When the original Xbox came out nearly eight years ago, people laughed it off as a cash-in attempt on the videogame market by M$. Few people realized that Microsoft was quietly developing their own killer app for the giant black box via a company named Bungie. The first Halo may not have reinvented the wheel, but it certainly streamlined and polished the first person shooter experience on the console. These days, Microsoft and the Chief go together like Disney and the Mouse. Rather than put out an annual sequel with cosmetic updates and call it Halo: The Next One, Microsoft has started branching out into the other aspects of the lore. Last March we saw a tactical effort with the quite-solid Halo Wars. This fall brings with it the drop of Halo 3: ODST. Still a first person shooter, but no longer the Master Chief, this game focuses on the “Best of the Best” of the UNSC’s military forces. Originally thought to be a twenty-dollar expansion pack, this game has been elevated to the full $60.00 price point of a full-featured release. Is it worth it?
Halo 3: ODST puts you in the role of the FNG, or Rookie, in a squad of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers. The story begins with an Intelligence officer being attached to your squad in order to secure something in the middle of New Mombasa. The timing of this couldn’t be worse, as it is just during the time that the Master Chief is busy driving the Covenant out of the city during Halo 2. During your insertion, an enemy cruiser goes to warp inside New Mombasa, ruining your flight at the same time as a good chunk of the city is destroyed. Knocked completely off course, your drop pod separates from the rest of your team. After spending most of the day unconscious, you pop open the seals on your pod and start trying to rendezvous with the rest of your squad. Here the game takes a very interesting twist from your standard Halo title. New Mombasa has been nearly leveled, with the center of the city being turned into a giant crater as a result of the warping ship. Night has fallen, and there are practically no Covenant left, and even less humans. Your role as the Rookie is to explore the city and search for signs of your squad, being occasionally helped by an insane City-controlling AI named the Superintendent. Fortunately it is not the, “GladDos is trying to kill me” crazy, but the “I can’t open that door now, grapefruit” insanity. Maybe something has gotten into the processing core, maybe the damage from the fight hurt the Superintendent’s server stack. Regardless, it speaks in riddles and half-helpful suggestions, and is spewing cash and train tickets from every ATM you come across.
During this segment of the game, Halo 3: ODST feels more like a survival horror game than a shooter. Yes, there are occasional Covenant to be put down, but mostly it is about tracking around the city and finding clues to the fate of your squad. Helping you do that is a very enhanced HUD. Not only can you view an overhead map of the city and set waypoints, but you also have a tactical visor that will outline friendly characters in green, hostiles in red, and most of the vehicles and other barriers in a brown. This helps immensely in getting around the ruined cityscape and shooting the right target. The music is very toned down in these sections as well. Usually the only accompaniment to the burning cars and howling winds is a mournful piano or saxophone tune. It really sets the stage for the idea of you as the last of your team. When you find an empty medical kit or a twisted sniper rifle, this only serves to increase the sense of loss. For instance, the first thing you find is half-shattered, half-burnt helmet of Captain Dare, your Intelligence Officer. Once you have scanned this, a quick cutscene plays setting the stage, and then you play the next half hour to forty-five minutes of flashback sequence that leads to your discovery. In this instance, you will be playing as Gunnery Sergeant Buck-voiced essentially as Mal from Firefly by Nathan Fillion-as he races to meet up with Captain Dare. At the end of that sequence, another cutscene plays, and you see the explosion that wedges the helmet into a wall.
That series of events-searching the ruined city, finding the artifact to kick off a flashback, and then playing through the flashback, makes up the bulk of Halo 3: ODST. While you certainly have the option of playing this with friends, it makes more sense and has much more emotional impact when played alone. Not only does the music by composer Martin O’Donnell change from the usual Halo march themes to mournful, haunting, single-instrument songs. If you let yourself be drawn into the story, then this might be the single best Halo story around. While you are even more silent than the Master Chief and never get to speak a single line of dialogue, you are also more human than him. This game also takes place exclusively on Earth, which is what Halo fans have been asking for since the first game launched. The pacing and delivery of the story are excellent even though the campaign is terribly brief. If nothing else, you never have to walk through the same three rooms over and over and over and (editor’s note-he goes on like this for five more pages) again. Neither does the campaign reach a halfway point and turn you back around. The squad’s stories that blend together and overlap with the Rookie’s and also foreshadow the fates of those troopers are delivered very well. Each story also acts as an example of a set-piece from the Halo series. There is an on-foot rush to get somewhere, a running firefight, a smattering of vehicle levels including Warthog, Banshee, and Tank driving missions, point defense against overwhelming odds, and a rush to interact with and evacuate an alien intelligence. Speaking of the aliens, most of the enemies are going to be familiar, but the Engineer class of Covenant is finally introduced from the literature.
