Without a doubt, the Halo series has to be considered the premier Xbox-exclusive franchise. Now, some two years after the release of Halo 3 comes Halo 3: ODST, which takes you out of the iconic Master Chief’s MJOLNIR armor and places you in the decidedly different role of being an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper (ODST for short). That means long-time fans will find a slightly different experience with some tweaks to Halo’s proven formula designed to make you feel more vulnerable.
Originally intended to be an expansion to Halo 3, Bungie and Microsoft elected to make it a full-price release as the campaign grew and more features (read: Firefight) were added. That price hike has been at the crux of many anti-ODST arguments. So does Halo 3: ODST bring enough to the table to justify its price? The answer: Yes…and no.
Although there have been some changes, anyone familiar with the Halo games should have no trouble picking up and playing the latest chapter. The right trigger still fires your gun, and the left trigger tosses grenades, though the ability to dual wield has been removed. The right bumper reloads your gun or picks up another gun to replace an existing one. The left bumper cycles through the four different kinds of grenades you can pick up.
You’ll still melee with the B button, switch weapons with Y and jump (not nearly as high) with A, though the X button is now used to toggle your special ODST visor on and off. You’ll use this primarily during the nighttime portions of the game, and it serves as an advanced night vision tool with objects outlined in various colours. You’ll also have access to a VISR database, which contains a map and keeps track of all the audio files you find during your journey plus your current objective(s). The map shows beacon locations as well as covenant patrols and is an invaluable tool.
Nothing feels out of place, and the new additions quickly become second nature. It’s a control scheme that’s been excellent since the days of Halo: Combat Evolved, and it remains a strong point.
Built off the same engine that was used to make Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST quite frankly looks like a game that was made two years ago. Yes, there’s been some polish added, and the design of the levels feels top notch, but these graphics simply don’t hold up to what we’ve already seen in games like Gears of War 2 on the Xbox 360 or the upcoming Uncharted 2: Among Thieves for the PS3. That isn’t to say this is an ugly game, it simply isn’t pushing the envelope the way you’d like to see an AAA release like this do, which once again plays into the full commercial release versus expansion argument.
What is nice about Halo 3: ODST as opposed to previous releases is the grounding of the game in more familiar Earth settings. This gives it a different feel, as most of the previous Halo games took place on various alien worlds. The abandoned city of New Mombasa is sensational with bright reds, blues and yellows lighting up an otherwise black night. It’s very effective in creating a mood of despair and isolation, and is once again a stark contrast from past games in the series. Conversely, the UNSC and Covenant forces look much as they did in 2007, both in terms of the character models and vehicles.
The biggest departure from past Halo games comes in the audio department where an entirely different sounding score plays throughout. Replacing (or at least updating) the sweeping, majestic tunes of previous titles, Halo 3: ODST incorporates a lot of jazz flavour, which adds a ton of ambiance to the solitude you experience during your evening stroll through occupied New Mombasa. The soundtrack is simply an excellent piece of work, and it’s responsible from much of whatever freshness Halo 3: ODST brings to the table.
Weapon fire, marine chatter and brute yells are all nicely done, and sci-fi fans will instantly recognize the voices of Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin and Alan Tudyk of Firefly fame as the voices of three of your four squad mates. They all do a solid job of delivering their lines, though no one will be mistaking this for the second coming of Mass Effect in terms of voice acting.
Halo 3: ODST actually takes place immediately following an event that occurs in Halo 2, when the Covenant forces have reached Earth and are attacking the city of New Mombasa. Your squad of ODSTs is set to drop down and engage the Covenant, but things go terribly wrong on your way down when one of the Covenant’s ships jumps into slip space, knocking out your electrical systems and scattering your team. You, playing in the role of “The Rookie,” awake some six hours later in the darkened city with no backup and no idea what has happened to the remainder of your squad.
You’re not quite alone, however, as the city’s A.I. (known as the superintendent) will assist you in investigating the whereabouts of your team by guiding you through the city. Your primary focus will be locating several beacons, which trigger flashbacks that tell a piece of your squad’s story. Each of your four squad mates has their own tale to tell, and it is within these flashbacks that you’ll encounter the majority of the intense fighting in the game. That serves as a stark contrast to your time as the rookie, which is more about exploring the city and unraveling the mystery of your team’s fate.
As the flashbacks play out, you’ll slowly learn how the day’s events unfolded. It’s an interesting storytelling method, and it’s cool to see the way areas looked in the day time amid the battles versus how they look now that the fighting has concluded. The story itself is definitely more focused and character driven than previous Halo installments, though there’s still nothing in here that creates any legitimate emotional investment in the characters.
