As is usually the case with my gaming posts, I write this if only to make sure the embarrassing amount of time I spent on it doesn’t go entirely to waste.
With Halo 5: Guardians less than two weeks away, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into the campaign (which we still know very little about). Taking levels only from the core games of the series (1-3, ODST and Reach), I quickly ordered them into loose tiers and ranked them from there. Given that I’m one of perhaps 50 people in the world who cares more about Halo’s campaigns than the multiplayer, I decided to do a quick ranking for the benefit of the other 49. If you’re one of those people, welcome! We have punch.
The Dregs (and Intro Sequences) of Halo.
These missions vary from intro and outro cutscenes (which I count as missions but place at the bottom by default), unmitigated failures (most of the Flood levels) and interesting but short transitional levels.
#65) Noble Actual (Mission 1- Halo: Reach)
There’s nothing inherently wrong, here. Just the least interesting of the cutscene levels.
#64) Arrival (Mission 1- Halo 3)
Same as before, just slightly more interesting. Cortana is gone. Arbiter isn’t. Let’s Halo.
#63) Prologue (Mission 1- Halo 4)
Halsey’s interrogation is sort of fun, as is the hyper-stylized Spartan/Brute fight. Other than that, this is mercifully short.
#62) Prepare to Drop (Mission 1- Halo 3: ODST)
This would be higher if it weren’t so tedious on replay. The conversation between the Squad in the very beginning in particular makes me very glad they don’t spend much time as a full unit in ODST. Almost painful.
#61) Epilogue (Mission 9- Halo 4)
Halo 4’s typical crypticism is on full display here, and to good effect.
#60- The Heretic/The Armory (Mission 1/2- Halo 2)
The best of the cutscene levels is really two levels, with a tutorial sequence neatly mashed in. Few games since have been able to do that as smoothly.
#59- The Library (Mission 7- Halo: Combat Evolved)
Come on, you knew this would be the worst actual level. Though it improves mightily in co-op (as do all the Flood levels), it’s just too frustratingly simple to rank any higher here. I get the concept, it just doesn’t work that well.
#58- Cortana (Mission 9- Halo 3)
Basically the same concept as the Library, executed slightly better. Bonus points for being legitimately disgusting (finding a good screenshot for this level was quite difficult).
#57- Floodgate (Mission 5- Halo 3)
The best of the three Flood-only levels by virtue of its short length, interesting visuals and new enemies (!!!).
#56- Dawn (Mission 2- Halo 4)
As an into to Halo 4? Atmospheric and great. As an actual level? It’s like four rooms. Even on Legendary it takes maybe 15 minutes to complete.
#55- Lone Wolf (Mission 11- Halo: Reach)
Sort of the same idea as above. A great capper to Reach’s story, a lackluster level. Really just one fight that lasts as long as you want it to.
#54- Tayari Plaza (Mission 3- Halo 3: ODST)
First thing first: the gap between these last two levels is massive. That being said, Tayari Plaza is not as good as a Nathan Fillion solo level should be. Some cool atmospheric effects, though.
#53- Data Hive (Mission 9- Halo 3: ODST)
Sometimes this level can feel like a real slog. Too much of the same corridor, which is never when Halo is at its best.
#52- Kizingo Boulevard (Mission 4- Halo 3: ODST)
A tank level, this low? This should give some evidence of how good most of these games are.
#51- The Pillar of Autumn (Mission 1- Halo: Combat Evolved)
As fine an opener as you could ask for, this level is tainted a bit in retrospect by what immediately follows it.
#50- Kikowani Station (Mission 8- Halo 3: ODST)
The darkest level in the entire Halo series, probably, this one is best remembered for its frantic Scarab fight and not much else.
#49- High Charity (Mission 13- Halo 2)
The best “bad” level is a great showcase for how threatening the Flood are without falling prey to the pitfalls that hurt the Flood only levels. Some great crossfires and environments, here.
The Middle of the Pack
These levels constitute the bulk of the Halo campaign experience. Not great, but not bad, they’re the levels you tend to forget about when you’re not playing them. A lot of Reach and ODST levels make it in here.
#48- Nightfall (Mission 4- Halo: Reach)
A level that sounds much cooler than it is (which is a common problem in Reach, Nightfall can be a bit of a struggle and isn’t punctuated by enough to distinguish it from the Halo: CE level it desperately is trying to best.
