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ODST is all about mindset.
Are you hoping for more Halo 3? Are you looking forward to another adventure in that game’s grandly exaggerated yet comfortingly familiar universe? Are you excited to wield the same crazy weapons and vehicles in brand new battles, to encounter the same smart enemies in unexpected new situations and to witness the same epic war from an entirely new perspective? Are more missions and more multiplayer enough? If so, then ODST is the answer. You will definitely not be disappointed.
But what if you got carried away by the hype? What if that amazing live-action trailer, or that significant September release date, have you convinced that ODST is the next major milestone in the Halo phenomenon? What if the talk about detective characters, film noir settings and gritty close-quarters combat have you anticipating a bold departure from the Bungie formula? Then yeah, you might be in for a bit of a letdown. Like we said at the start, though, all you need is the right mindset. So here’s what you should expect from Halo 3: ODST…
For pure escapism, Master Chief is the perfect hero. He stands seven feet tall, he wears nearly invulnerable armor, he hangs out with naked computer chicks and, best of all, he’s a blank slate on which players can project themselves. For narrative impact and emotional resonance, however, he sucks… no one can really relate to, or truly empathize with, a faceless genetic supermachine.
His controversial absence in ODST, therefore, is actually a big plus. Halo’s developers have finally been freed to create new heroes, and this time, they’ve written them to be much more realistic, much more believable and much more human. “Orbital Drop Shock Trooper” may sound like a fancy title, and does indicate special training, but these men are still simple soldiers with a limited knowledge of the overall conflict. They follow orders, even if they don’t agree with them. They bicker. They crack jokes. They compare war stories and watch each other’s backs. They make lewd comments about the opposite sex, or reveal long-simmering romances. In other words, they have real personalities.
Above: Look ma, no masks!
The game’s story is structured differently, too, enabling these characters’ differences to shine. When an ODST mission to Earth goes disastrously wrong, the squad is scattered across the futuristic city of New Mombasa, Africa – visited briefly in Halo 2 – and the team’s rookie member is forced to wander the urban landscape at night, piecing together what happened during the six hours he was unconscious in his drop pod.
Sadly, the Rookie is as silent and empty a vessel as Master Chief. Each time he discovers a clue to his friends’ location, though, you’ll jump into their unique and colorful shoes for a flashback mission. One is a trigger-happy explosives expert who gets his hands on a tank. One is the gruff and grumbly cowboy type who must protect a critical government facility. One’s got a cocky attitude, but the sniper skills to match. One’s the leader (voiced by Firefly’s Nathan Fillion), trying desperately to rescue his female superior (voiced by Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer) and discover her secret reasons for sending them on this failed operation to begin with.
Compared to the sweeping galactic saga that is the original Halo trilogy, ODST’s plot is decidedly small-scale. Intimate. You won’t experience any earth-shattering revelations, or be blown away by too many breathtaking setpieces. You certainly won’t feel like you’re saving the universe. Some players will undoubtedly be bored, but after eight years of increasingly convoluted story threads that often required the help of novelizations and comic books to unravel, we felt refreshed.
The heroes are different. The plot and structure are different. The settings are different. Why, then, did we warn you not to think of Halo 3: ODST as the “bold departure” from formula that the pre-release buzz might have you believe? Because below that intriguing new surface lies the same basic game you’ve been playing since 2001. That could be a very good thing, depending on your perspective, but it’s a truth that needs to be addressed.
Take the new ODST protagonists, for example. Although they’re not scientifically-enhanced Spartans like Master Chief, they control and play almost exactly like them. They’re a little shorter and a little slower, of course. They can’t jump quite as high or regenerate health quite as quickly. Changes like these don’t make an enormous impact on the overall gameplay, however, and the average player will barely notice them. The tweaked health system is carried over from the original Halo, in fact, and additional distinctions – like the inability to dual wield weapons or use equipment – are annoyances. Why can an ODST swing the Gravity Hammer with ease, but not figure out how to activate a Bubble Shield?
