I was younger than 10 when I first played Halo 1 with an older brother. I've played the games countless times over the years, and few other games are this dear to me. The immortal soundtrack is only one element of the masterpiece.
I wasn't sure about reviewing a game this old, but I think with the PC remasters, even Halo 1 will stay relevant for a long time. And recently (as of this writing) I've soloed Halo 1, Reach, 2, and 3 on legendary, so since I probably won't be doing that for the others, I want to give some closure to the experience by writing a review.
The games I'll be talking about are only Halo 1, 2, 3, and Reach, because those are the only ones I replayed recently. Also, I've never played Halo on PC, only on Xbox.
There is a single significant flaw with the core design, and this is something I didn't diagnose until near the end of my time with the series, my solo legendary Halo 3 run: being too careful never gets you killed. There are many exceptions (fighting Flood, keeping marines alive), but for most Covenant encounters, the more careful, the better, which means playing on legendary tends to be very tedious and not as interesting as playing on heroic because you don't get to do bold things. You just have to wait behind cover, pick someone off and then hide and recharge your shields, and repeat.
In Halo 1, you have a recharging shield and non-recharging health. The split works out well because using your shields is part of good play but taking health damage is generally a mistake, so it acts as a sort of "mistake buffer".
Halo 1-3 and Reach have good stories. It's hardly fair to criticize the typical issues of sci-fi worldbuilding in a work where the setting is an afterthought to the game, and other than that, each game has a decent plot. The Arbiter in Halo 2 and 3 really enhances the story as the only character who really develops. I really like how Halo 2 manages several different plot threads at once; multiple groups of characters drive change at the same time, instead of one group driving everything. The writers also understand the importance of killing characters. But that's all I'll say for now, since the story is the least remarkable aspect of these games.
The balance between weapons has never been great. In Halo 1, the Assault Rifle, Plasma Rifle, and Needler are pretty much irrelevant. Elite encounters on legendary revolve around the Plasma Pistol / human Pistol combo so much that it gets a bit boring. The Plasma Pistol is overpowered because it's both a must-have against Elites and also perfectly good against Grunts and Jackals if you can pull the trigger fast enough.
In general, automatic weapons are underpowered in all Halo games. You almost always want a long-range, headshot capable weapon because headshots are so important, and a Plasma Pistol for your secondary because it's the only practical way to deal with Elites on legendary. Picking up a machine gun for a close-range encounter always left me underwhelmed by the damage they deal (dual wielding in Halo 2 and 3 makes them usable, but is not always available and has enough downsides that I rarely used it).
In terms of enemies, one thing I like is that there isn't a strict hierarchy. Roughly, it's Grunt -> Jackal -> Elite -> Hunter, but Grunts can throw grenades and drive vehicles, which Jackals can't. I actually think Elites are generally more dangerous than Hunters by themselves, at least if you don't have the Elite combo, but Hunters make better support for other enemies because they'll come chase you out of cover, and generally can't be picked off from range.
As for the Flood, I wish infection forms were more dangerous. As-is, your shield can absorb tons of them even on legendary, and if you don't have shields, it's super easy to dodge the infection forms until they can recharge. I like that in Halo 2 they made them instant kill if your shields are down instead of just taking one block of health, but I wish they'd buffed them more.
I actually prefer fighting the Flood to the Covenant for a couple of reasons:
They're never a "pick someone off, hide, recharge, repeat" slog because the Flood actually come at you, something I wish the Convenant did more often.
You can avoid almost all damage against the Flood with good play, because many of them are only dangerous at point-blank range and the ones with long-range weapons can be dodged much more effectively than the Covenant due to their poor tracking.
