Halo's Master Chief Collection is coming to Steam, a decision so smart it's hard to believe someone made it in the year 2019. It's pretty much all good news: the games will support 4K resolutions, and feature a custom game browser. And Halo Reach, which previously wasn't part of the collection on Xbox, is coming to PC as well. The only note of caution is around Halo's all-important splitscreen, which isn't confirmed for PC—it was mentioned in the Halo PC AMA that: "This one is tricky and the team is still looking at what can be supported." But hey, it's not a no.
To celebrate this arrival of mostly undisputed classics, we've decided to rank the Halo games according to the quality of their singleplayer/co-op campaigns from worst to best. We've kept it simple by leaving multiplayer out in considering the order. There's no shortage of Halo fans on-team at PC Gamer, and we're all excited to have these classics on PC for the first time in most cases.
See what you think of our list, and add your own thoughts in the comments. Note that we've just decided to rank the Halo games we know are coming to Steam, and not Halo 5, which most of us haven't played anyway. We also left out the Halo Wars RTS spin-offs, which are perfectly okay, but make less sense in a list that's otherwise composed of first-person shooters.
James: All I remember about Halo 4 is that it was inextricably tied to a Halo novel that I did not read.
Samuel: The original Halo has just a handful of enemy types, and all of them co-existed perfectly to create varied large scale firefights. The Covenant's Hunter, Elite, Grunt and Jackals are a wonderful combo—you can't top them. Halo 4 tried, and sorry to 343 Industries, which took a brave stab at expanding Halo's universe, but I thought the Prometheans of Halo 4 all fell short by some distance. I recall there being an angel-looking thing, a dog and a ball, none of which were fun to fight. The campaign for Halo 4 wasn't great, lacking the pacing and scale of Bungie's efforts, but hey, it looked fantastic for a game on a then-ancient console. Should look great on PC, and the multiplayer (which we're not basing these rankings on) was excellent too.
Samuel: A great opening in New Mombasa City, where you get to drive a Scorpion tank over a bridge shooting down flying Banshees, leads into a series of levels I barely even remember now. Halo 2 has a famously abrupt finale, and I recall fans being hung up on the disappointment of the final game versus this E3 2003 footage for a long time. It just wasn't close to being as good as its predecessor—but damn, what a high bar Combat Evolved set. Can't fault the multiplayer, though, which basically changed online console games forever.
James: Remember the Arbiter reveal? That was something. Trading one grim, macho protagonist for another? Yeehaw.
But yeah, I can’t recall much about the campaign either. I’ll be honest, the Halo story sort of sloughs off me. I’m all about the sandbox shootin’, and Halo 2 certainly scaled things up. It just ended so abruptly.
Andy K: I can't really remember anything about Halo 2, and I'm pretty sure I finished it when it first came out on Xbox. I have vague, fuzzy memories of driving a tank along a giant bridge in a city… and playing as the Arbiter, stabbing other aliens with a pink laser dagger. But mostly I'm drawing a blank, so I guess I didn’t really like it.
Samuel: Dual wielding, Andy! It's all that mattered in 2004.
James: Anything and a Needler. A damn revelation.
Phil: I played the first three games back-to-back for the first time a couple of years ago, and even I don't remember anything about Halo 2.
Samuel: On my personal list, Reach would definitely be above ODST, and by a wide margin. But everyone else put ODST ahead of Reach, so I'll politely go with it. I just finished Reach with a friend in co-op for the second time—totally unaware it would be announced for PC days later—and I actually think it's pretty close to the first and third games in quality. Most of its levels are nice and repeatable, plus it has a tremendous one-off set piece that lets you dogfight in space. Why isn't there an entire Halo spin-off game that's just about that, complete with multiplayer?
It starts slow, but Reach successfully frames all of your triumphs in the game as fruitless in the face of a growing catastrophe, as the titular planet gradually falls to the Covenant. That's a fantastic storytelling approach—as the marketing said for Reach at the time, you, being anyone with a loose understanding of Halo's universe, know the end. The finale, as the Pillar of Autumn leaves your Spartan on a dead planet to fight down to the last bullet, is one of the only Halo moments that's made me a little emotional. Terrific game.
James: Reach didn’t focus on Master Chief, but it ended up telling me all about him by the end. Hanging with a Spartan crew was a fascinating view into the highest tier of military culture the series protagonist sprung from, and the pared back gunplay (no dual wielding!) suited what felt like a more stark, punishing perspective of the Halo universe.
Halo 3: ODST
Andy K: The secret best Halo. What I love about ODST is that it uses its flashback structure to present you with a 'greatest hits' of brilliant Halo set pieces. It's like a box of Halo-shaped chocolates, giving you a little bit of everything from the games prior to it. And I love the sections between missions set in the dark, moody hub city of New Mombasa. These bits have a melancholy, almost noir-like atmosphere that I find really effective, and they’re a nice change of pace from the more action-packed flashback missions. Playing as a relatively regular soldier, rather than a superhuman Spartan, is interesting too, because it lets you experience the Halo universe from a more grounded perspective.