A secondary story that unfolds through a series of recordings you can download from various machines also tries to put a more human face on the whole situation (while also encouraging exploration in New Mombasa), but much of that voice acting is middling at best and it falls flat in connecting with players. It’s still highly advisable to seek out all the audio logs, not only for the achievements they unlock, but also for the weapons caches the superintendent will open up for you.
While this still looks and feels like previous Halo games, the fact that you’re now an ODST and not the super-charged Master Chief will necessitate some adjustments in strategy. For starters, standing out in the open and trading bullets with the Covenant will no longer work, especially on the higher difficulty levels. Instead, you’ll need to utilize cover, and when playing as the rookie you’ll even find yourself in situations where sticking to the shadows and avoiding Covenant patrols entirely is the wisest course of action — something that would’ve bordered on blasphemy as the Master Chief. Your melee attacks aren’t as powerful, and you no longer have a regenerating Spartan shield. Instead, you’ll lose stamina as you’re hit. Once your stamina is down, you’ll start losing health, which can only be recovered by finding health packs. It plays pretty similarly to past games, but you’ll definitely find you can’t take anywhere near as much punishment as the Master Chief could.
Although the majority of the weapons are holdovers from Halo 3, you will notice a couple of new toys to play with, namely a suppressed SMG and a silenced magnum. The latter of the two is an absolute blast, and anyone that played a lot of Halo: Combat Evolved will welcome back a pistol that can actually zoom in and kill with one-round headshots. The suppressed SMG is most effective at midrange in controlled bursts, but you’ll find yourself discarding it along the way in favour of more potent firepower. The lone omission is the battle rifle, which helps force players to approach things a different way since the BR long ago became the staple of most Halo aficionados.
From start to finish, you can expect to spend around six or seven hours playing through the campaign on heroic, assuming you spent some time exploring the city and looking for audio logs. The game also supports off-line and on-line co-operative play in the campaign mode, though the second player will simply fill the role of an unnamed ODST trooper and is not acknowledged in cut scenes. This makes the mode feel tacked on as opposed to Halo 3, where the second player slid into the role of the Arbiter.
Beyond the single-player mode, Halo 3: ODST also introduces a new multi-player mode called firefight, wherein you and up to three other players team up to fight wave after wave of Covenant forces. It’s a departure from the traditional competitive nature of Halo’s multiplayer, but it’s something that’s been seen before in other games such as Gears of War 2, where it was called Horde Mode.
That this is not a truly original concept doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s fantastically executed, as the game offers little time to even breath once the s**t hits the fan. Things start off fairly easy, but get ratcheted up quickly as grunts and jackals are replaced by hunters and brutes. The deeper you advance, the more skulls are activated. For those unfamiliar with the skulls, they serve as combat modifiers to increase the challenge. One skull makes it so your enemies are carrying (and tossing) a ton of grenades. Another requires you to melee an opponent to regain your stamina and so on.
Firefight mode allows you to play eight different maps, including two that can be played in the night or day, and some of them are really large. With only four players, an increasingly tough collection of adversaries and a spacious area to cover, teamwork is paramount to success. Those that enjoy going lone wolf in these types of games won’t be long for this world. It’s a great addition and the primary source of Halo 3: ODST’s longevity.
One important thing to note, however, is that firefight does not support matchmaking, meaning if you don’t have enough friends playing the game at a given time you’ll either need to spend your time doing something else or venture into gaming forums to find someone to invite you. Some may downplay this omission, but I think it’s a serious problem as it often takes 10-15 minutes to round up a game, and then if there’s an issue with lag you might be forced to repeat the process all over again. Hopefully, Bungie will decide to add matchmaking down the road.
Halo 3: ODST also ships with a second disc, containing the entire Halo 3 multi-player experience, which includes every adversarial map available to date, along with three previously unreleased maps. It’s a cool bonus, but Halo 3 fans that have previously spent up to $30 downloading the first three map packs are only really getting $10 worth of value (the cost of other map packs) from it. In many ways this feels like something Microsoft and Bungie added to help justify the $60 price tag. Yes, there’s no question it makes this package a great value to anyone that doesn’t already own Halo 3, but how many non-Halo fans are going to be purchasing this game anyway?
Bungie and Microsoft put themselves in an awkward spot by going on record early on and stating this wasn’t being viewed as a full release, only to ultimately charge $60 for it with the explanation that it grew beyond the original scope of the project and contains the aforementioned Halo 3 maps. Judged as a standalone title, Halo 3: ODST features a solid campaign and a new multi-player experience that should keep gamers busy through the end of 2009 and beyond. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that those that have supported Bungie by purchasing its map packs when they were originally released are getting the short end of the stick with the repackaging of that content on the second disc.