Halo uses an automatic checkpoint system. This is a good system in general, but there are some flaws with the implementation:
It's just very finicky. Sometimes you don't get a checkpoint after a fight the first time, but when you die and do that fight again, you do get one. Sometimes it doesn't give you one when you really need one (like on Assault on the Control Room if you take the banshee off the bridge and go to the door), and I can only hope the devs intended there to be one there. Sometimes you get a checkpoint halfway through a fight just because you picked off a Grunt, but other times you don't even get one between waves of enemies. Sometimes it gives you a checkpoint before you enter a fight, then you fire a rocket, miss, hide, and boom another checkpoint! Wouldn't want to try that first rocket again if you die, would you? It seems like it's just very badly programmed and it never gets fixed in the later games.
You have no recourse if it gives you a bad checkpoint. I've been in some situations before where I get a checkpoint in a near-unwinnable situation: no health, no ammo for any good guns, just lost the vehicle you're supposed to have, etc. You can't go back to the checkpoint before the latest one. These situations are pretty rare and I've never seen one that was truly unwinnable, but it's a problem.
In co-op, if one of you dies the other can get to safety and respawn them. This mechanic is sadly very abusable:
You respawn with full health and weapons that might be better than what you had or at least provide ammo refills, which means dying literally helps you if you don't lose any good stuff. Though on the bright side, this is sometimes a defense against bad checkpoints.
Two people can "cheese" through most hard encounters by repeatedly sending one player in to kill something and die while the other stays in a safe spot to respawn them. It can get very tempting since there's not always a clear line between this and playing "the real way".
Halo 1 did some weird stuff with vehicles. Covenant vehicles have a health meter like your own and can be destroyed (they don't have shields). But human vehicles are indestructible; instead the driver takes damage when the vehicle does. I never liked the latter mechanic.
My favorite vehicle in all Halo games has always been the Ghost (agile one-person Covenant ground vehicle), because it's usable with only one player and has a much higher skill cap than the Scorpion (human tank, slow but powerful) since its main strength is agility. In the right hands, a Ghost can dodge rockets and Hunter shots, splatter (run over) enemies, outmaneuver and defeat enemy Ghosts, mow down a batallion of Elites and an almost infinite number of Grunts and Jackals, and can even kill Wraiths (Convenant tanks) through attrition! It's a bit tedious, but since you can dodge Wraith shots consistently at a distance, it's the best option - it consumes no ammo and doesn't even get the Ghost damaged if done properly.
Halo 2's aim assist was much more noticeable than Halo 1's, and honestly felt like a hindrance as much as an aid. It's not unusual that the Halo 2 aim assist makes me miss. It's often dragging my reticule inbetween two enemies or messing up my vertical axis to target an enemy I don't want when I try to move horizontally from one to the next.
Halo 2 mostly took away the concept of player health as separate from shields. You still have a little more HP after your shield, but it regenerates too, you can't see it and there's much less of it. I understand not wanting health that could take persistent damage, but I cannot understand not showing it.
Halo 2 also makes the player much less resilient than Halo 1, and at least to me, is easily the hardest of these games. You die so quickly that it cuts off tactical options, including anything involving close range combat for the most part. Even moving between nearby pieces of cover is often not safe.
On that note: they made all vehicles destroyable, and you can't see your vehicle's health anymore (although you do get a vague indication from the visible state of the vehicle). And - Halo 1 used this as an alternative to vehicles to being destroyable, but Halo 2 does both - all vehicles are now subject to the player taking damage when the vehicle does, which makes it nearly impossible to defeat an enemy Ghost in a Ghost on legendary (easy in Halo 1). You're almost better off on foot, using your Ghost as cover.
A big thing they added with vehicles was the ability to hijack them. Holding X near an enemy vehicle lets you jump on it, kick the driver out and replace him. I like the feature because it adds counterplay to enemy vehicles when you don't have one yourself. Enemy Elites and Brutes can do it to you too, of course.
That's probably also why they gave Wraiths a machine gun turret, because otherwise hijacking them would be too easy. I'm kind of sad about that though because it makes them less strategic. Wraiths no longer benefit from infantry or Ghost support, because they have it built in. On the other hand, the turret is controlled from a different seat and you can shoot the gunner out.
