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I’ve spent a considerable amount of my life running around in a virtual set of Mjolnir Powered Assault Armor. With over two thousand hours logged into Halo 2 alone, and thousands more spent across the other mainline Halo titles, I’m comfortable in saying that I know most of the series’ multiplayer maps like the back of my hand. In celebration of the 15 year anniversaries of both the original Xbox and Halo: Combat Evolved, I’ve taken the opportunity to look back at all 100+ multiplayer arenas from all six (proper) Halo titles, and have taken on the daunting task of listing for you Halo’s top 10 all-time multiplayer maps.
Backwash (Halo 2)
With an overgrown swamp setting and its marshy ambiance, Halo 2’s Backwash contains texture and coloring work that should immediately remind fans of The Flood, and draw comparisons to Halo: CE’s sixth campaign mission, 343 Guilty Spark. Set on one of the Halo installations, Backwash is a mid-sized, circularly designed map with a central structure that’s surrounded by large trees and other foliage which provide ample cover all throughout the battle zone. Backwash is a decent map for team-based modes like Slayer and CTF, but it truly shines as a Free-for-All arena, as its circular layout, claustrophobic feel, and lack of a singular dominate camping spot all combine to put an emphasis on constant movement and always checking your six. While far from the franchise’s worst map, Blackwash’s claim to fame is being the only map in Halo history to be removed from online map rotations due to technical issues. Because of its swamp setting Bungie decided to cover the entire map with a layer of green fog to hinder visibility. The environmental effects make perfect sense thematically, and the limited visibility is an interesting gameplay addition, but unfortunately the fog was too difficult for the original Xbox to render, causing severe frame rate issues and thus forcing Bungie to remove the map from all playlists.
Boneyard & Breakpoint (Halo: Reach)
For many Halo fans, Reach was the beginning of the legendary franchise’s fall from grace. While the single player campaign is great, the additions of reticle bloom and amour abilities to multiplayer were not well received. Fortunately though, not all of Reach’s additions to multiplayer were objectively terrible. A new game mode titled “Invasion” pits a team of Spartans against a squad of Elites, with one side trying to defend objectives while the other team pushes forward with a relentless assault. With Invasion being an entirely different beast when compared to all other game types, Bungie had to create maps specifically designed around the mode. Only three maps were made for the game type, and while all of them played well, Boneyard and Breakpoint in particular are fantastic. Games of Invasion are played in various phases, with different sections of the map unlocking as the match progresses. Both Boneyard and Breakpoint are expansive enough that each phase feels great, but each map truly shines during their respective final phases, when all their zones are open and the chaos is widespread. To be fair, even if this list was expanded into a top 20, it’s still unlikely that either of these maps would make the cut, but it’s a testament to Bungie’s map making skills that even though these maps were designed specifically with Invasion in mind, they still work adequately for classic game modes like Big Team Slayer.
Highlands (Halo: Reach)
Back in Halo 2’s heyday gaming was a different beast. Back then, when Bungie released a new map pack, their most dedicated fans could opt to buy it immediately, but penny-pinchers only had to wait about a month for the DLC to become free. Unfortunately, those days are far behind us, and free DLC is now a rarity. The biggest downside to map packs never becoming free is that new maps either never get integrated into normal playlist rotations, and even if they do, DLC maps rarely get played due to the fact that a good number of players never ponyed up the cash for them. It’s a crying shame that Highlands, a map featured in Reach’s Defiant Map Pack DLC, saw very little play time. Highlands features a great balance of tight indoor areas and wide open outdoor spaces. Set in the middle of a military wilderness training preserve, each team has a fortified base on opposite ends of the map, with several other buildings of varying sizes and designs lining the left and right sides, and the center being a semi-open space featuring cover in the form of hills, trees, uneven terrain, and a downed pelican. The map is at its best when playing Big Team CTF, as the flag carrier has tons of options when escaping, but it’s a long walk in-between bases, so every flag capture is hard earned. Much like Boneyard & Breakpoint, Highlands wouldn’t make the final cut even if this was a top 20 list, but it’s just one example of a map that doesn’t get nearly enough love simply because it was additional content rather than a map included on the disc.
Hang ‘Em High (Halo: Combat Evolved)
Remade as: Tombstone (Halo 2), High Noon (Halo: Reach)
Obviously designed with Combat Evolved’s notorious M6D Pistol in mind, to this day Hang ‘Em High remains one of the series’ best mid-to-long-range focused slayer arenas. The map features two large structures on opposing ends of the mid-sized zone, with several long catwalks extending out from each building, and the ground level below littered with rectangular objections affectionately referred to as “tombstones”. With the Sniper and Rockets perilously located on the catwalks, out in the open without any cover in sight, going for either of them is often a suicide mission, but the successful acquisition of either could tilt a match strongly in your favor. Heroic Spartans could opt to brave the trenches, using the tombstones as cover, in an attempt to make it to the opposing team’s side, but more often than not they’ll get quickly disposed of via a swift 4 shots from a Pistol user chilling up top. It’s typically a bad idea to run out into the open on any map, but on Hang ‘Em High specifically, death comes quickly to those who fail to respect the power of the high ground. Matches often breakdown into a game of chicken, with players sticking their neck out strategically attempting to catch an enemy off guard, with the hopes of picking them off and creating a potential opening for their team to make a run for the power weapons.
