If there’s one thing Halo fans like more than playing Halo games, it’s ranking Halo games. Now that Halo Infinite, the latest in a long lineage of stellar first-person shooters, has been out for a bit, two of Kotaku’s big series fans — staff writer Ari Notis and weekend editor Zack Zweizen — figured it as good a time as any to hammer out a ranking.
What follows is the result of where we landed, with explanations for how we determined what goes where. Also, gotta note that basically every mainline Halo game is genuinely excellent, which makes coming up with a definitive rundown feel a bit like organising your favourite ice cream flavours: They’re all pretty sweet! Anyway, shall we?
11. Halo Online
Zack: Halo Infinite’s free-to-play multiplayer isn’t the first time Microsoft has tried to take the great action of Halo and give it away for nothing. But its first attempt, the short-lived Halo Online, never really caught on with folks. Thankfully, assets from this failed F2P experiment live on in the Master Chief Collection, but you can’t play the game today in 2021, making it the worst Halo title by default.
Ari: Uh, yeah, what he said!
10. All of the spinoffs
Zack: I enjoyed Halo Wars and its sequel, but they were never Halo-enough for many. Meanwhile, I hated the top down spin-offs because they were so damn boring. And the arcade game was fine, but I don’t enjoy the turret controllers modern light gun shooters use, so it too is banished to the bottom of our list.
Ari: The phrase “top-down spin-offs” makes me wanna hurl. And from what I’ve played of Halo Wars, those games seem neat, and I see how they’d click with fans of the RTS genre. But c’mon, the best Halo games give you a gun, a super suit, a bunch of long grey hallways, and an endless horde of space aliens for you to mow down.
9. Halo 5: Guardians
Zack: I recently replayed Halo 5 ahead of the release of Infinite and I was shocked by how pretty it is and yet how completely bland and hollow it feels. The idea of two main characters is cool! However, Locke plays and acts like Master Chief 2.0 and the ending is perhaps the worst in the franchise. The ending is so bad that the next game, Infinite, just sort of glosses over it in a couple of cutscenes. And sure, its multiplayer was fine, but it never felt like Halo to me. And none of its maps stuck with me nor did I care much for its take on Firefight.
Ari: I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive Halo 5 for casting the player as anyone other than Master Chief or the Arbiter, but that’s the least of its many sins. Repetitive boss fights and a story that stops immediately as it gets going make this the most disappointing entry among mainline Halo games. Multiplayer was great, though.
8. Halo 4
Zack: Halo 4 in a lot of ways is a small evolution upon the Halo formula that original devs Bungie had created and perfected. Yet, it also works better than Halo 5 precisely because it sticks mostly to what Halo does best and brings the narrative focus back to Cortana and Chief. Sure, the villain isn’t great and Spartan Ops sucks (holy shit those missions were way too long) but the multiplayer and main campaign felt like more Halo Reach or Halo 3, just now you could sprint. Pretty good mix, in my opinion.
Ari: I’ve long maintained that Halo 4 is the best Halo game, certainly my personal favourite, what with its unexpectedly intimate story and rip-roaring multiplayer (Haven being a top-tier Halo map to this day). New enemy classes and weapons were a delight after years of using the same tools against the same enemies. Also: the music! Holy hell, the music. But I fully recognise the fringe nature of loving Halo 4, and shall choose a different hill to perish on.
7. Halo 2
Zack: Halo 2 is a great game, even if almost everything in it is better or more polished in Halo 3. Still, it’s impressive that this game even works on an original Xbox and it helped pioneer much of what would become Xbox Live. It also introduced the Arbiter and expanded on so many parts of Halo lore, like the Flood. I still hate, hate, hate the ending, but when you remember that Bungie basically made the whole game in less than a year, it’s wild that it turned out so great. It also explains why some chunks of the campaign feel like they are missing levels. (It’s because a lot got cut while finishing Halo 2.)
Ari: Zack and are split on the ending (it’s so badass!) but, despite being a longtime Halo fan, I had no clue about the production woes surrounding Halo 2. In that light, huh, yeah, some plot moments in Halo 2 could’ve squared a bit better. Still, realising you get to play as the Arbiter was a hall-of-fame moment. And Halo 2’s battle rifle is to this day the finest battle rifle in the series.
SLIDE #66. Halo 3: ODST
Zack: Any Halo game that lets me kill Brutes at night using a cool new weapon while jazz plays in the background is a winner in my book. And seeing as only Halo 3: ODST lets you do that, I adore this strange spin-off of Halo 3. ODST also introduced firefight, the horde mode that I sunk way too many hours into as a younger man, and helped give us a new angle on the world of Halo. Playing as a more fragile and smaller ODST soldier and not a spartan made combat more intense and failure more likely. Great stuff.
Ari: It makes sense that Joseph Staten, who was brought in last year to spearhead creative development on Halo Infinite, headed story development on ODST back in the day. You can see the overlap in DNA between both games. In fact, ODST — with its hub area, and choose-your-own-way approach — almost feels like a first draft for Infinite. And, yes, firefight good. ODST could’ve been easily been a half-thought spin-off. Instead, it proved a quietly revolutionary benchmark for a series that had way more in the chamber beyond the original trilogy.
