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Article: 'Ranking Halo'

As the release date for Halo 4 slowly approaches what better time than now to revisit the previous entries into the series? Halo, almost entirely handled by Bungie studios, has been the flagship franchise for the Xbox and Xbox 360. From Halo: Combat Evolved to Halo Reach, we will attempt to rank every Halo game that helped define one of the biggest franchises of our generation.

#6 - Halo 3: ODST [2009]

Halo ODST was intended by Bungie to be a smaller project to appease fans waiting for the follow-up to Halo 3. Despite the humble beginnings of ODST it quickly expanded and became a full retail release that held up well against the other entries in the Halo universe.

ODST took players away from Master Chief and into the visor of the United Nations Space Command’s Orbital Drop Shock Troopers. These soldiers, despite being well trained and resourced, lack the ‘super human’ strength of master chief and in turn the gameplay was adjusted accordingly. Health reduced much quicker, movement was slower and the ability to survive large falls was removed. To counteract these weaknesses, suppressed weapons were added to encourage a stealthier approach to gameplay.

The most unique feature of ODST’s campaign however came in the form of its open-world hub level in which ‘flash-back levels’ could be triggered by finding ordinance that has been dropped by other troops. The almost exclusive dark and moody night setting created an interesting atmosphere that was unlike any of its predecessors.

Finally, ODST will be remembered for its Firefight game mode in which players co-operatively take on waves of enemies that are ever-increasing in difficulty which later was also expanded with the release of Halo: Reach.

Although a great game ODST felt much quieter than other Halo games, not necessarily pushing any boundaries but rather concentrating on telling a much more personal story.

#5 - Halo Wars [2009]

Completely departing from the FPS world Halo Wars brought the Halo universe into the realms of real-time strategy. Halo Wars was also the first Halo game to be developed by a studio other than Bungie, in this case responsibility fell on the shoulders of RTS veterans Ensemble Studios (best known for the Age of Empires series).

Handing responsibility of the Halo franchise over to Ensemble certainly paid off as Halo Wars arguably was the best example of the RTS genre on any console. The controls were tailored intuitively to the Xbox 360 controller, and this in turn made for a much smoother experience compared to other console offerings in the genre.

The game faithfully elaborated on the already well-established Halo lore with frequented acclaimed cut-scenes. These high production short videos looked incredible and depicted the on-going struggle between humanity and the Covenant with style and a great level of polish.

Halo Wars didn’t necessarily elaborate on the RTS genre through setting any new standards, but it did offer a magnificent RTS experience on console which is a huge achievement in itself. Fans of Halo who have never been introduced to the world of RTS games should seriously consider Halo Wars as an entry point.

#4 - Halo 2 [2004]

After the release of Halo: Combat Evolved Bungie had the immense pressure of releasing their sophomore game, Halo 2.

The game, whilst well received, also had its fair share of controversy. Firstly the introduction of the Arbiter, a defective Covenant Elite who would share a sizeable portion of the single player campaign fell as a huge shock to fans. Furthermore the campaign was cut short leaving a rather abrupt cliff-hanger ending which didn’t entirely work in the favour of Bungie.

Despite the mixed reception the campaign received, Halo 2 still upheld the same standard of gameplay that set Combat Evolved apart from the competition. In addition the immensely popular matchmaking modes which now define Halo as an experience were introduced in Halo 2, along with a number of other staple Halo features such as campaign Easter eggs like the skulls.

Other noted changes that could be found in Halo 2 included the introduction of weapon duel-wielding and the ever-so humiliating ability to car-jack vehicles. Of course who could also forget Sergeant Johnson who is pushed into the limelight with such glorious one-liners as “oh, I know what the ladies like” and “don’t make me take of my belt” – genius!

Halo 2 may have its flaws, but you have to respect a game that almost single-handily catapulted Xbox Live into the limelight and set the benchmark for console online multiplayer for years to come.

#3 - Halo 3 [2007]

The Xbox 360 already offered a good number of reasons to purchase the console during its first few years, but for latecomers it was the release of Halo 3 that made the console impossible to ignore. Releasing almost 2 years after the consoles debut, Halo 3 offered the first Halo game to hit the HD console generation and with that came improved graphics, bigger set-pieces and a much improved multiplayer component.