Hang ‘Em High is one of many (many) maps that made formulating the this top ten a painfully difficult venture. Before moving on to listing what I perceive to be the greatest all-around maps in franchise history, it should be mentioned that more than a handful of maps just barely missed the cut, and we as Halo fans should truly be appreciative of the craftsmanship that Bungie put forth during their tenure with the series.
#10) Ivory Tower (Halo 2)
Remade as: Reflection (Halo: Reach)
The origins of the term “Ivory Tower” stem from a biblical reference pointing towards a disconnect between the practical and studious. Bungie hits the nail on the head with their design, including the oddly placed palm trees growing indoors, and the inclusion of lavish water systems and elevators which serve as means of displaying extravagance. Halo 2’s Ivory Tower certainly isn’t home to any practical men, but it is a damn fine arena for shedding some blood and arming some bombs. When playing objective based modes, it’s actually the team on offense that spawns closer to the map’s only Sniper Rifle, putting a nice spin on the typically defense-oriented weapon. Many of Halo’s maps feature multileveled designs, but Ivory Tower’s is unique in that one side of the map has far more elevation than the other, making it feel like the attacking team is coming down upon the defenders with crushing force. As per usual, Bungie includes amazing variation and balance all at the same time, with all major sections of the map varying widely in design, yet flowing together seamlessly. The map’s coolest feature is that it’s home to two separate bombing-arming spots, making for particularly interesting games of Assault.
#9) Headlong (Halo 2)
Remade as: Breakneck (Halo: Reach)
With its grand-scale buildings, elevated roads, and soaring catwalks, verticality is the name of the game on Headlong. Easily the series’ most well designed asymmetrical 8v8 map and at its best when hosting Big Team Battle matches of either 1-Flag or 1-Bomb, Headlong gives both teams an assortment of vehicles and a ton of options for traversing its multitiered layout. Given the size and space of the playground, it’s a reasonable tactic to attempt an assault on all fronts, but respawn times on objective based modes are long, and rounds are relatively short, meaning every death holds a heavy toll and the more organized team has the better odds. With so many options for traversal, ranging from Warthogs to a teleporter, and airlifts to a perilously dangling steel girder, both teams are given so many windows to try different approaches to their defensive and offensive strategies. Regardless of the map you’re playing on, every match of Halo multiplayer has its own different twists and turns, but Headlong in particular feels like a unique experience every time.
#8) Waterworks (Halo 2)
Many of Halo’s arenas serve only as playgrounds for destruction, and that’s fine, but Waterworks looks and feels like so much more than just a multiplayer map. A lost Forerunner relic, some odd technology lost deep within a cavern, still working away, every rotation of the mysterious machine’s gears sending reverberations throughout the entire map. And the scenery isn’t just for looks either. Waterworks is one of the few maps where tanks could be implemented yet not be overbearing due to the limitations imposed upon them by their surroundings. The Covenant Wraiths can make it from one side of the map to the other and attempt to siege the enemy stronghold, but each of the routes across the map are perilously narrow and restricting, making the venture a huge risk. While the enemy base is not visible from the opposite side of the map, the Wraith still has good use when staying on its own side of the arena. Obviously it can be used as a defensive tool, but the Wraith’s arced shot and the wisely crafted openings in the central structure mean that a talented and knowledgeable pilot can send volleys clear across the map and reign chaos down upon an enemy team, all while completely out of their range. The Wraiths aren’t the only tool at your disposal though, as Waterworks makes use of most of Halo 2’s vehicles, while also giving tons of options to the infantry as well. Waterworks isn’t an ideal Slayer map, but it’s easily one of the series best 8v8 objective based playgrounds. Plus, you can dislodge stalactites from the ceiling and, if timed correctly, crush your opponents for perhaps the coolest kind of kill in any Halo title.