The missions often feel familiar as well, an inevitability since you’re blasting through them with the exact same vehicles and the nearly the exact same weapons that Master Chief had in his games. For instance, a Warthog romp through the city’s zoological nature preserve sounds awesome, and is really fun, but doesn’t play too differently from the Tsavo savannah sections or Ark desert areas in Halo 3. Sniping Jackals across the roofs of the police headquarters is extremely reminiscent of sniping Jackals across buildings in Halo 1 or Halo 2. You’ll encounter plenty of the franchise’s infamously repetitive hallway combat, too.
Still, ODST will surprise you. We’ve been in Banshee dogfights before, but never in the midst of a rain-drenched metropolis at night, with glittering windows and glowing exhaust trails transforming the entire scene into something out of Tron. We’ve taken down a Covenant dropship before, but never had to destroy three or four Covenant dropships in a row, on foot, while trapped at the top of a skyscraper with a handheld missile launcher. We’ve killed plenty of Grunts, but never spun wildly in circles, trying to mow down wave after wave of kamikaze Grunts before they reached our single, exposed turret in the middle of the room. Unexpected moments like these are peppered throughout the campaign, and keep Halo 3: ODST from coming across like a total rerun.
Extra special mention must also go to the aforementioned Rookie mission, in which you search New Mombasa for your missing teammates. Everything is different here: the setting is dark, the atmosphere is somber, the music is moody, the enemies are unpredictable and the gameplay is nonlinear. You’ll plot your own path through the city’s streets, alleys and plazas, sometimes choosing to run or drive across an open block in order to save time, and other times opting to cut through an office building’s cramped inner passages in order to avoid one of the randomly generated alien patrols.
This is the section in which you’ll be forced to turn on your cool ODST night vision, brightening the night and outlining shadowy enemies in red. This is the section in which you can hunt for the 30 collectible audio files, unlocking both a side story and supply points across the map. This is the section in which you’ll hear saxophone solos added to the score and briefly feel like that film-noir detective . This is the only section of ODST’s campaign that really does represent a brave new direction for the Halo series… and because the scenario acts as a hub for all the game’s flashback stories, you’ll get to return to it again and again.
Like we said at the beginning of this review, ODST is all about mindset – not merely your pre-release expectations for the game, but also your pre-release experiences with the franchise as a whole. Just how big of a Halo nerd are you? How deep is your knowledge, and how honed is your skill? Are you a passionate and devoted lover of the series, or a friendly and occasional acquaintance? The answer will affect your enjoyment of ODST to such a meaningful degree that we recommend adding or subtracting a point from our score in response.
Hardcore Halo fans, for example, will geek out when they discover that the new scoped, semi-automatic pistol (M6C) is as powerful as the original handgun wielded by Master Chief in Combat Evolved (M6D). Casual Halo fans, meanwhile, will be disappointed that such a minor distinction passes for “new” at all.
Hardcore fans will cheer when they first spot the blob-like Engineers, knowing that while the creatures have appeared in novels and were supposed to appear in the first game, this is their first digital appearance outside of Halo Wars. Casual fans will simply shake their heads in confusion, wondering why these bizarre, extraterrestrial Koosh balls are being treated with so much reverence by the plot.
The list goes on. Scrawled graffiti references like “Remember Reach” and “Glass this!” An entire level set in and around the ONI Facility. Unlockable side stories depicting New Mombasa before the Covenant attack. A post-credits ending featuring a familiar face. All of these minor things will add major value to the hardcore Halo lover, while simultaneously flying over the heads of casual Halo fans, if not alienating them altogether.
One element of ODST, however, will bring everyone into agreement, just as one element of Halo has always brought everyone into agreement. Multiplayer.
No matter what type of fan you are, you will find something to love in Halo 3: ODST’s multiplayer. If you’re a nonstop competitive fiend who belongs to a clan and has every map memorized at this point, you’ll get a trio of fresh battlegrounds on which to expand your rampage. Each has been beautifully polished and carefully balanced. Each feels like a completely new experience, while still paying homage to a beloved map in the franchise’s past. Each encourages a different type of play and a different kind of fun. In other words, each has been designed with the usual Bungie flair.
Above: The new multiplayer maps: Longshore, Citadel and Heretic
If you only jump into Halo 3’s multiplayer now and again, ODST is still an attractive package, as you’ve probably neglected – or avoided – the extra downloadable maps sold over Xbox Live. Most of them have been pretty damn good, though, and ODST gives you a chance to get every Halo 3 map – that’s 24 in total – in one place.