There are also some confusing quirks about the hijack mechanic, like sometimes you can hijack a Wraith this way, but other times jumping on it only offers you to throw in a grenade which destroys it, and not to drive it. I never figured out the rule.
They added a new vehicles called the Spectre, which is like a Covenant Warthog (separate driver and gunner, both exposed, plus passenger seats) but moves more like a Ghost.
They also gave all Covenant vehicles a brief boost ability, which limits maneuverability and prevents firing the main gun while boosting. Mostly useful for retreating or occasionally splattering.
Weapons and enemies
Halo 2 replaces the Assault Rifle with the SMG, which is dual-wieldable. The Human Pistol is nerfed to be more like you'd expect a pistol to be (it actually fires much faster), and is dual-wieldable. You don't end up using it much because they introduce the Battle Rifle, a 3-round burst gun with a 2x scope that takes on the role of the old Pistol.
Halo 2 also adds a lot of new weapons: the Fuel Rod Gun (Convenant Rocket Launcher), Beam Rifle (Convenant Sniper Rifle), Carbine (Convenant Battle Rifle), Brute Shot (Convenant grenade launcher), Brute Plasma Rifle (almost the same as the normal Plasma Rifle), Energy Sword, and Sentinel Beam which can be picked up from Sentinels and is mostly effective against the Flood.
I think the Fuel Rod Gun, Beam Rifle and Carbine were mistakes because they're just Convenant versions of existing human weapons, so they bring nothing new to the experience. In fact, they do the opposite because they mean that Arbiter missions play exactly the same as Master Chief missions, whereas they could've been more interesting with a different arsenal of weapons.
Halo 1 weapons were almost all unique. The Plasma Pistol is different from the human Pistol besides the type of damage it deals and the Needler has no human equivalent at all. The Assault Rifle / Plasma Rifle are the only pair of overly similar weapons.
The Plasma Pistol was nerfed a bit (it's less effective against non-Elite enemies) but still a must-have against Elites, and in fact even more so because of your reduced HP! Use anything else and the Elite probably kills you long before you can drop their shields.
And with the introduction of dual wielding, there are some Elites who dual-wield Plasma Rifles. Cue the player dying twice as fast, as if one didn't kill you fast enough in this game.
It also features enemy snipers using the Beam Rifle, which on legendary kill you in one hit. Combine that with being often hidden and insanely fast to line up their shots, and they become totally unfun to fight and often induce trial and error because they kill you before you can possibly know they're there. I often had to get killed by the same one several times to figure out where he was.
Hunters got a ridiculous buff. Their shield bash is now an instant kill and seems to be totally undodgeable, making it almost impossible to get behind them; they gained an overhead shield bash move that hits behind them if you do get there; and they're not ultra-weak to a headshot weapon to the back. It seems like it's no longer supposed to be possible for one person to beat a pair of them on legendary (which was easy in Halo 1 if you had a Pistol, and not too difficult without). You never have to because you always either have allies or can run past them.
The Flood Combat Forms also got an insane buff to their HP, to the point where if you're using anything other than a Sentinel Beam or an Energy Sword, they feel invincible on legendary. It's like shooting at Elites. Oh and the Shotgun got nerfed to the point of being mediocre even against Combat Forms. It has much smaller clips and only one-shots them at point-blank range.
The checkpointing got much worse. It usually gives you one when you need one but Halo 2 has a serious penchant for giving you checkpoints in danger, including when literally in an insta-kill sniper's sights. It's so bad that the devs had to add an emergency mechanic: if you die soon enough after a checkpoint about 4 times in a row, it sends you back to the checkpoint before it. The problem is so bad that this happened to me 5 times on my legendary run. Oh, and it's not optional! 3 of those times, I didn't want to go back to the previous checkpoint. I knew I was in a winnable position and that it wouldn't make things any better if I lost some progress. And since I have no way of knowing exactly how quickly you have to die to invoke that mechanic, sometimes I would fear this happening and deliberately use a strategy that I didn't think was my best try but would drag out my attempt longer to interrupt the streak of immediate deaths.
They changed one thing about the respawn mechanic: it's not a thing (either one of you dying sends you back to the checkpoint), but only on legendary. On other difficulties it's the same. As far as I know Halo 2 on legendary is the only combination of game and difficulty that doesn't have respawning.
Besides that, there's another major change to co-op: the screen is split the wrong damn way! In every other Halo game, co-op splits the screen top and bottom. In Halo 2, you get left and right. I can't overstate how terrible this is and it's amazing that the devs didn't realize it in testing. In Halo, seeing to your sides is much more important than seeing above. Not being able to see more than a 90 degree angle in front of you leads to countless deaths that feel like they weren't the players' fault because you can't possibly know where all the enemies are. Combine with the "either one of you dying makes you lose" on legendary, and with just how much more fragile you are in Halo 2 than in other Halo games, and it makes for quite a frustrating experience.
The other Halo games don't really have boss fights, but Halo 2 has several: the Heretic, Prophet of Regret, and Tartarus. While I like the idea of boss fights, all of these kind of suck for having rules that are not well explained and placing importance on things other than the player's ability (Johnson's accuracy against Tartarus, where the Prophet goes when you're on his chair, etc).
Halo 3 has an interesting mechanic since you're with the Arbiter more often than not: the Arbiter is an immortal ally, but he can be defeated temporarily and get back up after the fight. I like how this mechanic works compared to the immortal allies in Reach because you have to fight with the Arbiter to maximize his value, or else he goes down and leaves you alone.
Halo 3 did a great job of balancing the Jackal Beam Rifle snipers with the following changes (they still one-shot you on legendary):
They're much slower to aim
The Beam Rifle glows, which makes it possible to spot them first without carefully inspecting every pixel of the screen after every step
I never had any super frustrating experiences with snipers in Halo 3.
Weapons and vehicles
Halo 3 did something weird with the Assault Rifle / SMG: it has both. The Assault Rifle is more powerful but the SMG can be dual-wielded. Anyway, neither is good enough to be something you carry around outside of rare circumstances.
They also introduce a few more guns, including the Spiker, a dual-wieldable automatic weapon used by the Brutes (replacing the Brute Plasma Rifle), and the Mauler, a dual-wieldable shotgun used by the Brutes. Because the Brutes need their own version of everything.
New vehicles also include the Chopper (a Brute vehicle similar to a Ghost but less maneuverable, more damaging and destroys other vehicles by boosting into them), and the Prowler, a redesign of the Spectre that only the Brutes use.
A weird mechanic they added in Halo 3 is that a charged Plasma Pistol shot disables vehicles' movement! It's weird and I think it's stupid, but at least enemies rarely do it and it doesn't disable firing.
Halo 3 added the concept of "equipment", which are one-time use abilities you can pick up and carry only one of that aren't grenades. They include a deployable dome shield, a floating stationary turret, a gravity lift, invisibility (which works like in Halo 1 but you choose when to activate it), and others. The bubble shield in particular is very useful.
The checkpointing might be the best out of the three, but it still has the isuses of Halo 1. There was one situation in my legendary run where I wanted to take advantage of the checkpoint-before-last mechanic. I killed myself immediately 6 times in a row with a grenade, but apparently the mechanic was removed. Pity. Why can't it just be an option? Why does no game have that? It's such a simple solution to the obvious problems with automatic checkpoint systems in games with persistent status.
Reach did something wonderful with health: it brought back a visible health bar that only regenerates to a certain extent. Makes it feel like a return to the glory of Halo 1. If only it wasn't the first game where the music took a Modern Warfare direction.
Reach put the most effort into the story and characters. The story follows Noble Team instead of a single Spartan, Noble Team dies one by one, and the interactions between them are entertaining.