#7) The Pit (Halo 3)
Remade as: Pitfall (Halo 4)
Identified internally within the UNSC as “Training Facility B”, Halo 3’s multiplayer map known as “The Pit” is a military training ground located somewhere in Africa. As a means of getting Spartans in fighting form, you can’t ask for a much better practice facility. Beautifully symmetrical and wonderfully laid out, The Pit is a prime example of a near perfect 4v4 map suitable for either slayer or objective based modes. The Rockets, Camo, Overshield, and Sword are all lined up along the map’s center axis, thoughtfully spaced out and meticulously placed. Each team has a Sniper Rifle which spawns at the base of their respective tower, which conveniently face each other with a nice wide open area in-between, allowing for classic marksman showdowns. The Sword room is tight and susceptible to grenade barrages, while the Overshield alley is perfect for BR face-offs. The semi-open sides of the map each flow into the center’s multiple chokepoints, allowing for plenty of mid-range combat counterbalanced by an abundant dose of up close and personal melee encounters. The Pit’s wonderful design allows Bungie’s holy trinity of guns, grenades, and melees to come together in a blissful symphony of mayhem.
#6) Wizard (Halo: Combat Evolved)
Remade as: Warlock (Halo 2), Warlord (Halo 2: Anniversary)
Halo: Combat Evolved has an amazing amount variance in its suite of multiplayer maps, but based purely off first impressions, Wizard may seem like one of its most bland. Four bases, four elevated platforms, four teleporters, and one cylindrical center structure all jammed into what may be the series’ smallest map. While not necessarily apparent at first glance, what Wizard actually presents is the series’ tightest, most twitch-centric Slayer arena. The map’s wide-open yet tightly-knit octagonal structure succeeds in making all players feel as if they’re caged within a Coliseum-like deathtrap. With an ample amount of grenades located at each base, no area on the map is safe from a rain of explosions. Add on-top of that the ability to quickly traverse straight across the map via the teleporters, and players quickly come to realize that Wizard promotes constant movement and requires quick-as-light reflexes as your unlikely to find even a brief moment of respite until the final kill has been secured. Wizard, and its later remakes (as long as you’re playing with BR starts), stand tall as some of the series’ most competitive and skill-oriented maps, requiring the utmost in movement, aiming, and thinking on your feet.
#5) Midship (Halo 2)
Remade as: Heretic (Halo 3), Truth (Halo 5: Guardians)
The aptly named arena known as “Midship” is located smack-dab in the middle of a Covenant battlecruiser. The iconic pink and purple hues used throughout the map clearly identify it as not only a Covenant stronghold, but also as a place where any Spartan should tread lightly. Though not perfectly symmetrical in its design, the spacing and geometry of the structures make for a flawlessly proportioned map. The opposing bases face each other with wide openings, giving each team a clear view into the rival garrison, meaning that bullets start flying as soon as players spawn in. The power weapons are all lined up along the map’s x-axis, meaning each team starts off at (precisely) the exact same distance from the Energy Sword, Plasma Pistol, Shotgun, and Carbine, making those first few choice movements exceptionally important. The bases are approachable from the left, right, underneath, or straight through the wide-open front door, making for especially frantic and tactical games of Assault and CTF. Oh, and the map has a cool floating platform hovering in the middle that tilts and wobbles in accordance to the weight of the people on it and in reaction to grenade explosions. Awesome.
#4) Zanzibar (Halo 2)
Remade as: Last Resort (Halo 3), Stonetown (Halo 2: Anniversary)
Probably the series’ all-time best map for 4v4 1-Flag CTF and 1-Bomb Assault, Zanzibar’s fortified base and iconic wheel with rotating spokes are some of the most recognizable pieces of scenery in franchise history. The defending team has the perilous duty of protecting a base littered with entry points, but they’re given ample munitions and the obvious positional advantage. The attackers spawn on the beach with vehicles and the daunting task of breaching a well-fortified stronghold. The legendary Sea Wall and Camp Froman locations are home to each respective team’s Sniper Rifle, and are the prime rushing points for each squad. The defenders have easy access to the Rocket Launcher to repel the attackers multiple vehicles, but the cluttered environments make dispatching of the Warthog and Ghosts somewhat difficult, even with the Rocket’s lock-on feature. Defenders can quickly grab a shotgun and the Active Camouflage, which are extremely potent for getting into the base unseen. Breaching the outer walls is only half the battle however, as the inside of the base has plenty of ideal camping spots for defenders to easily pick off attackers who wander in haphazardly. Add on-top of that the fact that Zanzibar is home to Halo 2’s smallest bomb arming zone, and it’s safe to say that the attacking team has their work cut out for them.
Zanzibar is one of the series most destructible maps, and features several key ways that the players can interact with their surroundings. Attached to the Camo Tower is a bridge which can be lowered by triggering an explosive, thus allowing the attacking team a clear path the base’s upper level. However, when the bridge is lowered it comes crashing down, making a clear and audible sound across the entire map, letting the defenders know what’s coming their way. Clever players will vary their strategy round by round, sometimes using the bridge as a means of getting their whole team across, and other times using it merely as a distraction. Inside the base itself is a computer terminal which if accessed can be used to open a gate located on the side of the base. Keeping the gate shut is usually a prime objective for defenders, as having it open gives the attackers’ vehicles a clear way in. The base also features several windows with shutters that can be closed, and large cement blocks which surround the flag / arming zone which can be destroyed via explosives.
