nexus
"Send me out, with a bang."
Halo 3 is the largest media release of all time. I can remember being young, and the excitement buzzing around the game. Over 15 years later, and I am still excited about Halo 3. The entire package of the campaign and multiplayer was amazing, but we're just focusing on the former.
Halo 3 picks up right where Halo 2 left off, with Master Chief crashing back to earth. We are introduced to the duo of Chief and The Arbiter, and the campaign begins. Immediately, we are greeted with excellent level design. Nearly every level in Halo 3 is expertly crafted, with only a few bumps along the way. An excellent combination of tight corridors, open expanses, and the spaces between help to build the levels of Halo 3. As a sort of callback to Halo: CE, we have some backtracking in levels, such as "Crow's Nest" and "Floodgate". These help to build continuity in the game world, which is an element I always love. The infantry and vehicle combat are top notch here too, with levels such as "The Ark " and "The Covenant".
The weapon pool is very well executed. Many standard, familiar weapons fill the ranks, along with power weapons, and 4 types of grenades. There are certainly some weapons that are less viable here, however the dual wielding system makes some shine when held akimbo. Not every weapon is viable on Legendary, but most are. Halo 3 was the first game in the series that allowed for ripping turrets off of emplacements, and running with them. These can certainly level the field of combat too.
Enemy variety and color differentiation is the best in the series here. It is easy to discern the rank of each Covenant trooper, from the lowly minor Grunt to the Brute Chieftain. The Flood are also expanded upon in Halo 3, with new, stronger forms to fight. The enemy AI is intelligent, and fun to engage with. While no true boss fights exist in this entry, minor boss fights with Chieftains and Scarab Tanks are placed front and center, and are always a blast.
Balance in Halo 3 is nearly perfect. For me, a well-balanced shooter is one that has no enemies that kill you in a cheap manner. While Halo 2's Jackal Snipers were cheap, the ones in Halo 3 are more fair, for example. They still kill you in one hit, but are less accurate and more visible, making them easier to dodge, and easier to shoot. My only gripe with the enemy balance is with the Range Pure Flood Forms. They can be a little tanky, and dish out damage quickly from a distance. However, it is a minor gripe.
Halo 3 is my favorite game in the series, as a combined package of campaign and multiplayer experience. However, there is a campaign that I love even more.
Favorite Level: The Covenant
Least Favorite Level: Floodgate
Halo: Combat Evolved
"Well, I don't care if it's God's own anti-son-of-a-bitch machine or a giant hula hoop, we're not gonna let 'em have it!"
Halo : Combat Evolved changed the way that FPS games were made. It's core features (two weapon limit, dedicated melee and grenade buttons, regenerating health, advanced enemy AI) became industry standard, and are still implemented in many shooters today. The game was important, however, that doesn't always mean that it is still good. However, Halo: CE has aged like a fine wine.
CE's level design is straightforward, but excellently crafted. Each level is memorable and great. From the emergency ditching on "Pillar of Autumn", to exploring the alien world of "Halo", to learning of the Flood in "343 Guilty Spark", the levels are wonderful. From tight corridors to open battlefields, CE creates a fulfilling and enjoyable combat environment. The pacing of the game is also appropriate, with some levels being a tad bit more relaxed, and others being quite frenetic.
Dovetailing from the level design, the enemy design is great too. We've got 4 types of Covenant to fight, and 3 types of Flood. Every enemy unit is distinct, and their rank is easy to discern by their color. While I appreciate the wider enemy variety of the later games, the simplicity of CE makes the experience tighter. I love a tight, focused experience.
Much like the enemy design, the weapon pool is smaller, but extremely tight. Nearly every weapon in CE is viable on Legendary, from the Plasma Pistol up to the Rocket Launcher. If a weapon is not great for a specific level, the developers did not include it in the level. On the flipside, this limited weapon pool flowed back into the level design. Everyone knows the CE Magnum, and how powerful it is. However, what if it isn't available to you for an entire level?
The third level of the game, "Truth and Reconciliation" asks this question, and gives you a sniper rifle in the stead of the magnum. The first chunk of the level has you navigating canyons on your way to the titular ship. However, once you board the ship, you will likely still have your sniper with you. Throughout the level, you'll stumble upon dead marines with sniper ammo, but no rifles. This simple choice to ask the player to use the sniper in close quarters during the ship boarding is something I love. While the later games have excellent level design, CE integrated the weapon pool and enemy variety into that level design, something lost on the later games.
Now, I know what you are thinking. "How can he like The Library? That level sucks!" Well, The Library is a "skill check" of sorts. The level layout is simple, however the enemies are unrelenting. It is the most "twitch shooter" level in the game, making the player lean hard on quick shots and weapon swapping. The level is difficult, but clearing every floor is satisfying. This may be a controversial opinion, but I love "The Library". With "Truth & Reconciliation", both levels are some of my favorites in the series.
The balance of difficulty in CE is the best in the series. Deaths do not feel cheap, generally speaking. If you die on Legendary, you probably did something wrong. The only knock I have for balance is the few number of Rocket Launcher equipped Flood units near the end of the game. They are few and far between, but they can be a little frustrating. In the later levels of the game, the Covenant and Flood can be seen fighting each other, allowing for the player to wait, and pounce on the winning faction. Elements like this lead into the balance feeling quite fair.
I think that CE is the best campaign in the series. Many variables in my life change, but my opinion on Halo: CE seldom does. I love Halo: CE. I've been playing this game for most of my life, and am always happy to jump back into the campaign, whether solo or in co-op. Classic shooters generally age well, and CE is no exception.
Favorite Level: Truth and Reconciliation
Least Favorite Level: Keyes
At the onset of the article, I mentioned that I enjoy all of the Halo games. That includes the ones that rank lower for me. However, the campaigns that I keep returning to are some of the best FPS campaigns to be made. What's your favorite Halo campaign?
Gaming content will not be overtaking our normal shooting/outdoors/history related uploads. I'm a nerd, and wanted post about one of my other passions. Don't worry, they'll be plenty of normally scheduled content coming out too.
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All images courtesy of Microsoft, 343 Industries, and Bungie, Inc.