But what if you’re tired of the multiplayer? What if you’re sick of being slaughtered and heckled by teenage boys? What if you’re hesitant to dive into those lobbies ever again? For you, there’s Firefight.
ODST’s cooperative survival mode might be the game’s single biggest selling point. In Firefight, you team up with three friends and work together to fight off wave after wave of Covenant enemies. The longer you hold out, the harder they get. Sound familiar? Yeah, in theory, it’s basically the same as Horde in Gears of War 2, Zombies in Call of Duty: World at War or Survival in Left 4 Dead. In practice, however, it’s very different.
In many ways, it’s more fun, too. You’re not holed up in a small house with your allies, or cowering behind sandbags; you’re running and leaping across large, expansive arenas full of multi-level buildings and wide open clearings. You’re grabbing new weapons, and hijacking new vehicles, every chance you get. In one minute of one match, you might be on the roof, sniping Hunters with a Spartan Laser. A minute later, you might be circling the ground below in a Warthog, or running down Brutes with a stolen Ghost. Right after that, you could be holed up inside, searching desperately for health packs and fending off Jackals with a shotgun. The combat is constantly changing.
And while Firefight is obviously more colorful and chaotic than other co-op survival modes, there’s no tradeoff in intensity. Each time you reach another wave, Halo’s famous skulls are activated and additional rules are put into place. The aliens might drop less ammo, dodge more easily and shoot more accurately. Plus, all players share the aforementioned health packs, of which there are a limited supply. You’ll learn to be more strategic than you’ve ever been in a Halo game before.
The Halo: Reach multiplayer beta launches in 2010… we’d guess around May. If you want to play, you’ll need ODST. We’re not considering that in our judgment of the game, but we can’t ignore the fact that you probably will when you decide whether or not to buy it. Especially since Halo: Reach will be the next true evolution in the series.
So what does that make ODST?
Semantics, semantics. We realize that everyone will want an opinion on this topic, but we also know that everyone who asks will have their own specific definition and idea of what exactly an “expansion pack” is. If the term is negative to you, than Halo 3: ODST shouldn’t qualify. When you buy the game, you get a whole new campaign mode, with a new story, new characters, new environments and new missions. You get three new multiplayer maps, and possibly many more if you haven’t been paying for previous updates. You get Firefight co-op, which is hours of entertainment alone. ODST is not an afterthought add-on.
That said, Halo 3: ODST does not feel like a full game to us, either. The campaign only lasts between 6-8 hours; play on Normal instead of Heroic or Legendary difficulty and you could be done in as little as 4-5. There are nine missions – only one less than in Halo 3 – but they all seem much shorter and much simpler. They also don’t cover nearly as much terrain. We often finished just as we thought we were reaching the halfway point.
So the answer lies somewhere in between. Less than a standalone game. More than an expansion pack. Here are some analogies to help you:
Halo 3? No… unless you really hate Master Chief. ODST is a second, smaller adventure in the Halo 3 universe and definitely no replacement for the epic, sprawling original. In fact, you’ll probably finish in half the time. That said, this story is easier to follow and these characters are more sympathetic. Some players will prefer the more intimate mood and atmosphere as well.
Gears of War 2? If we’re talking single player, then no. Gears 2 is a full-fledged sequel that increased the scope and scale of its predecessor; ODST is not. For multiplayer, on the other hand, plenty of folks will prefer Halo 3’s little brother. You get 24 maps in one package, as opposed to 10, and the cooperative survival mode – Firefight – is arguably better than Horde. Wilder and crazier at least.
Halo Wars? Definitely. We didn’t mean to lower your expectations that much. Sure, both games are spinoffs, both games are rather short and both games feature stories with little significance to the overall trilogy plot. ODST is still a shooter, though, and basically more of what you loved about Halo 3. The tweaks to the series are slight in this case, and for the most part, they work.
In many ways, Halo 3: ODST marks a bold departure from the franchise formula, with story, characters, atmosphere and multiplayer that are refreshingly, surprisingly different. Due to a short campaign and overly familiar gameplay, however, it fails to escape the “expansion pack” label.
Sep 19, 2009
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