#47- NMPD HQ (Mission 6- Halo 3: ODST)
Maybe the best skybox in all of Halo doesn’t do much to help how short and repetitive this level can be. Hell of an ending sequence, though.
#46- The Package (Mission 9- Halo: Reach)
The way this level differentiates itself from an earlier level in the same playspace is remarkable, but the only thing to distinguish it is the overlong ending sequence.
#45- Sacred Icon (Mission 9- Halo 2)
The Arbiter was supposed to be more stealthy than his Spartan counterpart in Halo 2. This level is the only time that ever really comes into play.
#44- The Arbiter (Mission 4- Halo 2)
Our introduction to the eponymous Elite is short-lived, and slightly outclassed by its direct successor.
#43- 343 Guilty Spark (Mission 6- Halo: Combat Evolved)
Heavily atmospheric and greatly important, Guilty Spark still suffers from some deliberately confusing level design in its latter half.
#42- Winter Contingency (Mission 2- Halo: Reach)
A great introduction to the specific members of Noble Team and the imposing scenery of Reach, this level suffers for bringing nothing else than that.
#41- The Oracle (Mission 5- Halo 2)
The second half of the Arbiter’s first paired levels is much better than its predecessor by virtue of a clear villain and a frenzied pace.
#40- Shutdown (Mission 7- Halo 4)
Visually intoxicating if frustratingly padded in its objectives. Also the Pelican is hilariously overpowered.
#39- Keyes (Mission 8- Halo: Combat Evolved)
The worst offender in H:CE’s tendency to re-use architecture sees 75% of its playspace roughly identical to a previous level. What’s new is great fun, but there’s not enough of it.
#38- Tsavo Highway (Mission 4- Halo 3)
A level that is never quite as big as it seems suffers from a real lack of context and direction. Some great vehicle sequences, though.
#37- Coastal Highway (Mission 10- Halo 3: ODST)
The second and better of the “Highway” levels benefits from its final sequence and is a stirring climax to ODST’s story.
#36- The Pillar of Autumn (Mission 10- Halo: Reach)
Reach’s epic capper is perhaps warning that too much winking reference to previous games is not a great thing.
#35- Tip of the Spear (Mission 4- Halo: Reach)
The mission that perhaps most sounds better on paper than it plays is still greatly benefited by co-op play.
#34- Sierra 117 (Mission 2- Halo 3)
The slithery, naturalistic forest this level takes place in is one of the great Halo locations. Probably harder than most opening levels have a right to be.
#33- Cairo Station (Mission 3- Halo 2)
The best Halo opening level travels inside and outside of one discreet location and breathlessly introduces all sorts of new gameplay features.
These are a level below greatness, but still exemplify the Halo series’s generally great level design and pacing, just in shorter and less memorable bursts than the very best levels. Here’s where most of Halo 4’s levels reach: just short of excellence.
#32- ONI: Sword Base (Mission 3- Halo: Reach)
The best Halo levels can generally be categorized in one of two ways: a linear trek through unfamiliar terrain (an Adventure Level), or the non-linear defense of a specific area (a Base Level). This is one of the better example of the latter, focusing in and around one particular base. Each area feels and plays distinctly, and is nicely punctuated by vehicle sequence. A fine level, one of the best in Reach.
#31- Uplift Reserve (Mission 4- Halo 3: ODST)
A strange mix of the two styles I just described, Reserve is essentially a series of small non-linear maps approached in linear order. The progression of these modules and the vehicular combat therein is what makes this level simple, short, and very sweet.
#30- Reclaimer (Mission 6- Halo 4)
The Mammoth Tank (the hilariously oversized thing pictured above) is one of the better examples of perhaps the third type of great Halo level: the moving piece of geometry. I say perhaps because none of the levels that have featured this have been comprised solely of it, but it’s common enough that it deserves recognition. This level falls into a rut once you leave the Mammoth, but while you’re in it, the game throws everything it has at you, and comes alive.
#29- The Storm (Mission 5- Halo 3)
An early game climax and the last Halo level where the Chief engages the Covenant on Earth. The Scarab fight is the centerpiece, but the involved fight through a warehouse later on always plays better to me.
#28- The Truth and Reconciliation (Mission 3- Halo: Combat Evolved)
A giant, sprawling level that goes from an emergent, fluid series of canyon fights to a corridor slog. This level is very good when it’s right and very bad when it isn’t, but the good outweighs the bad thanks mainly to the setting and the excess of Sniper Rifles on hand. To think — this is the third mission of the very first Halo game.