Running in and simply trying to grab the flag or arm the bomb will work only one in a hundred attempts. Zanzibar’s layout requires a more methodical approach, and the careful elimination of enemies before trying to secure the objective. The absolute pinnacle of asymmetrical map design, Zanzibar reigns supreme as fan favorite and a safe haven for those of us who prefer the objective based game modes.
#3) Lockout (Halo 2)
Remade as: Blackout (Halo 3), Lockdown (Halo 2: Anniversary)
Frozen, secluded, and apparently haunted, Halo 2’s Lockout is celebrated as perhaps the series’ ultimate Team Slayer arena. As an old Forerunner research building that seems illogically attached to the side of a mountain, Lockout contains an assortment of uniquely designed rooms and structures, all interconnected through various hallways and openings. On Lockout close quarters engagements happen early and often, but long range duels are also commonplace, with Battle Rifle and Sniper users able to peg people atop the BR Tower from the Elbow, and snipe people at the Sword spawn from atop the Lift. Multilayered and intertwined, the map’s phenomenally ingenious layout promotes quick traversal, both lateral and vertical, and allows for practically any spot on the map to become a point of contention. Later iterations of the map in Halo 3 and Halo 2: Anniversary would add too many frills and superfluities which only served to hurt the flow of gameplay. Lockout’s simple and smooth geometry may not be the most visually appealing, but it allows for the perfect angles on grenade bounces and creates optimal jumping platforms, showing Bungie’s keen sense of putting substance over style.
#2) Coagulation (Halo 2)
Originally: Blood Gulch (Halo: Combat Evolved)
Remade as: Hemorrhage (Halo: Reach), Bloodline (Halo 2: Anniversary)
Blood Gulch is probably the Halo series’ most recognizable map, and (not surprisingly) it’s also the series’ most remade map. You may wonder then why the Halo 2 version, known as Coagulation, has been given the spot in this list. The answer is simple: most remakes will add but at the same time take away, however this isn’t true of Coagulation, as it only serves to enhance to its precursor’s brilliance. Its additions over its predecessor aren’t major – redesigned bases, a couple of rock formations here, some trees there, and minor tweaks to some weapon / power-up positioning – but these small adjustments to what was already a great map propelled Coagulation into the upper-stratosphere of all-time multiplayer arenas.
Two identical bases on opposite sides of a massive, wide open canyon. The weapon layouts on both sides of the map are identical, with a one Rocket Launcher located in the dead center. Aside from the bases there aren’t any man made structures to be found, so Spartans roaming out onto the field are advised to use the natural protection of hills, rocks, and trees. The map is at its best when hosting some form of Big Team combat, but works amazingly well for 4v4 modes as well. Success will most often go to the team that uses their vehicles well, and puts their Sniper Rifle in capable hands.
To many Blood Gulch (and Coagulation) stands tall amongst the genre’s best and most influential maps, often mentioned in the same breath as Counter-Strike’s de_dust and Battlefield 1942’s Wake Island. Its influence on the Halo franchise since Combat Evolved is obvious, given how many iterations of the map have been made, but aside from the direct remakes, Blood Gulch also inspired one of Halo 3’s best maps, Valhalla. And it’s also featured in the RTS spinoff Halo Wars. And it was the birthplace of a little series called Red Vs. Blue. Quite the résumé.
#1) Sanctuary (Halo 2)
Remade as: Asylum (Halo: Reach), Shrine (Halo 2: Anniversary)
Perfect symmetry, perfect balance. Exceptional weapon placement and the flawless positioning of buildings and structures leads to a perfect flow of game play. Each of Sanctuary’s bases are open and approachable from any angle. The map inspires proactive play; on Sanctuary, the best defense is a good offense. While many players adore the larger playgrounds and frenzied moments of Big Team Battle, Halo is mostly revered for its 4v4 arena style gameplay, and no map exemplifies that style better than Sanctuary. Not as tight as Wizard, but not as open as Hang ‘Em High, Sanctuary’s size and shape make for the perfect mix of both hectic and cerebral. Be it Team Slayer, CTF, Assault, FFA, or even Oddball, Sanctuary is the perfect home to all the series’ most beloved modes. There’s a certain deceptive simplicity to the map, allowing most players to enjoy its splendor without ever truly grasping its intricacy, which is perhaps the greatest sign of its perfection. It doesn’t have the vibrant colors of Midship, the multilayered complex layout of Lockout, or the grand scale setting of Waterworks, but Sanctuary doesn’t need any of that. Leonardo da Vinci said it best: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
“When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.” – Eddard Stark
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