Whatís old is new again. As a member of the Orbital Drop Shock Trooper (ODST) corps, you are the Imperial Guardsman to the Spartanís Space Marine. If you arenít nerdy enough to catch that reference, what Iím saying is that you arenít a member of the elite this time around but one of the many: the juggernaut that is Master Chief has been replaced by a regular soldier. At least, that is the way it is supposed to be. In actuality, youíre more like Master Chief from Halo: Combat Evolved than a standard grunt Ė unpolished but far from ordinary.
As the faceless and voiceless Rookie, you are the newest member of the ODST. The events in Halo 2 have recently taken place, and the United Nations Space Command has called in the ODST to join in the defense of Earth against the Covenantís invasion. The squad is tasked with dropping down and rendering assistance to the defenders of the African megacity New Mombasa. As your squad is dropping down, a naval intelligence officer alters the podsí trajectories just as a retreating Covenant ship sends a shockwave that knocks the pods off from their newly designated marks.
After the disastrous, but very cool, drop sequence, you awake six hours later and find yourself isolated from your squad. New Mombasa is a veritable tomb, with a shroud of darkness covering the desolate city. Utilizing the VISR (Visual Intelligence System, Reconnaissance), a nifty enhancement to the Halo 3 visor that brightens your view while outlining objects, allies and enemies, you track down clues as to what happened to your squadmates during the preceding six hours. In a first for the series, the game is open for exploration nearly immediately, once the initial object is found, allowing you to proceed however you see fit. To be honest, the open-world feel really isnít prevalent, as there are several areas blocked off to the point where it feels as though you are being guided even though you really arenít. With each object the game switches from the moody, dark post-invaded New Mombasa that the Rookie is in to the bright, active New Mombasa immediately after the drop. Each squad memberís actions will then be relived, slowly revealing the events leading up to the Rookieís awakening. After the squad reunites, the game then leads off into a sequence that segways into Halo 3. The narrative mechanic is pretty novel, and it serves as an interesting medium to deliver an account of one of the many subplots within the universe Ė something the diehards will enjoy.
The dual mechanic approach is directly related to the time of day. During the daylight portions, the VISR isnít necessary and the action plays out as a traditional Halo title. Despite not being a Spartan, you are still incredibly tough and capable of mowing down hundreds of enemies. Much of the design in ODST is directly linked to Halo: Combat Evolved: instead of having a rechargeable shield you now have a rechargeable stamina bar, you regain base health with packs (now from chatty medical kiosks), and you cannot dual wield. About the only real difference is that you cannot jump as high as in the second or third title, but the disparity is negligible: you jump high instead of really high. Aside from ammo being somewhat scarce at times, you only feel slightly vulnerable whenever you need to add a few more smacks to take down tougher troops when engaging in melee. For the most part, combat is the same as the 2001 original.
The Rookieís portions take place at night and are noticeably slower paced. These sequences are where the game could have struck out on its own, truly pushing the series in a new direction; instead, you simply take dreary walks from hotspot to hotspot while having your VISR engaged so that you can see in the dark. Despite the design of the Rookieís portion encouraging you to stick to the shadows, with sudden swarms of often hyper-attentive enemies dropping out of nowhere, there are no mechanisms to solidify the stealth approach. There are moments throughout that speak to a truly unique, almost-Halo-but-not-quite experience that wasnít altogether dropped, which tantalize more than satisfy.
I think the ODST we ended up with is the result of the fact that itís hard being a Halo game. On one hand, the series is beloved and people largely go into a new entry wanting what theyíve been getting for nearly eight years now; on the other hand, itís been nearly eight years and very little has changed, with ODST often feeling like Halo 1.5. A series like Rainbow Six, for example, has evolved to take into account that a trained soldier would prefer to use cover rather than run headlong into fire, but Bungie is content to let a supposedly weaker soldier take the run-and-gun Spartan approach - but I can understand why. While I would have preferred that the game delivered on the premise of being a common man during the extraordinary events of the Covenant war, well, itís Halo, and I think the vast majority of players simply want more of the traditional style. I would have liked for this to be the release that really took the kind of chances it hinted at, to break the mold and truly make a name for itself within the franchise Ė and even possibly advance the genre Ė not necessarily by adding covering mechanics, blind fire, or anything common in the genre nowadays, but just by doing something unique and interesting true to Bungieís history.
