Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
Bungie's gamble with the Halo franchise pays off. Mostly.
Halo 3: ODST (formerly Halo 3: Recon) started out as an expansion to Halo 3. Intended to be a 2-3 hour single-player campaign to appease gamers while Bungie worked on Halo: Reach, the development actually went so well that it grew into a full game in its own right. And while it carries the Halo moniker this game was by no means a sure thing for Bungie given the chances they've taken and the departures they made from the successful formula of past Halo games. Although there are some weak points in Halo 3: ODST and some valid causes for complaint, this is by and large a successful venture and a good game (and not just a good Halo game).
Perhaps the biggest chance Bungie has taken with ODST is the game's protagonist. ODST is the first game in the Halo franchise not to feature the iconic Master Chief (I'm not counting Halo Wars as that's a different beast altogether being a real-time strategy game, not to mention it wasn't developed by Bungie). ODST follows a team of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers as they engage the invading Covenant forces in the mega city of New Mombassa, Africa, while the Chief pursues the Covenant across the galaxy during the events of Halo 2.
But that is not the only notable departure. Whereas previous Halo games featuring the Chief are grand, epic adventures with the fate of the galaxy at stake, ODST is a much smaller, more personal narrative concerned with the fate of this team of elite soldiers. Players assume the role of "The Rookie" (whom I'll have more to say about later), who is on board an orbiting UNSC ship with fellow team members Buck, Dutch, Mickey, Romeo, and Agent Dare of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) when the Covenant attacks Earth. As the ODSTs deploy via their Human Entry Vehicles (HEVs), a Covenant carrier hovering above the city makes an emergency slip-space jump (as mentioned this is a major event in the early going of Halo 2). This causes widespread destruction and disrupts the trajectories of your ODST team, scattering you and them throughout New Mombassa.
ODST opens six hours after the drop, as you take control of The Rookie and begin exploring the city under the cover of darkness. Beacons help direct your search, and once located you must look for clues to learn the fate of your squad mates. When a clue is found a flashback sequence is triggered where you now take control of one other member of your ODST team and play out their experiences at earlier points after the drop. Other reviews have pointed out how much the tone of the game shifts between these sequences. While The Rookie's are filled with a sense of loneliness and quiet tension, the flashbacks set during daylight are much more frenetic and action-packed. These dramatic shifts back and forth are a bit jarring, but in the context of the unfolding narrative it actually manages to work quite well.
Speaking of the narrative, the tone of the story Bungie is telling in ODST is really the first notable difference from past Halo games. Whereas they tend to open with grand scores laden with powerful, near-Gregorian-chant-like vocals, contrasting sharply with this are the opening credits of ODST that feature a forlorn saxophone and a quieter, more somber score. Developers at Bungie have talked about how they wanted to give ODST a film noir feel and sense of mystery. By and large the soundtrack is excellent, and it especially helps achieve Bungie's goals on The Rookie's levels, less so during the other ODST flashbacks.
However, it seems an odd choice for Bungie to make the campaign compatible with cooperative play, as the noirish tone and sense of isolation they've worked so hard to achieve is completely lost when playing through the campaign with a friend. Also somewhat puzzling is the fact that the coop feels tacked on at the last minute, as all of the cut scenes and in-game dialogue still play out as though there's only one person playing the game. I found it disappointing that on many of the flashback levels where more than one of the ODST squad members are featured, one of them is still AI-controlled (just as in the solo campaign) rather than letting one a gamer play as that character. I'd highly recommend gamers to go through the campaign first solo, then replay it (perhaps on a higher difficulty setting) with a buddy.
There are two other complaints that I have about ODST. One centers on The Rookie. If never revealing Master Chief's face and making him a man of very few words was intended to create a sort of blank slate for gamers to "inhabit those shoes [and] apply their own personality," then Bungie's approach to The Rookie is that taken to the nth degree. You never learn The Rookie's name, never see his face, never hear him speak (not one word!) through the whole campaign. I think this was a mistake for ODST and is symptomatic of a larger problem with video games today (which is a matter for another time).
ODST is inhabited by characters with personalities that, while by no means strong in their own right, by comparison with the void that is The Rookie are downright Herculean. Moreover they all have names and dialogue and you get to see their faces. That helps because you are supposed to care about these characters enough to spend hours and hours of real-world time discovering their fate and saving them if possible. The problem as I see it is that by making The Rookie a near non-entity who has a line or two of dialogue spoken to him in the opening cut scene but essentially doesn't interact in any significant way with the other squad members, the player doesn't feel any meaningful connection to the team. The Rookie doesn't appear to have any history with these characters, so why should he (and more importantly why should the player) really care what happens to them? It may be enough to simply follow the path the game lays out for you, but I personally would have liked better characterization all around, most certainly with respect to The Rookie.
The other complaint I have about ODST is the way it was bundled and priced. When it was originally just an expansion, there was speculation as to whether it would get a price point lower than the typical $59.99. However, that price tag stuck, and a question that's been asked in nearly every review I've read for ODST is: "Is the game worth it?" Most reviews I've read have answered that question in the affirmative. I would agree with them, given everything Bungie packed into this release. There's the 6-7 hour campaign, the new Firefight multiplayer mode, as well as a second disc with the complete Halo 3 multiplayer component including every map Bungie's released on XBLM. Yet while it's great for this all to be bundled together if you either no longer own Halo 3 and/or never downloaded any of the new maps, for any gamers out there that don't fit that description, i.e. the major fans you still own and still devote many hours playing Halo 3 multiplayer, you're essentially having to pay for what you already have. Does that seem fair? Given Microsoft's history of bending over gamers this maybe should come as no surprise, but the least they could have done was provide gamers with a choice. The bundle as I described it above for $59.99, and the ODST campaign plus Firefight for a lesser price, say $29.99 or even $39.99. It just seems like a dick move.
Getting back to the actual game, as I said there's a lot of great content here. The new mutliplayer component Firefight is tremendous fun. Similar to the Hoarde mode in Gears of War 2, Firefight pits a team of up to four players against wave after wave of Covenant. The goal is simple: survive as long as you can. I've only played this with one other friend, but we still managed to create a serious amount of mayhem and decimation of those Covenant bastards. Four players would just be ridiculous, insane amounts of awesome.
I could talk about that second disc and the Halo 3 mutliplayer component, but as I said there's nothing really new there. All in all, I'm not sure the game is worth the price tag Microsoft has placed on it. But independent of price (and I realize it's hard to ignore that) there's a lot of great content here. Bungie deserves respect for not simply playing it safe but actually taking some chances with ODST. The result isn't perfect, but it's definitely a lot of fun.