The Halo franchise gets a lot of crap due to its popularity, its accessibility, its streamlined design, the rather questionable online userbase it’s generated, and who knows what else — but I appreciate the games for offering a quick, satisfying, single-player experience and for delivering a genuine challenge on higher difficulty settings. Bungie’s design philosophy centers around a string of self-contained encounters that force you to make effective use of your full (limited) arsenal, the environment, and an ability to predict the behavior of some rather chaotic enemies.
Of course, I’ve been a Bungie fan since I first ran through a demo of Marathon 2: Durandal on the Quadra 800 at my school’s newspaper, so perhaps I was doomed to love Halo no matter what. Still, even I was surprised by just how good Halo 3: ODST is. I figured the series was more or less tapped out, as it consists of a fairly limited “sandbox” of elements which appeared to have been fully explored and rearranged over the course of Halo 3. ODST began life as an expansion pack, or so we’ve been told, and on top of that its campaign is limited to a very specific slice of the Halo universe, which means that it completely omits a big chunk of that already thoroughly explored sandbox.
Halo 3: ODST
Bungie / Microsoft | Xbox 360 | First-person noir
But just as a master chef can create great cuisine even from leftover ingredients, a Master Chief can… oh, wait, there’s no Master Chief in this one. Ahem, I mean: Like a master chef, Bungie created a great shooter not on the strength of its raw components but rather in how they were presented. ODST is unlike any other game in the series, although it’s definitely of the Halo oeuvre. The central game, set in the nighttime streets of New Mombasa in the wake of a disastrous combat mission, sees the rookie member of an elite shock trooper team casting about to find his lost teammates. The rest of the story plays out in flashback vignettes that relay the fate of the rest of the rookie’s squad. These two aspects of the game feel wildly different from one another, yet they still work together neatly to create a somewhat open-ended Halo experience.
The flashbacks are pretty much what you would expect from Halo; each one is presented from the perspective of a different missing member of the ODST squad, being set within the boundaries of New Mombasa or its immediate boundaries and pushing the player from one encounter setpiece to the next at a brisk pace. Yet while the mechanics and pacing are familiar, the running dialogue does wonders to help define the ODSTs as characters — predictable archetypal characters, admittedly, but a likable army troupe of soldiers nonetheless. It helps a lot that Bungie recruited the voices and likenesses of fan favorite actors like Nathan Fillion and Adam Baldwin to play characters who are, essentially, machinima versions of Malcolm Reynolds and Jayne Cobb. Even with the Halo 3 engine’s infamously ugly people, seeing a guy who looks like Nathan Fillion talking like Nathan Fillion and delivering Nathan Fillion-esque dialogue does a lot to class up the experience.
And the shooty bits are good, too. A breeze for series vets on Normal, tricky on Heroic, hair-pulling on Legendary. The encounters feel a bit predictable, unfortunately, but even then ODST throws a spanner into the works: Since you’re not playing as the Master Chief, not only do you get to hear more interesting dialogue, you also have to think harder about your encounters. Grunts is Grunts, of course; David recorded the opening moments of my review session, at which point I hadn’t played an FPS in about a year, and I still managed to make short work of the little bastards. This isn’t because I’m awesome at Halo or anything — far from it, in fact — but just because the game feels instantly familiar.
Pretty soon, though, you begin running into bigger, stronger, tougher enemies, and you realize something’s off. They take more effort to put down, they seem to be harder to avoid, and they’re basically just more threatening. Bungie took a bit of a risk in demoting players from Spartan super-soldier to mere elite human, but it paid off: They mixed up the control physics to make you slower, weaker, and less agile. You can’t jump as high, you can’t run as fast, you can’t dual-wield, you can’t melee as hard. There are some odd inconsistencies — your non-Spartan health works pretty much exactly the same as the Chief’s did in the original Halo — but on the whole it makes for a fantastic game, a real challenge. Enemies like the hammer-wielding Brute chieftain get upgraded from mere bastardry to “I hate him as much as the red devil from Ghosts ‘N Goblins” status. And even the interface reflects the difference: You know your stamina is restored not by the hum of a recharging shield but because you hear your ODST’s sigh of relief as his breathing returns to normal.
What really sells the game, though, aren’t the familiar sights and encounters of the vignettes but rather than solitude of the hub world in the rookie segments. Here, you’re given free control to roam the streets at your leisure, working your way through pitch-black streets patrolled by teams of Covenant marauders. How you approach New Mombasa is completely left to your discretion. You can play it stealthy by turning off your scanner and moving about in the dark with silenced weapons; or you can take on the bad guys head-on. You can plan your route about the city around the patrols or through them, you can take side trips to find hidden terminals that explore a key component of the game’s backstory through audio flashbacks, you can unlock hidden caches of weapons and vehicles. You can play it solo, soaking up the atmosphere, or you can play in tandem with a fellow rookie — and unlike Halo 3, every inch of ODST is designed as a cooperative experience. In fact, many of its encounters seem designed to foster teamwork, and few things are more satisfying than teaming up with another player to take down a pair of Hunters with cat-and-mouse tactics.
In short, ODST is the first Halo to give me the one thing I love most in games — freedom and openness — and it does so in a manner that still feels wholly consistent with the previous games. Yeah, I’d fought these same enemies before, but even that worked in ODST’s favor, I think. The “expansion pack” nature of ODST meant that Bungie didn’t have to concentrate so much on riding the cutting edge of tech and could instead focus on offering a better story and a more developed environment. Oh, and the best soundtrack of the year. And I didn’t even mention to cooperative multiplayer, which is so much more interesting than normal deathmatch play! Gosh.
ODST sold well, I think, but it didn’t command the same hype as previous Halo games… which is a shame, because in my book, it’s the best one yet.