SLIDE #75. Halo: Combat Evolved
Zack: Halo: Combat Evolved is a classic that deserves to be remembered for proving first-person shooters could truly work on a console and for kickstarting one of the best sci-fi video game franchises of all time. It also has some terrible campaign levels that go on for far too long, simplistic multiplayer offerings, and could be an unfair pain in the arse on Legendary difficulty. So it ends up towards the bottom of our list. We love it, but compared to the rest of the series…eh.
Ari: Zack’s on the money. Halo: Combat Evolved is a genuine classic. Purists will say that it’s deliciously streamlined, that it set the tone for the series, and that paved the way for first-person shooters to work with dual-stick controllers. That’s all true! But the original Halo lacked so much of what makes the series rule — like online multiplayer and a firefight mode — in later entries. So I’m not totally sold on its merits, on how well it holds up today, but I found myself quite moved by a colleague’s case for the game…
Carolyn Petit, Kotaku managing editor: The game that started it all, Halo: Combat Evolved felt revolutionary at the time of its release, introduced so much of what we think still defines Halo today, established the relationship of Master Chief and Cortana as arguably the heart of the series, had maybe the series’ best-ever villain in 343 Guilty Spark, and featured one of the most jaw-dropping final sequences that any game at the time had ever had (and one that Halo 3 then imitated à la Return of the Jedi doing the whole Death Star thing again after Star Wars). On top of all that, beat by beat, it feels scrappy and alive and full of interesting choices and shifts in tone, the delicious result (in my opinion) of being made with more limited resources than so many later, heftier entries in the series have been made under.
SLIDE #84. Halo Infinite
Zack: Halo Infinite is both a return to the classic style and look of Halo, while also evolving the franchise in some really smart ways. I wish the open world was a bit more populated with missions or activities, but everything else in the campaign works. (OK, the story gets a bit lore-heavy towards the end, but as a sicko who loves Halo lore, I’m fine with that!) And then there’s Infinite’s multiplayer, which is excellent and reminds me of the joy I felt playing Halo 3 online back in the day. Fix up the battle pass, bring back firefight, and add an Action Sack playlist and I’ll play this game until the sun burns out.
Ari: Look. I’ve already written approximately 4,000 words about why Halo Infinite rules. Short version: big playground + small, intimate story = awesome Halo. And the multiplayer is irresistible.
SLIDE #93. Halo Reach
Zack: I’ll admit that, even in 2021, I’m not the biggest fan of Halo Reach’s visuals. Something about the game seems too grainy and washed out. I get Bungie was going for a look and nailed it, but I just miss the old designs. That aside, Reach contains one of the best campaigns in the franchise and brings back firefight, now with more features and modes. I never loved its multiplayer as much as Halo 3, but it was still a blast. I enjoyed spawning on my bro, co-op style.
Ari: Reach had a top-tier campaign and a solid firefight mode, plus an impressively robust creative canvas in Forge World. But Reach stands out not for what it had but for what it represented. I still recall the delirious excitement with which Halo fans approached Reach. Not only were we getting a new Halo game from Bungie, but we were getting it, like, a year after the immediately preceding one, and we could test out its multiplayer mode early (in beta) on two balanced, lastingly memorable maps. That it turned out to have all those things Zack pointed out was just a delightful bonus — and a fitting swansong for Bungie’s stewardship over the series it created.
SLIDE #102. Halo 3
Zack: When I was putting together the first draft of the best Halo multiplayer maps ever made, I initially sat down with a notepad and just thought off the top of my head of my 15 favourite maps. Even if I didn’t remember the name of the map, I’d put down details. I then looked all the maps up and about 11 maps on the list were from Halo 3. So yeah, the multiplayer in Halo 3 is amazing. But it also features a great Forge mode, four-player co-op, and a campaign that I still replay regularly. That final Warthog run…just the best. If this was the end of the series, it would have been fine by me.
Ari: Halo 3 was Halo at the height of its powers: a suitable capstone to a definitive trilogy, with a multiplayer portion so engaging it seemed like literally everyone who played games played it — for years. In a vacuum, isolated on its own merits, Halo 3 is the ne plus ultra of Halo games. Of course, there’s one game in the series that proves no Halo game exists in a vacuum…
SLIDE #111. Halo: The Master Chief Collection
Zack: Wait! Stop. Don’t get angry. While some may say this is a joke answer or accuse us of cheating, I disagree. Let’s look at the facts! Halo MCC contains some of the best Halo games ever made, features new remastered campaigns for two of them, looks and plays better than the original titles, includes new content like ODST’s Flood survival mode, and even throws in new maps for Halo 3. It’s also something you can buy physically and has new achievements and weapon skins. It even has a better battle pass system than Halo Infinite! It is without a doubt one of the best video games ever released. (It took some time to get good, but it made it, thankfully.) So yeah, it’s easily the best Halo game ever released or made. Unless you don’t like Halo 2, 3, Reach, and ODST? In which case, you can always play Halo 5.
Ari: Zack initially floated the idea of ranking Halo: Master Chief Collection in first place as a bit. I went “lol,” then realised, wait, yeah, obviously this is the best Halo game. Obviously! The core selling point — play, say, Halo 3 or Reach multiplayer for a bit, hop into a few rounds of firefight, replay some of the set piece levels from older Halo games in stunningly remastered glory before popping into Halo 4 for a tug on the ol’ heartstrings — is unmatched. Master Chief Collection started in ruin, with seemingly nothing going right for it. But then 343 poured resources into the game, eventually turning it into a truly heroic, nay, legendary comeback. How fitting: In a nutshell, that’s the story of every Halo game.