Halo games are mighty productions, but Bungie's latest offers intentional and unintentional weaknesses, allowing the studio to experiment and excel. All this while showing rare vulnerability.
Bungie's fourth Halo game, Halo 3: ODST, will officially be released for the Xbox 360 this week. A side story of a campaign that leads into the events of Halo 3, the game stars less powerful protagonists than series champion Master Chief. It is packaged in a way that has provoked consumer doubt. And it's set for a market rematch against its only formidable competitor in the past eight years.
The ODST package is an unusual bundle. It combines a first-person campaign playable by up to four gamers and can be completed more quickly than those of previous Halos. It also offers three new competitive Halo 3 multiplayer maps, 21 Halo 3 maps that were previously available for purchase and 10 maps of a new cooperative combat Firefight mode along with an as-yet-unusable invitation to the online beta for Halo: Reach, Bungie's next Halo game.
The campaign puts players in control of a rotating cast of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, switching control back and forth between Rookie, who is playable in a timeframe set several hours after his team's drop into the besieged Earth city of New Mombasa has gone wrong, and different members of Rookie's squad. The latter are playable in flashbacks set immediately after the drop. It's all set in first-person, and the series-staple Covenant are the enemy. Master Chief's most powerful vehicle-jacking moves are gone and health is harder to restore, but ODSTs are still fierce warriors.
Genre-Topping Combat: Halo 3: ODST has been promoted as an adventure of urban combat, an open-world nighttime journey through the ravaged city of New Mombasa that is interrupted by the game's main missions: playable, linear flashback sequences set mostly in broader battlefields like bridges, rooftops and the outskirts of the city's zoo. Whether set in alleyways or under a big sky, the battles engineered by Bungie are as interesting and dynamic as ever. The tactical triangle of guns, grenades and melee is pitted against a familiar and excitingly smart cast of enemies who rush and cover and toss their own grenades in ways that make most skirmishes tales worth re-telling in their own right. Bungie paces the linear flashback missions well. One highlight is a tense and constricted rooftop battle that culminates with the explosive defense of a landing zone from an intense aerial assault of fighters and troop carriers.
Vehicles Worth Driving: I've written before that Halo, to me, represents the digital realization of the 11-year-old boy's fantasy of playing combat with his GI Joes. As a boy and now as a Halo player, I enjoy the toy experience of smashing enemies with an armed truck or flying down a canyon of skyscrapers with a purple hoverplane that shoots lasers. The most direct access to vehicles is in the flashback missions, and each fight through battlefield hell on a Halo ride is a thrill.
A Better Side Story: ODST creative director Joseph Staten has told Kotaku that Bungie's new game is inspired by noir and its cast of colorful, lone-wolf detectives searching for clues in the mean city. The players' main character, Rookie, gets to adopt a role like that as he creeps through the dark enemy-patrolled streets of New Mombasa using a series-new visor that highlights items and characters of interest amid the blackness. Rookie searches for beacons that trigger those playable flashbacks which star his squadmates in the hours right after the ODSTs' illI-fated drop. The beacons are curious items — a helmet smashed into a big monitor, a rifle dangling from a power line — that evoke small mysteries of their own. The flashbacks explain their origins.
Equally intriguing is the story the player gleans by accessing computer terminals located throughout the city. These discoveries drip, through voiceover and drawings, the surprisingly harrowing tale of Sadie, a young woman whose life was upturned in the Covenant attack. Extra credit goes to Bungie for figuring out how to introduce a surprise gameplay benefit to tracking down this side narrative, an accomplishment not seen in other games with rich side-stories, such as BioShock and Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Finally, Multiplayer For The Weak: Most of what I played for this review was ODST's campaign, but, for consumers, the most-played part of ODST is bound to be Firefight, an infinite co-op survival mode that supports up to four players against waves of enemies. The rules of these encounters differ from the oft-compared Horde mode in Gears of War 2. In ODST, the completion of Firefight waves introduces new gameplay complications designated as "skulls" that cause all enemies to, among other things, toss more grenades or more smartly evade danger. The best thing about Firefight is that, at last, all players of an online Halo match can play to the benefit of each other. No matter how good Bungie's matchmaking has been, venturing into a competitive match could leave the casual Halo gamer shellshocked from the abuse of multiple losses. In Firefight, the rivals won't teabag you or call you names. Humanity can finally band together to use its Halo skills against a common digital foe.
