The Halo series is 20 years old this year, with the original game launching on Nov. 15, 2001. The massively influential franchise has had its ups and downs, and moved development teams over the years. Bungie started the series, made five of the games on this list, and then turned it over to 343 Industries, a Microsoft studio made up of many Bungie veterans. And ahead of Halo Infinite, the third game from 343, we’re going to rank all the mainline Halo games.
It’s worth noting that we’re focusing on the FPS Halo games. We won’t be ranking the top-down Spartan Assault or Spartan Strike. And while we’d like to rank the fantastic Halo Wars series, they’re a little too apples-to-oranges for this list. Plus ranking seven Halo games feels like a nice homage to Bungie’s favorite number (and the number of Halo rings out there).
Without further ado, the Halo games from best to worst.
1. Halo 2
Halo 2 is the definitive Halo game. It not only cements Master Chief as one of the biggest video game badasses ever, it also gives players the chance to play as the Arbiter and get an inside look into the Covenant. This creates the strongest story the Halo series has seen so far. It turns the Covenant into a living and breathing militarized cult, rather than some goofy aliens getting dropped off into arenas.
Halo 2 also adds some of the series’ biggest features like hijacking and duel wielding, giving dimension to play without distracting from any of the action. The iconic Battle Rifle makes its debut here, along with many new weapons. And it’s one of the debut Xbox Live multiplayer games.
Halo 2 is still a near-perfect example of how to increase the scale of your sequel. Everything is bigger and better than the original, but it still felt like Halo.
2. Halo: Combat Evolved
Halo: Combat Evolved launched one of the biggest video game franchises of all time. It’s got some of the best campaign levels ever made, and the game’s iconic Magnum pistol belongs in the FPS hall of fame. It was responsible for so many sleepover and LAN parties that it defined the final pre-Xbox Live generation. And perhaps most importantly, Bungie used Halo: Combat Evolved to prove that consoles can be home to FPS games, which shaped the games industry forever.
It’s hard to describe how influential and important Halo: Combat Evolved is. It’s got some key flaws in its campaign — notably the Flood being a huge pain to fight, and just how often you backtrack through levels. But it’s an absolute titan of a game, and every console shooter or first person game would look different today had it not existed.
3. Halo 3
Halo 3 is more fun to play than Combat Evolved — it carries over some of the big, modern improvements from Halo 2 — but it just barely misses that number two spot. It’s a bit safe mechanically, especially compared to the leap from Halo: Combat Evolved to Halo 2. It also suffers from some forgettable levels — and the less-fun-to-fight Brutes taking over for Elites, while narratively cool, hurts the overall combat. However, it served up the best multiplayer in the series’ history, with endless maps like The Pit buildable through Forge, and very few games have come close to toppling its arena shooter action.
Halo 3 is imperfect, but its massive scale and multiplayer outshine all of its relatively minor issues.
4. Halo: Reach
Halo: Reach is where the series starts to lose a bit of steam. Bungie uses its status as a prequel to introduce a deluge of new weapons into the game, most of which are forgettable compared to the original suite. However, the sheer variety of gameplay that these new weapons and armor abilities provide keeps the game’s levels from getting stale. There’s always something new to play with, even if the moment to moment gameplay isn’t as tight as the original trilogy.
As Bungie’s last Halo, Reach is a bit of a disappointment. It feels like Bungie was running out of steam on the franchise, ready to pass the mantle to someone else. But despite that funk, Halo: Reach remains a decent spot to end an era.
5. Halo 3: ODST
Halo 3: ODST is a great experiment that doesn’t quite come together as a fun video game experience. Instead of a group of Spartans, it follows an ordinary crew of ODST marines (those folks that drop out of the sky in pods). Its characters are all a bit loud and obnoxious, its missions are largely forgettable, and the combat is less exciting when executed as a normal person. Part of the fantasy of Halo is playing as a giant alien or a big-ass super soldier.
However, for its shortcomings, ODST actually has a really interesting, semi-open world format. ODST tries to do something different, and some of it works, but it ultimately misses.
6. Halo 4
Halo 4 is the first post-Bungie Halo game. It takes the story significantly off the rails, giving the Forerunners a shot at the main antagonist title. And it’s that Forerunner focus that ultimately lands Halo 4 further down on this list. 343 Industries adds cool mech vehicles to the series (allowing for third-person stomping through legions of baddies), and actually has some fun and memorable missions. But the Forerunners are aggravating and it’s unclear how to fight them. Even their weapons, which look incredible, are overdesigned.
As a first shot for a new studio, taking a stab at one of gaming’s most prolific franchises, Halo 4 isn’t actually too bad. It’s even got one of my favorite Halo missions, escorting the Mammoth in “Reclaimer.” But it’s all a bit messy, and pales in comparison to the rest of Master Chief’s adventures.
7. Halo 5: Guardians
Halo 5: Guardians doesn’t feel like Halo. After Halo 4, 343 took a lot of liberties with Halo — which, as Bungie’s successors, is understandable. But the result was a mashup of tons of other AAA game mechanics (like jet boots), which morphed it into something unrecognizable. The squad-based combat, bananas story that prioritizes a group of boring new Spartans over Master Chief, and unimaginative mission structure just don’t come together to make for a very fun Halo game.
Halo 5: Guardians goes some places to offer something wildly different, and it is pretty cool to fight alongside the Arbiter and Elites on their home planet. All of that is commendable and not without some merit, but outside of the aesthetic and some of the weapons, it’s hard to even see Guardians as a Halo game.