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Halo campaigns are best played in co-op

Two is better than one

two players in a Warthog shooting at a Covenant spacecraft, in Halo Anniversary edition Image: 343 Industries/Microsoft Studios
Nicole Clark (she/her) is a culture editor at Polygon, and a critic covering internet culture, video games, books, and TV, with work in the NY Times, Vice, and Catapult.

I grew up with Halo, and to this day, I believe co-op captures so much of what is best about the franchise. Never mind that Master Chief is a sole survivor type, with cutscenes that highlight the fact. Co-op is still the ideal way to experience the games.

When I say ideal, I’m not talking about the satisfaction of a solo campaign with difficulty clocked up to Legendary. Co-op is great for having the most pure, bombastic fun, making bizarre and chaotic plays, and having the most frictionless experience of chewing through mission after mission. It’s also a great way to welcome newcomers who may be unfamiliar with how to play but want to try.

When I think of Halo, I think of LAN parties with school friends, and the sweaty summers I spent in suburban Michigan with my cousin, churning through missions on the Xbox, and walloping my best friend’s older brother and his friends in Blood Gulch and then Lockout. Whenever I talk to other fans of Halo, this nostalgia seems like a shared sentiment.

I recently replayed all the Halo games in co-op to see if they were as good as I remembered (even though my my cousin — my original co-op partner — is now too busy with medical school for video games). The games have been remastered in Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and although the remaster on PC doesn’t support split-screen play, I still had tons of fun playing with my partner on separate computers. Here’s why I still think co-op is the best possible way to play.

Make chaotic plays

Maybe the best, most obvious reason to play co-op is the leeway it offers you to completely ball out without having to do much strategizing. This is because Halo lets you respawn after death, so long as your campaign-mate is not actively in combat. Are you the type of person who delights in running into the carnage, ammo be damned? Do you prefer to hang back in the corners and act as a cleanup crew? These options, and more, are available to you. With a buddy, the Halo world is your oyster.

A Halo 3 player standing on a ledge, shooting at a Hunter down below Image: 343 Industries/Microsoft Studios

The numerous save points across Halo are generous enough that dying in a single-player run isn’t damning; the last checkpoint tends to be fairly recent. But the co-op system allows you to jump immediately back in without suffering any loading screens, once your partner takes out all the enemies in the room. You can also play it the goofy, time-consuming way, where your partner backtracks to safety so that you can respawn (instead of clearing the room).

I have taken advantage of the quick respawn to try out hectic strategies, like testing potential campaign map shortcuts that I can then report back to my squadmate. I have also jumped off of ledges that seemed like they’d promise nice views, even though they also absolutely result in death. Also, I’ve gotten to do more of the highly underrated melee gun punch, which is an incredibly satisfying way to take down foes, although it’s risky, since Covenant enemies tend to be much stronger than you. Why waste the potential for enjoyment when the respawn is so simple?

Make strategic plays

Alternatively, co-op offers the chance to be extremely strategic about how you’ll approach a scenario. One of Halo’s strengths is the sheer volume of campaign missions and the various tactical options you have in each one, plus how much the difficulty level modifies the amount of strategy that’s actually worth the effort. You can also just do things that feel “strategic” but mostly make you seem like you’re in an action film. It’s fun to stand back to back in a room that’s crawling with enemies, knowing that each of you has a clear sight line and area to be responsible for.

Vehicles are so much better

An image from Halo 3 multiplayer, with two players in a Warthog vehicle Image: 343 Industries/Microsoft Studios

Play alone, and your choices are more limited for the game’s most famous three-person vehicle, the M12 Chaingun Warthog. You will probably either drive the Warthog or man the turret.

But the humble Warthog, and the various iterations of the classic all-terrain vehicle, is such a key part of the series. Sure, the steering is janky (and the physics are laughable) in Combat Evolved, and whoever ends up driving is taking one for the team. And yes, other vehicles have this “do I shoot or drive” dynamic; the Falcon helicopter is a particularly fun one. But for the Warthog, specifically, having just one pal makes it way better. Having two pals means one of you has to agree to basically be a passenger with a regular gun (no Warthog fun for you).

I will admit that my favorite Halo vehicles are Covenant spacecraft that are manned individually. I’m a huge fan of the Ghosts, which are very maneuverable and pleasantly small, so I drive them into buildings where they aren’t supposed to go. Banshees are also perfect, because I love flying and doing barrel rolls. For these, I say the more the merrier.

Save your friends ... or kill your friends

Nothing, and I mean nothing, feels better than having your buddy’s back by spotting an enemy running toward them — while they’re unaware, a sitting duck — and taking the enemy out. This is especially true for Covenant aliens, like Stalkers, when they’re being pesky and invisible, detectable only as an unsettling shimmer. The closing scene of Halo: Reach turns this up to a fever pitch, as you fight for survival against endless waves of enemies. The game only ends when you’ve finally been wiped out.

Alternately, if you’re an asshole, you can make it your mission to deploy friendly fire and then steal your partner’s ammo and grenades — not that I have done this. Why are you looking at me like that? I’m innocent!

Invite new friends

Halo: Reach campaign player standing over an enemy, pointing an energy sword at them Image: 343 Industries/Microsoft Studios

It’s tricky to create a co-op experience that feels doable for newcomers or a pair with very different skill levels. If you’re looking for something truly suited to that big mismatch in skill or investment, Halo is not the best place to look. (Nintendo is more of a reigning champion of that kind of co-op, with solid player two assists in the Super Mario Galaxy games and Super Mario Odyssey, and features like building a house on someone else’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons island).

But if there’s a friend in your life who is new to first-person shooters and genuinely interested in learning, playing a Halo campaign in co-op — particularly at an easy difficulty setting — is a great way for them to dip their toes in the water. A newer player can go out and try things, and a skilled player can take care to give them chances to respawn and crack on.

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