Underdone Overworld: ODST, like August's Wolfenstein before it, is a first-person shooter that connects its linear main missions to a hub world, allowing several of its missions to be accessed and played out of order. This structure gives the player more control of the game's flow, but being able to choose one's own adventure gains the Halo gamer little. It is no more illuminating or intriguing to learn the story of ODST's handful of flashback missions out of order than it would have been to learn them in an order mandated by Bungie. The benefit of the overworld/flashback design is supposed to be a contrast in moods: Dark, quiet exploration of the streets backed with a lighter soundtrack does evoke a softer, creepier anxiety than fighting in the flashback missions under bright sun with allies at your sides and war drums beating through the TV speakers. But I only experienced that contrast of moods when I played the game solo. The distinction was muted when I fought through the campaign in never-lonely, always-chattering co-op.
Unknown Hero: Master Chief might as well be an oversharing Twitter addict compared to ODST's lead, the Rookie. The hero of the game's nocturnal detective story reveals nothing about himself in this adventure. The reactions to our hero — the method through which so much of the Chief's identity was defined — reveal nothing that casts Rookie as a character with any character. It's better in the flashbacks, where the playable protagonists are more emotive and more interesting. Also more lively than our main man is the city's Superintendent, an intelligence that manifests itself through talking New Mombasa city computers, flashing directions by taking over digital signs that switch from ads to detour alerts. In Sadie's story, the Superintendent is so expressive through New Mombasa's network of technology that it can stop a train from reaching its station or make an ATM spit money to distract a menace. If only the interactions between the Rookie and the Superintendent were more frequent and more mechanically clever, then we could have had a more memorable lead presence.
Bad Habits: I won't spoil the thankfully infrequent tedious moments of ODST's campaign any more than I will most of the frequently exciting ones. But Bungie still can't shake its legacy of having created the dull and respective Library level in the first Halo and skates toward repeating that error in architecture in ODST.
The unusual collection of features that comes on the two-disc ODST set ensures that the value of ODST will vary among consumers more than most new releases do. Single-player fans will find a little less to do in this game than they did in 2007's Halo 3. If multiplayer is the attraction, buyer beware that those who have already purchased any Halo 3 maps will find less new content for their dollar here. That, among other factors, may sway some consumers to consider purchasing Modern Warfare 2 instead, the season's other big shooter. Two years ago, the last Modern Warfare proved the stiffest competition in terms of acclaim and online popularity to that season's Halo. Having not played Modern Warfare 2, we can't compare the games for you.
If you want to judge ODST for its fun without worrying about its price and the contents of its case, then know that its campaign hits the peaks of Halo 3 less often due both to its relative brevity and its uneven, experimental hubworld. The campaign can mostly be a joy. Firefight with a group of players is a blast. The main hero may be a bore, but the fiction is at least as interesting as it was in prior Halo games. Bungie's done good this time. That's a victory, even if that's a departure from a series which has often seen Bungie do great.
(Halo 3: ODST was developed by Bungie Studios and published by Microsoft for the Xbox 360 on September 22. Retails for $59.99 USD. Played through the campaign on co-op with N'Gai Croal on the recommended Heroic difficulty at a Microsoft review event, using finished copies of the game, over the course of seven hours, with a break for lunch. Played through several missions solo on Heroic and the easier default Normal difficulty. Also played several rounds of four-player Firefight and all three new Halo 3 maps, the enjoyably cramped Heretic, the weapon-filled Citadel and Longshore. All multiplayer sessions were networked over system link; online connections could not be tested prior to the game's launch.)
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