Thanks to the intuitive structure of Xbox Live on the Xbox 360, Halo 3’s matchmaking was extensively broadened. The ease of finding both strangers and friends to play with made the whole experience a huge leap beyond the service offered for Halo 2, allowing Bungie’s community vision to be fully realised. Building upon the surge of players also brought broader game modes and custom matchmaking. Complimenting this nicely also saw the release of a level editor in the form of Forge which was both quick and easy to grasp. At the time Halo 3’s package was unmatched in terms of features in a single retail release and really started to show how talented Bungie were as developers.

Halo 3’s campaign found Master Chief teaming up with the Arbiter throughout the whole campaign - which any secondary co-op player would fill the shoes of. The gameplay mechanic stayed the same but the levels got larger and more open. In addition the main enemy switched from Elites to Brutes helping to add some variety over the previous Halo games.

New gun types in the form of un-mounted heavy weapons and equipment mixed up the formula, and the number of vehicle types greatly expanded/developed. The introduction of Achievements also helped to encourage players to explore and presented some unique challenges which Bungie would place on offer for bragging rights.

Overall Halo 3 felt much more of a step-up compared to Halo 2. The improved matchmaking and benefits that the current generation of hardware could bring was well implemented and even today the game offers a substantial amount of replay value.

#2 - Halo: Reach [2010]

Halo Reach once again took control away from Master Chief, this time into the role of Spartan team Noble a band of experienced super soldiers each with their own unique armour and skill-set. The story came in the form of a prequel, depicting the Covenant invasion of the human occupied planet Reach during the year 2552.

Having a campaign that was detached from the ending of any other Halo game allowed Bungie to craft a more refined tale of events and the game felt less bogged down by previous story-threads. The increased number of on-screen team members allowed for better character development and thus made it easier to become attached to your squad mates. The single-player experience simply felt better structured, simpler and more enjoyable.

Halo Reach’s level design complimented co-op gameplay perfectly, and with a mixture of 2 players local/4 player on-line co-op there is plenty on offer to take advantage of. Multiplayer saw the introduction of armour abilities, weapon load-outs and customisable armour mixing-up the traditional offerings into a fresher direction. New game modes such as Invasion, a large scale objective game which would see new areas unlocked throughout the course of a game, took the magnitude of Halo to new levels.

Simply put Halo Reach was a better Halo because it told a closed story and put the characters of Noble Team at the forefront of its narrative. This gave more meaning to your actions and by the end of the game, even though any well-read Halo fan was aware of Noble Teams inevitable fate, it didn’t mean you cared any less. In fact, quite the opposite, as the last scenes depict an unexpectedly moving example of heroism and bravery.

#1 - Halo: Combat Evolved [2001]/Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary [2011]

Unsurprisingly for anyone who has played Combat Evolved the best Halo, in my opinion, is the first. Released as a launch title for the original Xbox the game sustained the crown of the consoles killer app for many years, but even then Bungie couldn’t have anticipated just how big Halo would become off the back of Halo: CE.

Thanks to its attention to detail and well-realised universe, Halo: CE kick-started a behemoth of a franchise that would define the Xbox brand for over a decade. The open-world shooter was virtually unheard of outside of the PC gaming market so to have it delivered to gamers in such a high standard package was mind-blowing at the time.

It is a testament to Halo: CE’s quality of gameplay that Halo has not changed beyond refinements over the past 10 years. The game holds up well even with the jump to the Xbox 360, as the recent Anniversary HD re-release proved.

Despite the lack of Xbox Live support the multiplayer component was a blast, especially when played via LAN.

Co-op campaign was as equally parts addictive as the multiplayer since multiple playthrough would easily yield radically different experiences thanks to the choice of approach it had on offer to completing levels. Most importantly people kept coming back to Halo: CE because it was fun. The physics engine made for some spectacular ‘incidents’, especially involving vehicles and explosives.

The campaign does suffer with a truly tedious level called The Library, but everything else is stellar. From beach landings in The Silent Cartographer to a precarious Warthog run during the games final closing chapter, every moment felt new and revolutionary and for this reason Halo: CE is number one on this list.

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