Halo Wars showed us that a Halo game in a different genre can do moderately well without Master Chief, but a first-person shooter? Can O.D.S.T. pull that off?
Master Chief is such an iconic gaming figure that it almost seems wrong to have an FPS with the Halo name on it without him. It's like a Mario game without Mario in it, or a Team Ninja game without breasts. Yet here we are, with a brand-new single-player adventure in the Halo universe with no sign of the big man.
O.D.S.T. began as a little bit of downloadable content that got too big for its own classification, making the leap to full-fledged game. The question is, is it worth its own game, and if so, how are they pulling it off without old MC?
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.
Halo 3: ODST does present a compelling alternative to the Master Chief, but the smartest thing about the game is that Bungie faces down this intimidating challenge by realising it cannot do so through one man alone. Although you control the Rookie, a seemingly fresh-faced but faceless new tip of the spear in the battle against the Covenant, the developer prefers to tell the story of New Mombasa through a series of playable vignettes, each of which showcases individual acts of very human heroism on the part of a scattered group of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers.
Halo 3: ODST retains the familiar Halo AI, which we still hold in high regard. Stronger enemies react according to your behaviour and will never rush until they are certain they have the upper hand. Grunts and weaker enemies such as the Jackals lose their nerve in battle if you take out nearby Brutes or other Covenant Chieftains. However, with help of the new VISR (standard addition for all ODSTs) enemy threats are easier to make out. When switched on the VISR allows you to see areas of interest and tell friend from foe. It sounds like it makes things too easy, but thanks to the well-balanced AI the game remains challenging throughout the entire campaign. Also, you'll enjoy the freedom that was given to the main character. Yep, the game is not as linear as Halo 3 or other titles in the series. Now, you can choose where you can go and which opponents to tackle.
Length aside, the campaign is not without other problems. The story is a largely un-engaging affair. The mysteriously silent Rookie is hard to love, and certainly lacks the heroic appeal of Master Chief. His squad mates are classic cliché-ridden space marines, with personalities that aren't explored to any great detail. The plot makes more sense than previous Halo titles, but is still hugely silly. The ending is barmy, and seems as if it should have had a massive bearing on the Halo universe as a whole, but clearly didn't because it's ramifications never came up in Halo 3.
Aside from the single-player game (which can also be played through in co-op), Halo 3: ODST also features a co-op multiplayer mode called Firefight. Similar to the Horde Mode in Gears of War 2, Firefight pits four human players against wave after wave of Covenant forces. The waves are randomly generated, though things do get progressively more difficult as you progress due to the skull modifiers. Firefight is a true test of skill, as it doesn't have an ending. Your team simply fights until it is dead. The catch is that you have a shared pool of lives, so one weak link can bring down an entire team. While reviewing the game, we saw some Firefight matches exceed an hour in play time. There's no doubt that this is going to be a popular gameplay mode on Xbox Live.
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.