Halo: The Master Chief Collection is out next week, containing all four numbered Halo titles in a single enormous remastered collection. Our full review will be going live soon, but it's now the perfect time to look back at the franchise and remember why we still loved it. For us, it comes down to the levels, thirteen years of unforgettable set pieces, pulse-pounding moments, vehicular shenanigans and the freedom to experiment and improvise with our own strategies. So without further ado: the top ten most legendary Halo levels.
DIShonourable Mentions (nobody's perfect):
- The Library (Combat Evolved): Even Serious Sam fans will find this Flood-heavy brawl overlong and draining.
- Sacred Icon (Halo 2): The Arbiter's missions were all pretty naff, and this boring crawl through Forerunner ductwork takes the biscuit.
- Cortana (Halo 3): Horrible layout, horrible sphincter doors, horrible enemies, horrible art design, horrible period.
10: Metropolis (Halo 2)
Sergeant Johnson knows what the ladies like: grinding treads and awesome tanks. What's not to love? This level starts with a bang as you smash across a Covenant-occupied bridge in a Scorpion, snipe jackals, go on a shotgun rampage ("It's tight quarters on the other side, sir. Use this!"), blow up an entire Covenant task force in a gauss hog and finally leap onto the back of a Scarab to murder its crew.
Halo 2 may be the most inconsistent and unsatisfying campaign in the series, but damn, it has its moments.
9: New Alexandria (Reach)
Halo Reach is often remembered as being one of the least ambitious Halo singleplayer experiences, but its space combat section is still a fascinating change of pace. However, New Alexandria pips it to the post. Instead of railroading us into corridors or defence objectives, this moody and atmospheric mission allowed us to visit its three objectives in any order, flying over the cityscape and mixing exploration with tight close combat and varied sub-missions that were different each time.
Heck, even Nathan Fillion turned up for a secret cameo.
8: Regret (Halo 2)
One of the most offensively-minded levels in the Halo franchise is also one of its best. Your objective is simple -- assassinate the Prophet Of Regret by any means necessary -- with the Chief and two over-amped ODSTs butchering anything that stands in the way. Underwater voyages, tense grav lift shootouts and an all-out assault against Regret's honour guard were real highlights, not to mention punching the prophet's smug grin off his scaly face at the very end.
Sadly Halo 2's campaign then took a nosedive once a derpy rhyming cabbage monster made its embarrassing debut. Followed by Breaking Benjamin.
7: Shootout In Valhalla (Halo 4 Spartan Ops)
Halo 4's solid yet unmemorable campaign doesn't feature anywhere on this list due to its restrictive level design, but one mission from the ill-fated Spartan Ops DLC absolutely deserves a shout. Whereas most of the Spartan Ops levels were just rehashes of various ground-pounding objectives set in recycled maps, Shootout In Valhalla gave us infinitely respawning Mantis mechs and an entire Covenant fleet to take down, from Banshees to Hunters. It's the very definition of legendary.
Especially since Halo 4's base campaign only handed us a Mantis in what amounts to a corridor.
6: The Storm (Halo 3)
Halo 3 is probably the objectively best game in the series all-told (apart from its hopeless Cortana level) and we're spoiled for choice in terms of legendary levels. However, we reckon that The Storm takes some serious beating. After leading marine forces through a dense network of Covenant defences, facing off against jetpack brutes and turrets, we got our first taste of the new-and-improved Scarabs in an enormous freeform playground stuffed with rocket launchers, Mongeese and ramps to chuck them off.
Which wasn't even the climax, as a dozen well-armed Brutes, Warchief and a brace of hunters lay between us and the anti-air gun. Taking them down, then destroying the artillery, was immensely satisfying.
5: Assault On The Control Room/Two Betrayals (Combat Evolved)
We're not cheating here, because if you cast your mind back to the original Combat Evolved, Assault On The Control Room and Two Betrayals are literally the same level. Only played in reverse. This could have been a lazy and embarrassing oversight, except that both of these stages are absolutely incredible.
Assault On The Control Room was a masterpiece of pacing as we slunk through tight corridors, engaged in epic bridge shootouts, then suddenly gasped in amazement as the level opened up with squads of marines, Ghosts, Warthogs and a Scorpion tank at our disposal. Hell, even a Banshee if you were fast and cunning enough to snag it before the Elite pilot. As such, each attempt was never the same, and there was room to experiment with numerous potential strategies.
Two Betrayals, conversely, was a more soulful affair as we worked our way back through the level under cover of darkness and faced some of the biggest battles in the entire series. The Covenant and The Flood engaged each other with extreme prejudice as picked our own way through the carnage; whether sniping, sliding a Ghost into the mix, raining down rockets or taking advantage of the confusion. Either way, what could have been a limp recycle job became one of the biggest highlights of the series.
4: Halo (Combat Evolved)
Halo: Combat Evolved proved that FPS games didn't just work on consoles, they could thrive. Halo was our first taste of that. Following the straightforward opening level that lulled us into a false sense of security, the game suddenly opened out, revealed a lush expansive map, showed off the advanced ambient occlusion effects, then handed us a Warthog and told us to rescue three squads of marines in any order.
Halo the franchise is a combat sandbox and Halo the level was our first go at hooning about in vehicles, nailing jumps and experimenting with various different weapons and squadmates. I still remember playing this in splitscreen at a friend's house, after which I started saving for an Xbox.
A revelation, but sorry Felix, in my estimation it's not quite the best the series has to offer.
3: New Mombasa (ODST)
ODST's sidestory campaign certainly had plenty of surprises and some cool set pieces, but for us, New Mombasa itself steals the show. Stealthily picking through this abandoned overwpr;d city was a totally unique experience as we evaded Brute patrols, quietly dispatched foes with our silenced pistol and grooved to Marty O'Donnell's wailing sax soundtrack.
Intricate level design makes New Mombasa fantastic from a freeform gameplay standpoint, but the foreboding mournful atmosphere seals the deal. We haven't seen anything like it before or since.
2: The Covenant (Halo 3)
Two Scarabs. Two!
A massive vehicular assault against a pair of colossal war machines brings this utterly superb level to a close, but it's just the cherry on the cake. From close-quarters ground pounding to Human/Elite joint operations and the shocking deaths of two main characters, there's no denying that The Covenant is a roller-coaster from pulse-pounding start to epic finish. Better yet, it's open enough to allow for numerous strategies, vehicles and repeat runs that are different every time you play.
1: The Silent Cartographer (Combat Evolved)
"We're approaching the LZ. It's going to be hot. Get set to come out swinging."
"Touchdown, hit it Marines!"
The Silent Cartographer isn't just the best level in the Halo series; it's one of the best levels in any first person shooter. After a cinematic in-engine swoop over the azure ocean and the iconic beach assault, you'll find yourself on an island with a Warthog, a squad of marines and... well, the rest is up to you. You're free to explore the island's sprawling surface before prying down into the depths, discovering a network of tunnels and dark secrets populated by Covenant elite forces.
Followed by an all-out assault as you slaughter your way back out of the facility to the blaring overdriven riffs of Rock Anthem For Saving The World. Of course, most of us used an exploit to smuggle a jeep and marine gunners into the tunnels, resulting in a hilariously overpowered exit. Either way, I wish that the rest of the game industry had copied this enormous open level design rather than the easy-to-emulate two weapon limit and other smaller contrivances.
The Master Chief Collection is set to come out swinging next week. Stay tuned for the latest, and share your favourite Halo memories in the comments! I'll also field questions, at least, those I can answer.