The Professor Ranks the Core Halo Games

The immortal and hypnotizing chant that opens the very first Halo game is one that is cemented in the collective consciousness of gamers everywhere, and for good reason. Back in 2001 with the launch of the original Xbox, we were introduced to a sci-fi action shooter with the mysterious armored Master Chief at its helm, and no one really knew what to expect. For many of us Millennials and even Gen X, we were struggling to navigate a post 9/11 America and just wanted a reprieve for the doom and gloom of the daily news cycles. With its epic soundtrack, terrifying adversaries, and pretty compelling narrative, Halo: Combat Evolved laid the groundwork for a franchise that would become one of the most beloved and memorable of the past two decades. And while it doesn’t carry the same heavyweight power as it did in the early aughts, the competitive Halo circuit remains a landmark in the E-Sports world, and the nostalgia of those early games still inspire developers and gamers alike to this day. 

For this list, I will be ranking the core Halo games from worst to best based on narrative and impact. The multiplayer component of Halo stands pretty independent of the core campaign, so even if I might hate the story of Halo 5: Guardians (which I do), the multiplayer aspect is actually solid and a great step forward for the competitive scene. Further, I will only be ranking the core Halo titles, namely, the first-person shooters developed by Bungie and later 343 Studios. There are some vastly different opinions on which Halo games are the best, so my voice is just one of many being entered into the conversation. I just happen to be an academic and therefore the loudest and with the most inflated ego.    

Halo 5: Guardians

halo 5
Halo 5: Guardians pits Spartan Locke (left) against the Master Chief (right) after the Chief goes AWOL in search of his AI companion Cortana.

Even just thinking about this game still riles me up. The fifth official entry in the Master Chief’s story, it was marketed as a fast paced narrative filled with tension as the Chief evades capture by Spartan Locke and his fireteam for going AWOL in his quest to find Cortana. Commercials, cutscenes, and the like all seemed to depict a bitter rivalry and potential battle between the two Spartans. Instead, we spend 75% of the game playing as Locke, who has the personality of a wilted stick of celery, playing politics with scattered human insurrectionists and the Sangheili being led by the former Arbiter. We play as the Master Chief for a grand total of THREE out of the 15 campaign missions, which was insulting after being led to believe this was a Chief driven story of pursuit and redemption. Maybe it would sting less if Locke was even remotely likable as a character, and unfortunately, none of the rest of Fireteam Osiris stands out other than Buck, the beloved leader of Alpha-Nine squadron in Halo: ODST. The game lays a lot of important narrative groundwork for the franchise, but after that initial playthrough, is one that I never picked up again. 

Halo Infinite

halo infinite
While not a bad game, Infinite fell flat in terms of story exposition, hence it’s place on this list.

Picking up after the events of Halo Wars 2, Infinite is a jarring re-entry into the franchise. If you didn’t play Halo Wars (which many gamers probably didn’t, considering it’s a strategy game developed by a completely different studio and caters to a completely different audience of gamers), you were likely confused by the abrupt opening of the story. To make sense of all the chaos, the Master Chief is forced to navigate the open world of Zeta Halo in search of recorders that piece together what exactly led us to this point. It’s frustrating because it feels like you’re being pulled in multiple different directions at once. Kill all the Banished, find your missing crew, figure out what happened to Cortana, and why you’re all here in the first place. The addition of the Pilot and the Weapon as characters was a welcome one, and we got a believable glimpse into the Chief’s humanity and compassion for the first time in the franchise, in a way that was meaningful and not the swill we’ve seen with the TV show (don’t get me started on that). If the story had just been a little more tied together, it would be much higher on this list. 

Halo 4

halo 4
After almost 5 years in cryo sleep, the Master Chief awakens to a whole new conflict, and a personal quest to save his only friend.

Following Halo: Reach, Bungie officially turned over the reins of the franchise to Microsoft and 343 Studios. Halo 4 was their first release and aimed to both raise the stakes of humanity’s place in the galaxy and the Chief’s identity as a hero. Chief was more talkative in the game and for the first time, and had personal stakes in his shoot-em-up quest against the Covenant in trying to save Cortana from self destruction. The music felt like a true return to form for the franchise, honoring the legacy while also setting the tone for a more epic musical experience. The gameplay felt smooth and modernized, and the first-person style cutscenes made the story feel more personal and urgent. While it does remain in debate amongst passionate Halo fans for its departure from the silent and stoic Chief, and the introduction of a new era of Spartans, it remains a memorable entry in the franchise and set the tone for what 343 would continue to dole out in the future. 

Halo 3

halo 3
The Master Chief (foreground) teams up with the Arbiter (background) to stop the Flood infestation and kill the Covenant Prophets.