One thing to keep in mind is that this is, essentially, an expansion pack. As such, nearly all of the graphic and sound elements are lifted straight from Halo 3. They might not be setting the world on fire, but they do animate very well and are instantly recognizable. The new areas of the game, such as the visor setting and the new faces, are a mixed bag. For some reason, and maybe the rush to get this game out in about a year is why, the faces of most of the ODST squad are awful. The helmets are good, but the faces seem blotchy and bulbous. When looking through the visor mode things look great as long as it is dark out. Just like night vision goggles, daylight washes out the effects. At night though the visor effects are not only cool, but necessary to see what is going on.
If the new graphics are passable, the new sounds are amazing. If you are a fan of Firefly, you need to play this game. This is as close as you are going to get to fighting alongside Captain Malcom Reynolds until somebody makes that game. There are a ton of inside jokes from that series as well. Two new weapons join the game and they sound perfect also. There is a scoped, suppressed SMG and Magnum that really make me want more of a stealth option in this series. Most of the campaign, especially the night-time segments, you can sneak around and drop a Grunt or Jackal with a near-silent burst. Once that first guy dies though, Halo 3: ODST reverts right back to typical Halo gameplay. Shoot and scoot and avoid damage to regenerate. While you don’t have Master Chief’s shielding technology, you do have an invisible Stamina pool to draw from before your health starts getting chipped away. In order to replenish that, you get to go back to gathering medkits. Sadly, this game actively takes away from the mystique and power of the iconic Master Chief. The Hunter enemies are back, but you can kill them with one or two shots to their unarmored backs. In the other Halo games, they took a LOT more than that to kill. Also you can rip turrets off of their bases again. However, after you do that you can move just as fast as you could before. Did the Master Chief have a bad back? Aside from those minor rebalancing issues, the campaign presents a good challenge.
Halo 3: ODST comes on two discs, and that is where things start to get weird. The first disc is the campaign and the Firefight mode. The second disc is the Halo 3 multiplayer game and all of the maps that have been released for it. You can’t put those maps onto your Xbox and play from the Halo 3 disc. You can, however, completely play all of the Halo 3 online games from this disc. If you are a Halo 3 fan and you have bought every map that came out online, you are now welcome to be pissed off. Consider $60.00 for Halo 3, another $30.00 for the DLC maps, and now another $60.00 for this product in order to have all the maps for online play. If you’ve done that, you’ve spent $90.00 throughout the last year to keep up to date, and now have to drop another $60.00 for the three maps exclusive to this game. It’s a pure money-making scheme, and one that I hope gamers get wise to and avoid this trap. However, it’s a Halo product, so it’s guaranteed to sell a hojillion copies. If the game was priced at $30.00 and included three new maps, or it had three individual codes to get the three other map packs so that you could sell those codes to people who still needed them, then there would be value. As is, This is not only a disservice to fans of the original game, but a punch in the wallet.
Deathmatch and Capture the Flag aren’t what most people are interested in though, at least for this release. The new hot thing in shooters is the, “us versus horrible odds” that Gears of War 2 brought with Horde. Call of Duty: World of War had it, and you can even consider Left4Dead to be a mobile Horde game. Halo 3: ODST calls this mode Firefight, and it is just as fun. However, there is one huge issue I’ll get to shortly. Set-up is pretty much as you expect, with your team picking skins and a map and jumping in. From there you will be running around doing everything you can to survive wave after wave of Covenant troops and vehicles. Instead of the ability to resurrect your allies, you split seven lives amongst your team. Run out of those and its game over. You constantly must scavenge for ammunition and weapons in order to survive. This mode is amazingly addictive and tons of fun. It also adds a lot of strategic stuff as well. Let’s say you have a four man squad, and one of you, well, sucks. If you are on the last life, is it better to let this guy die so that the other three can finish the round? Or do you try to keep him alive so he doesn’t use up a life for that could go to someone else? So, fun game, right? Well…here’s my big issue. There is no matchmaking for this gametype. You can ONLY play with other people on your friends list that have this game. Bungie and Microsoft have to fix this right the hell now if they want me to recommend this game. What if my friends aren’t available? What if I just want to play the game with some random people for twenty minutes? One of the major selling points of Xbox Live is that at any given time, chances are you can find someone to play the game you want to play. Well, if you don’t have someone on your friends list, you can forget about it. Guess what? The game isn’t fun at all if you’re playing it solo. I don’t know who made this design decision, but the sooner they are run out of town with a sharp stick the better.
Story/Modes: Very Good
Graphics: Very Good
Gameplay/Control: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Poor
Final Score: Above Average Game!
Short Attention Span Summary
Halo 3: ODST started life as an expansion pack and blew up to full game pricing. In doing so, it will likely go down as another footnote in the ongoing debate of how much is content worth? The single player campaign is just what you would want from an expansion pack, and it looks at other things besides the normal “See the Master Chief mow down the enemy” gameplay that fans are used to. Taking place entirely on Earth and leaving the Flood out of the game completely was a great choice. The Firefight mode is great, but only being able to play it with your friends is a kick in the teeth. The second disc features the entirety of Halo 3 multiplayer up to this point, but if you’ve already been buying the map packs, what is the point? Huge fans of Halo will easily be pleased, but most people can wait to pick this up till it drops in price.