The flashback mechanic is an interesting step in the right direction, even if it isnít always successful. Going from the sax-heavy noire feel of the Rookieís portion to the action-packed flashbacks, complete with wailing guitars, can be jarring. And to be honest, it took a while for me to get into the story because of the initial shock at just how dull the Rookieís portion is. It was only after an hour or so that I came to appreciate just how oppressive the loneliness is and that, six hours after the invasion, the Covenant has moved on with their plans while you are left to fend for yourself in the husk of a conquered city.
The carefully placed objects Ė police cars, buses, debris, etc. Ė does make the carnage feel a little too sterile, but clicking your VISR off during a breather and seeing a steady fall of ash while a skyscraper burns in the distance is flat-out awesome. Although I do need to point out that the game is in dire need of anti-aliasing, because some objects, especially when indoors, look so jagged that I checked my televisionís settings to make sure nothing was accidentally changed; the jaggies can really put a damper on some of the more memorable scenes. As atmospheric as the Rookieís portion is, things can also be poured on a bit too thick at times, with the soft jazz sounding a little too late-night cable for its own good. Even the excellent recorded radio serial that is tucked away piecemeal in phones and information booths, detailing the moments up to the invasion, could have been reined in bit more. There is also a love story that has been shoehorned in that is just awkward, and made more so by the creepy character models with their exaggerated synching animations. ODST definitely improves over time, abundance aside, and I was really enjoying myself by the end.
Clocking in at about six hours, the gameís length is a bit surprising, especially considering itís actually far shorter if you arenít interesting in tracking down all 30 parts of the serial Ė think around four hours. This is definitely one of the shorter Halo experiences. While you can play a co-op campaign and bout of firefight, the new multiplayer mode, the game only goes quicker with friends. I actually donít mind the shorter length, because it isnít that the game is too short for the story that Bungie wants to tell but that those hours arenít fully utilized. At six hours, the game should be an amazing experience, from beginning to end, but as enjoyable as ODST can be, itís not quite that.
Considering that multiplayer is where the gameís longevity lies, itís a shame that things start off on such a sour note. The big problem is that ODSTís multiplayer component lacks matchmaking. Now Iím not sure what technical reasons there are for why this is, but itís an absolutely ridiculous omission: if youíre going to charge full price for a game, then deliver a full-price experience. As compensation, and I donít know what else to call it, a second disc has been included that is overflowing with multiplayer possibilities: all of Halo 3ís original maps, all of the downloadable map packs (Heroic, Mythic, and Legendary), three new maps, for a total of 24, and the forge map editor. If you own some or all of the map packs, then ODST fits more in the rental category, but if youíre like me and opted out of getting the packs then they were released, then this is a solid deal. The second disc also has the additional positive side effect of considerably expanding the pool of players.
If multiplayer is the selling point, then firefight mode is the star of the show. Similar to Gears of War 2ís horde mode, though minus a bit of the strategic layer provided by the covering mechanism, you face off against increasingly dangerous and varied waves of enemies by yourself or with friends. Maps for firefight are unlocked during the campaign while character models are unlocked during firefight Ė a nice trickle of unlockables. Combos are tallied during combat, and noteworthy kills are rewarded with medals. Skulls are selected at the beginning of a round that modify difficulty, such as the enemies being more prone to avoiding fire. The real joy is the co-op experience, with you and a few friends blasting away enemies, desperately hunting down weapons, and hoping you donít run through your shared pool of lives before getting a few at the start of the next round.
The main downside to firefight, again, is the absence of matchmaking. Itís especially odd considering that the game is based off of Halo 3, whose own matchmaking works just fine with the maps included on disc two. Unless you have a healthy group of friends on your list that already has the game, itís a chore to set up games, having to search forums for people who are willing and able to play. As a consumer I do not care what technical issues arose during development, I care about being able to enjoy a game as much as possible with as little fuss as possible, and something as fundamental as matchmaking is crucial for that. The same system Ė or lack there of Ė is also utilized for multiplayer co-op with the campaign as well. Itís good fun once everything is up and running, earning achievements and taking snapshots with friends (or random forum-goers you just met), but in doing so I shouldnít feel like itís 1995.
The campaignís split between an investigation around a desolate downtown and all-out combat is interesting, but it can get heavy-handed and drag a little at times. The hidden radio serials are a great touch, fleshing out the build up to the Covenantís invasion while not being necessary to enjoy the story, and firefight mode is a great addition to the multiplayer side, though the lack of matchmaking can make connecting an unnecessary chore. Halo 3: ODST is a solid entry into the series, but not a must: the story can be tackled in under six hours, and multiplayer lasts about long enough for a rental period. Itís definitely worth your time - firefight is very addictive - but itís only a purchase if youíre a diehard fan or looking to catch up on all of Halo 3ís multiplayer offerings.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)