#27- ONI: Alpha Site (Mission 6- Halo 3: ODST)
An even better Defense Level and perhaps the best traditional level in all of ODST, Alpha Site strikes a perfect tone of desperate escape mixed with stalwart defense. Every bit of the playspace is used effectively.
#26- Quarantine Zone (Mission 9- Halo 2)
One of the longer levels in Halo 2 is greatly buoyed by it’s electic vehicle sequences. One of the best co-op levels in all of Halo.
#25- Composer (Mission 8- Halo 4)
Another level greatly improved by co-op, Composer is an interesting derivation on the Defense Level theme.
#24- Requiem (Mission 3- Halo 4)
By their own admittance, 343 Industries’ goal with Halo 4 was to recapture the sense of cavalier exploration and wonderment that the original Halo captured at its best, and nowhere is that goal more clear than in this level. The Master Chief is alone and lost, and slowly comes to understand his surroundings in this exceptionally well-paced level. Getting to the point where most levels are great, here.
#23- Crow’s Nest (Mission 3- Halo 3)
Probably the best example of a Defense Level in the entire series, Crow’s Nest sends the player(s) all over every inch of a UNSC base, and then back again, without ever being confusing or boring.
#22- Midnight (Mission 11- Halo 4)
Lackluster quick-time events aside, Halo 4 ends as rousingly as one could hope. The A New Hope inspired trench run is a particular highlight, as is the final series of battles around the Composer.
#21- The Great Journey (Mission 15- Halo 2)
To judge Halo 2’s final level is to accept two conceits: one, the Scarab is awesome. Two, it wasn’t even supposed to be the last level to begin with. We’ll never know what the full, uncut version of Halo 2 was going to be, but what we got is pretty good.
#20- Infinity (Mission 5- Halo 4)
So many of Halo 4’s levels fall right into the category of “very good,” but few (really just one) come closer to greatness than this shifting, diffusive trek through a jungle, a crash site and titantic UNSC ship. Master Chief’s return to the fold is a triumphant one.
#19- Exodus (Mission 7- Halo: Reach)
Reach is treacly at worst, but at best, it’s downright mournful. Noble Six’s defense of a doomed city is equal parts tragic and exhilarating. Like trying to hold sand. But the sand is on fire. Like its sister level (which will appear later), Exodus is magnificent.
#18- Metropolis (Mission 5- Halo 2)
The centerpiece of the opening act of Halo 2 isn’t quite as good as what comes before it, but is neatly divided into so many distinct set pieces and conflicts (the bridge, the amphitheater, the city center) that it never comes across as anything but extremely memorable.
#17- Assault on the Control Room (Mission 5- Halo: Combat Evolved)
Halo as longform. Built around several derivations of the same small room and punctuated with several expansive, emergent open air sequences, AotCR is still an odyssey and still a great, great level.
#16- Uprising (Mission 13- Halo 2)
This infamously quiet level is both showpiece for the Arbiter as a character and a symbol for his people. Uprising clearly marks the beginning of the Covenant Civil War and the beginning of the end for Tartarus and the Prophet of Truth. Also, it’s gorgeous.
Kings of the Mountain
These are the levels most Halo players know by heart; the levels that best represent the series’ pacing, level design, art design, scope and overall quality. A lot of open world-style levels here, since that’s where Halo is generally at its best.
#15- Two Betrayals (Mission 8- Halo: Combat Evolved)
The mirror image of Assault on the Control Room, Betrayals starts off with a revelation and then becomes one. The scope of this level, even 14 years later, is still incredible. The Banshee sequences are the best the series has yet produced, and while the objectives are dull to the point of irrelevance, they’re the best proof that the plot of a Halo level isn’t as important as the form of one.
#14- Forerunner (Mission 4- Halo 4)
The one great Halo 4 level is also the only one to feature that old Halo staple: being stuck between two warring factions. Playing the Storm Covenant and Forerunner Prometheans against one another could have supported several levels, but this one, with its easy plotting and three distinct play areas, will do just nicely.
#13- Outskirts (Mission 4- Halo 2)
Outskirts takes the modular approach to its logical extreme with several distinctly different sections: the courtyard defense to start, the alleyway sniper battles, the beachfront assault and the tunnel chase, perfectly balanced between on foot and vehicle sections. Halo 2’s thesis statement.