James: I’m with you Andy. We already had a decade or so behind the wheel with Chief, so it was a real treat to spend time as a lowly grunt exploring rain-slicked alleyways and interacting with the city’s Superintendent AI, who can only communicate through municipal lighting systems or police sirens or by puking out coins at an ATM. It brought a dead city to life, and made pushing through the fun, if not inconsistent, episodic missions to find out what it wants from you so, so worthwhile.
Samuel: The pseud's choice. Everything you like about Halo, but not quite as good, with a novel storytelling framework that's now discussed like it's the second coming of narrative design or something. Still a neat spin-off, though, that could've been the model for many more, and I loved the Firefight mode. That's where being a depowered soldier in the Halo universe came into its own, as you struggled to hold ground against what are usually disposable enemies—it's still my favourite version of Horde mode.
Halo: Combat Evolved
Samuel: The original Halo is still the best to me, and it remains my perfect idea of what a Halo game should be: a sandbox shooter where each set piece is worth restarting from the last checkpoint many times over. Not because you're after some arbitrary loot—just for the experience of seeing the same scenario throw up new surprises. Maybe you'll try and run over a Hunter with a Warthog. Maybe you'll jog down the hill and steal the Banshee so you can murder Covenant from the sky. Maybe you'll whip your own marines on the back of the head with a pistol, so you have two sides out for Master Chief's blood. Whatever you try with the tools and environment placed in front of you, the game will react, and some fun shit will go down. That's Halo.
The enemy types are perfect. The assault rifle is exactly as powerful as it should be. Even though a few of the levels are repeated backwards, it doesn't matter, because they're fantastic. Original Halo is still a masterpiece. I even like The Library level after suffering through it many times for 17 years.
Andy K: When I think of the first Halo I inevitably think of The Silent Cartographer. That rousing music, the blue skies and sparkling water, the Pelican cruising over the beach, and later, the chance to bounce around in a Warthog. That's peak Halo for me, really. And even though it's really just a wider linear path than the other levels, the scale gives you a real sense of adventure and freedom. The weapons feel great, the vehicles are weighty and satisfying to drive, and the enemy AI makes them relentlessly fun to fight. Shame about The Library, though, and anything else involving the Flood. For all those moments of exhilarating freedom, there sure are a lot of boring, samey alien corridors in Halo too.
Phil: I came to this very late, but it mostly holds up. The more open levels are still a highlight, and a lot of fun to play. I don't know if I'd go as far as 'masterpiece', though. As mentioned, the Library is a weak point, but I also could have done without the seemingly endless repeated corridors of Assault on the Control Room. They're such a tedious pace breaker in an otherwise great level.
Samuel: Halo 3 has the best level of the entire series. I'm referring to The Covenant, containing a generous selection of amazing set pieces that climaxes with my favourite moment in any first-person shooter: the arrival of the two scarabs (see above), Halo's gigantic walking vehicles. It's the only time you ever get to fight two of these bastards at the same time, with a ton of vehicles at your disposal that permit many different approaches—its scale is extraordinary. This is the model of the perfect Halo level. Nothing in Halo 4 even approaches it. I hope Halo Infinite is full of set pieces like the one above.
Andy K: This was the mission that made me love Halo 3 too. The sheer dramatic scale of the thing, but also the feeling of freedom it gives you. Being able to grab an air vehicle, fly into the air, land on one of the Scarabs, and continue fighting on and inside it. That felt sensational at the time, and I think I'd still be impressed by it today. And when one of the Scarabs finally blows up, unleashing an explosion of fluorescent blue light, it feels immense. This kind of absurd, over-the-top sci-fi nonsense is exactly the reason I continue to play Halo, and this level perfectly encapsulates everything I love about it.
Phil: Oh yeah, that bit is great. Yeah, this was probably the most consistently enjoyable Halo game. I think. To be honest, all I can really say for sure is that you shouldn't play them all back-to-back, because they all just blend together in your head.
James D: It’s not my favorite Halo, probably because I didn’t play the campaign with anyone and the multiplayer hit when my friends had moved on to other games, but I have to acknowledge that Halo 3 was the complete package. The minor bump in tech from Xbox to Xbox 360 meant bigger sandboxes, shinier armor, and a clearer vision of the grand scale Bungie was going for with Halo’s big, silly space opera. And yeah, like everyone else, I remember seeing that Scarab and thinking it was a showpiece, or that I’d hit a loading screen once I landed on it. Not so. Singleplayer arena shooting at its finest.
Now tell us what you think in the comments!