As the final entry in the original trilogy, Halo 3 cemented itself as a gem of a narrative, and was proof that sci-fi shooters could be trailblazing and meaningful stories. With the fight against the Covenant on Earth, as well as the invasion of the Flood, the stakes are the highest they’ve ever been. It’s a fantastic window into the collaborations between the UNSC and Sangheili forces, and the introduction of the allyship between the Master Chief and the Arbiter was a surprising and welcome addition to the story. The idea of hardened soldiers being forced to challenge their lifelong conceptions of “the other side” was new and intriguing, and created a whole new emotional aspect within the gameplay. Halo 3 is a forever warm blanket of nostalgia, and the kind of game we often wish the franchise would return to for inspiration.

Halo: ODST

halo odst
Cue sad, vibey jazz music.

The first game to depict a story that was not the Master Chief’s, ODST was meant to bridge the gap between Halo 3 and Bungie’s final game, Halo: Reach. The game follows Alpha-Nine, a group of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (ODSTs), fighting on Earth to repel the Covenant invasion. The player takes on the role of the Rookie, a silent protagonist, trying to figure out what happened to his squad after being separated during their drop. As he collects evidence, he enters a flashback and the player assumes the role of one of the other members of the team, including Buck (voiced by Nathan Fillion), Dutch (voiced by Adam Baldwin), Romeo (voiced by Nolan North), and Mickey (voiced by Alan Tudyk). With a stellar voice cast, excellent (and hilarious) writing, and a story that exposes the heart of humanity’s resistance, ODST was such a wonderful departure from the Chief’s POV, helping to show the sheer number of fantastic stories that exist within the Halo universe.

Halo: Combat Evolved

Halo CE
The Master Chief as he appears in the 2011 remastered version of the game.

As the original and very first introduction to the world of Halo, Combat Evolved introduced us to the Master Chief, Cortana, the Covenant, their genocidal holy war, and the nightmare fuel that is the Flood. While the Chief lacks much of a personality in this first entry, it is more than made up for by the presence of Cortana, who acts as a sort of “conscience” for the Chief and a guide on where to go and what to do next. It’s the perfect blend of world building and conflict, never feeling like a slog while setting the stage for the bloody conflict. The levels all feel unique and diverse, and several levels, including “343 Guilty Spark” and “The Maw,” are some of the most memorable video game levels of all time. Thanks to a remaster in 2011, Combat Evolved plays smoothly even by today’s standards, and remains a pillar within the sci-fi shooter genre and a gem among the classic early 2000s games.

Halo 2

Halo 2
With the introduction of dual wielding weapons, the Chief now had the ability to light up twice as many Grunts in combat.

The very first mission of this game involves you as the Master Chief jumping out of an airlock and flying through space to drop a bomb on top of a Covenant cruiser. Talk about an explosive entrance. This vibe of guerilla warfare against the Covenant is a staple of the rest of the game, and the introduction of new weapons, new vistas to explore, and the addition of the Arbiter, a disgraced Sangheili general as a playable character for half the campaign, was a fantastic combination that refreshed the experience. Getting a lens into the Covenant side of the conflict was a surprise and also a fascinating reveal, since it introduced the complexities of the relationships between the various races that comprise the religious alliance. And of course, with Halo 2 came the introduction of fully online multiplayer gameplay, which kicked off what is now almost 2 decades of professional competition and the groundwork for the E-Sports scene as a whole. Halo 2 had it all when it came to a riveting story, innovative gameplay, and of course, the soundtrack of a generation. 

Halo: Reach

Halo Reach
From left to right: Jorge, Carter, Emile, Kat, and Jun, the Spartans of Noble Team.

Halo is known for its emotionally charged storytelling. Throughout the initial trilogy, we saw the rise and fall of a number of beloved characters. But what made Reach the most heartbreaking of them all, is that as players, we knew how the story was going to end before we ever picked up a controller. 

The game’s story takes place on the planet Reach from the perspective of Noble Team, a specialized fireteam of Spartans that discover that the Covenant have found and begun a full scale invasion of the planet. You play as Noble 6, the newest member of the team, as you get to know your new squad while doing everything in your power to resist the invasion. It’s a losing battle, and everyone knows it. The fall of Reach is one of the most important and critical junctures of the war, something virtually all players knew about from having played the original trilogy. So there’s a sense of dread that exists while playing Reach, knowing you and your squad are doomed to perish but not knowing how, and not knowing what influence or support your sacrifice will have on the wider narrative. But it’s impossible to not grow fond of your team, and to feel the sting of their deaths as they fall one by one until you are the last one standing. Reach shines because it gives players a lens into just one of the many sacrifices that had to be made for the Master Chief to gain the necessary information and skills to finally defeat the Covenant. The Chief stands on the backs of millions who came before him, and Reach does a wonderful job showing players just exactly what that looks like. 

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments