I was introduced to Halo at a young age - too young to understand it - by an older brother. I played it many times with him over the years, and when he'd moved out, I mentored other family members and friends into it as he did for me. Because of this rich history, Halo is sacred to me subjectively, but I also think it has objective and unique virtues compared to other shooters.
The installments I've played are Halo 1, 2, 3, ODST, Reach, and 4. I've beaten each of them solo on Legendary. Finally, all my experience is with the original Xbox versions of the games, I've never played on PC.
With that out of the way, what do I think is so special about Halo - besides that it's one of the few games with splitscreen co-op, and that it has incredible music that no other shooter can hold a candle to, plus a good, original and creative story? It simply is much deeper and has much more variety than other shooters. To someone who's played Halo, I'd summarize it like this:
Imagine a version of Halo where all enemies are Grunts, most weapons are hitscan, there are no damage types, no creative weapons like the Needler and Plasma Pistol, and for the most part no vehicles. That's Call of Duty, and the many shooters that imitate it. And that's why I love Halo.
There's one area of superiority I'll expand on: dodging. In Halo, most enemies use non-hitscan weapons (projectiles that can be dodged), which means not only your aim, but also the rate at which you take damage is subject to skill. You can't dodge all of them because their projectiles move pretty fast, but you can dodge something like 50% of fire against the Covenant (most common enemy faction), and 90% against the Flood (other enemy faction), since the Flood are more melee-focused, and when they do have guns, they have very poor tracking.
Nevertheless it's important to recognize the flaws in what you like, and Halo has a few fundamental flaws that I want to talk about, despite being the best first-person shooter experience in my opinion.
Lack of information
There are a ton of fundamental mechanics that *are never explained*, like the fact that plasma weapons do more damage to shields and human weapons do more damage to health, the concept of EMPs, the fact that only the Pistol and Sniper Rifle can get headshots, and the fact that headshots don't matter against shields. And these mechanics are of such a nature that it's very hard to figure them out through experience.
Trial and error gameplay
This is a more severe problem than in other shooters simply because Halo has more mechanics to lack information about. It doesn't bother me because I've known the missing information for years, so I'm completely out of touch with the experience of playing the game without knowing it.
Being too careful never gets you killed
This is a profound and subtle problem. Usually, enemies don't pursue you; they're defending a position and you're attacking it, with no time constraint, so the optimal strategy is to take things very slow, picking off all the enemies one by one with a long range weapon and never putting yourself in much danger.
There are many exceptions: fighting Flood (they do pursue you), keeping allies alive, some vehicle sections; but the majority of the gameplay has this problem. The occasional 'defend position' objectives aren't really exceptions because you never actually have to defend the position, you can just hide or retreat to a place where you can pick them off slowly with a long range weapon while they crowd around the thing you were supposedly defending, with no consequences.
Also, in some sections in Halo 3, ODST, and Reach, you have *invincible* allies. I think you could actually just let them do all the work, but that would be so tedious and boring that I've never tried it. (As in most other shooters, allies do very little damage, probably to discourage this very strategy.)
This is somewhat related to another problem:
Bad weapon balance
Automatic weapons are generally underpowered because of the importance of headshots, which automatic weapons can't get. The balance is worst in Halo 1 (otherwise my favorite), where you should basically never carry an Assault Rifle or a Plasma Rifle or a Needler if you can help it. Most of the game revolves around just 2 weapons: the Plasma Pistol and the human Pistol. The Plasma Pistol is overpowered because although it can't get headshots, its overcharge shot (which deals infinite damage to shields) is the *only* practical way to deal with Elites on Legendary difficulty, but it's also decent at every other use case. The human Pistol is such a general-purpose powerhouse compared to the Assault Rifle that it's comical; you basically always want to carry one if you can. The Sniper Rifle and Rocket Launcher are strong enough to make you want to put down one of these weapons, but they're rare power weapons with very little ammo. The Shotgun is also extremely powerful, especially against the Flood, but it's only found in the second half of the game.
Halo 2 improved the weapon balance somewhat. The Assault Rifle is replaced with the SMG, which can be dual-wielded (a mechanic introduced in Halo 2) and in that case it's decent. The human Pistol is nerfed severely and the Battle Rifle is introduced as the new headshot-capable mid-long range weapon that you want to carry all the time if you can. The Plasma Rifle is dual-wieldable, making it decent. The Needler is good against Brutes (a newly introduced enemy type), and can be dual-wielded making it even better against them. The Plasma Pistol's normal fire mode is nerfed, but it's actually *even more* necessary against Elites because Halo 2 nerfed the player's own shields so much, so almost any other way of taking down Elites' shields is too slow. A few other weapons (Covenant Carbine, Sentinel Beam, Energy Sword) are also introduced which are good at least at a significant range of use cases. Halo 2 made a few bad weapon balance changes though: while nerfing the Shotgun was appropriate, they went way too far and made it almost completely useless. Grenades are also weaker than in Halo 1, which I think is a bad change.
Halo 3 improved the weapon balance further. The Assault Rifle is reintroduced as a separate gun from the SMG, and is actually usable this time because it's accurate at a much longer range than in Halo 1. A few other weapons are introduced, like the Spiker, which are around the same power level as the SMG.
The other three Halo games I've played have their own quirks about weapon balance, but generally it's about as good as it was in Halo 2: better than Halo 1, but there's still a fairly strong hierarchy with the Plasma Pistol and headshot-capable mid-range weapons at the top, and automatic weapons at the bottom.
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 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! It seems like it's just very badly programmed and it never gets fixed in the later games.
You also have no recourse if it gives you a bad checkpoint. Sometimes you 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.
Well, actually in Halo 2 I did get some that were unwinnable. Halo 2 has an emergency mechanic to deal with this: if you die several times in a row very soon after a checkpoint, it'll send you back to the checkpoint before it. Halo 2 needs this because it has the worst tendency to give you checkpoints in danger, but the emergency mechanic itself is sometimes a problem, triggering even when you're in a winnable situation. In Halo 3 they removed the mechanic, which was also a huge pain to me when I got a checkpoint that was very close to unwinnable. God, why can't going 2 checkpoints back just be an *option* that *the player can choose*? Every game with this checkpoint system should do that.
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, and also you can pick up all the items you dropped, which means dying often *helps* you.
- You 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".
On the bright side, respawn abuse can save you from bad checkpoints.
Horrible audio mixing and lack of mitigation
This isn't a gameplay flaw, but it's annoying and pervasive enough to get its own section here. The sound effects are too loud, the dialogue is too quiet, and *there are no subtitles or options to change the relative volume of music, sound effects and dialogue* - basic features for any game like this. They finally added subtitles in Halo 3, but the rest of the problems remain unfixed even in Halo 4.