#12- Mombasa Streets (Mission “2”- Halo 3: ODST)
When people refer to ODST as “the Experimental Halo,” this level is what they have in mind. Less a level than an overworld the player returns to after each flashback level, Mombasa Streets is, by square mileage, easily the largest and longest Halo level. Chocked full of gloomy atmosphere, difficult enemies, a low key blues soundtrack and a bevy of unlockables to find.
#11- Halo (Mission 10- Halo 3)
There’s a fine line between fan service and fan indulgence; a fine line between callbacks and catchphrases. Halo, the second level under such a name, walks those lines precisely, acting almost as a summation of everything that made the first game so good. A snowy climb. A final stand. A glorious, glorious Warthog run. It says goodbye to a beloved character and puts the Master Chief on ice for nearly 5 years. The perfect capper to the Classic Trilogy.
#10- New Alexandria (Mission 8- Halo: Reach)
Sort of a simplified version of Mombasa Streets, New Alexandria is interesting because it takes place in an already conquered city. Like rats escaping a sinking ship, the player’s job is to save whomever they can before getting out. Rainy and non-linear to a fault, NA is a long, slow-burn of a level, with its own distinct mood and tone never quite reached again by the series.
#9- Regret (Mission 9- Halo 2)
The second half of the single best “Adventure Level” in the series, Regret journeys above, around and below a giant lake on Delta Halo, all in pursuit of the Prophet of Mercy. The climax is perhaps a little on the lame side, and the underwater section often looks better than it plays, but everything else is pitch perfect, for co-op or otherwise.
#8- Long Night of Solace (Mission 6- Halo: Reach)
LNoS travels further than any other Halo level, easily. What starts at a secret beach facility ends re-entering Reach orbit without a ship. Between then, the player travels into space, defends a station, attacks a Corvette, raids a bridge and defends a hangar bay. All clearly delineated and greatly fun in their own way. Reach’s best level with ease.
#7- Delta Halo (Mission 8- Halo 2)
The first half of the Greatest Adventure Level, Delta Halo starts with an occasionally sloggy defense section before ramping up from Warthogs to Scorpions to sniper canyons to Honor Guards. Probably the most gorgeous Halo 2 level (look at the remastered version above), is also one of the most varied, and best.
#6- The Maw (Mission 10- Halo: Combat Evolved)
The final mission all other final missions talk about in hushed tones, the Maw completely justifies Bungie’s predilection for re-using geography by bringing everything back to where it started. The Engineering and Warthog run sections don’t hurt, either. And that music…
#5- Halo (Mission 2- Halo: Combat Evolved)
Nothing better exemplifies what Halo is than this eponymous level. Beginning with that iconic view of the first Halo ring, this level winds back and forth across the ring’s surface, saving Marines and firmly establishing the cavalier sense of wonderment and exploration that so characterizes the first game.
#4- Gravemind (Mission 12- Halo 2)
Sometimes, you’ll see people refer to Halo as a “corridor shooter,” because doing something 25% of the time apparently defines you. That being said, if Halo were a corridor shooter, it could hardly do better than to use Gravemind as a template (sidenote: I’ve never understood why this level and High Charity didn’t switch names). Long and involved without being repetitive, Gravemind succeeds in funneling the player through the Covenant’s holy city for two reasons. One, the player does so in the middle of a goddamn civil war, and two, because the introduction of the Brutes is so interesting narratively (but not necessarily in gameplay). Throw in a shell-shocker of a finale, and Gravemind stands as Halo 2’s best level and the best linear level in the entire series.
#3- The Covenant (Mission 8- Halo 3)
Some levels look better on paper. Some levels are more than the sum of their parts. The Covenant is assuredly the latter. I’ve been rambling a bit to close this out, so suffice it to say that the Covenant is the biggest and baddest climactic level you could ever hope to end a story thread with. Also there’s a great flying sequence.
#2- The Silent Cartographer (Mission 4- Halo: Combat Evolved)
The platonic ideal of a Halo level; a short, open level that can be completed in any order and in any style. The few linear segments are intensely hard and the many open segments intensely rewarding. An essentially perfect experience.
#1- The Ark (Mission 7- Halo 3)
What’s better than an essentially perfect experience? A practically perfect one. The Ark is massive, mysterious, enthralling and more importantly than that, it perfectly captures every possible module of Halo’s gameplay. Long vehicular sequences, a climactic boss fight, a defense section, a sniping section, a corridor section, even a one-on-one Brute Chieftain fight. It’s hard to really explain what makes this level so uniformly great, so I’ll just link to it for the first and only time in this project.