There is one egregious, disturbing scene on the first mission that portrays a Spartan using utterly needless violence against a civilian and legitimizes it: after killing some Covenant, teammate Jorge drags a traumatized, resisting survivor out of hiding and refuses to let her go until she holds still, because apparently he's into power tripping. It's horrifying that the writers thought this was okay.
You're almost always with another member of Noble Team through Reach's campaign. They're very important, especially because they're completely invincible, and I honestly wish they weren't. They trivialize literally any enemy attack as long as it's hitting them and not you. Unlike the Arbiter, you don't have to worry about them being temporarily defeated. And since they do damage enemies, I think you could actually just let your ally do almost all the work for most of the game, but that would be so time consuming and boring that I've never tried it.
Reach did some really silly things with weapons, like adding the "Plasma Repeater". At first I thought they just renamed and reskinned the Plasma Rifle, but nope the Plasma Rifle exists too. What's the difference between these guns? Nothing worth talking about. For all intents and purposes they're interchangeable.
And then there's the "Concussion Rifle" which is like a mini Fuel Rod because after Halo 1 the devs valued the number of weapons in the game as an intrinsic good even if they don't add variety of experience. The only difference besides having a larger clip and less damage is that its shots are affected by gravity. Oh, and it's utterly worthless, at least on legendary. In enemy hands it feels pretty powerful, but in your hands it's worthless: it takes two direct hits to kill a Grunt, and you can empty a whole clip into an Elite and they still have shields.
They replaced the Battle Rifle with the "DMR", which is pretty similar but single-shot instead of 3-shot burst and its scope is 3x instead of 2x.
On that note, the Pistol is also back in Halo: Reach - not that they ever removed it, but it has its scope back and is back to being a decent thing to carry around. Compared to the DMR, it's not as effective at long range due to its lesser zoom and accuracy, but still longer range than most guns and fires faster, so it can be nicer in close quarters. I'm not sure which actually deals damage faster but I would guess it's the Pistol.
Another new weapon is the Grenade Launcher which is the Halo 2 Brute Shot for humans. To be fair it has some unique traits like its ability to control when the grenade explodes and do an EMP, but still feels like a needless redesign of the Brute Shot. There are Brutes in Reach but no Brute Shot for some reason.
Then there's the "Needle Rifle", a pointless redesign of the Convenant Carbine which isn't in Reach. It has the supercombine effect of the Needler but otherwise functions just like the Carbine.
They added an interesting gun called the Focus Rifle, which is a continuous-beam Convenant weapon. Honestly if I made Halo 1, I would've included a weapon like this instead of the Plasma Rifle, to be more different from the human Assault Rifle. It also has two levels of zoom like the Beam Rifle, but can't really function that way because it doesn't get headshots.
Finally, there's the "Plasma Launcher", which feels like a Convenant Spartan Laser. You hold it down to charge up to four balls and then release to fire the seeking plasma balls that explode.
Hunters in Reach are even more overpowered than in Halo 2. They still have all the buffs they got in Halo 2 (more health, shield bash more damaging, shield bash harder or impossible to dodge, shield bash can hit behind them), and two more buffs:
Even more health. You can empty multiple entire clips of DMR ammo into them without misses.
They aim their cannons at your feet, which means you don't avoid all damage by stepping to the side. Combined with the ridiculous amount of splash damage Fuel Rod-type attacks have in this game, this makes it difficult to avoid dying against a Hunter even at range even if you focus on evading and jump over every shot.
In Halo 2, a pair of Hunters was seemingly an impossible opposition to defeat alone. In Reach, you have to fight a pair of them with an invincible ally who draws fire for you - and plenty of good cover and good weapons around - and it's still one of the hardest and most frustrating parts of the game. Hunters in Reach are bonkers overpowered and not fun. Thankfully you can run past every other encounter with them.
In the end, I think Halo 1 is still my favorite, with 3 close behind. None of the games are a strict improvement over any other. And they are all great games... yes, even Halo 2. Halo is still one of the best games I've ever played, and taught me some gold insights about game design.