Review by doctor 7
"Ultimately Halo 3: ODST is the poorest Halo FPS release so far and it's due largely in part to it being overpriced."
Before I start this review I should say that I've been a long time fan of Bungie. My first Bungie game was a first person shooter for the Macintosh entitled Marathon. Since I've played all their games including the Marathon trilogy, both Myth and Myth II: Soulblighter, I even bought an Xbox for the sole purpose of playing Halo, which still remains one of the most memorable console experiences I've had, and I played both Halo 2 and 3 online for hours upon hours. With all that said when I finished almost all of what Halo 3: ODST had to offer I can't deny that I'm disappointed. Not because it isn't a good game, because despite some flaws it really is, but because the amount of content in the game can't justify the full game price tag.
The story of Halo 3: ODST takes place during the events of Halo 2. You play as a member of an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper (hence ODST) squad. The Orbital Drop in their name comes from the fact that they literally drop directly into combat zones from outer space, which, let's be honest, is pretty hardcore and earned them the unofficial name of Helljumpers. Your squad has been commandeered for a special mission by Naval Intelligence Captain Veronica Dare, though what this special mission actually entails isn't made clear until towards the end of the game. Shortly after, while the ODST are in mid-orbital drop, the Prophet of Regret uses slip space to warp out from New Mombosa and the resulting EMP blast scatters your squad. Your character, The Rookie, who never talks, awakens 6 hours later and with the help of the Superintendent, an AI charged with controlling the mundane functions of the city such as street lights, doors and such, moves through New Mombosa trying to locate the rest of his squad.
Halo 3: ODST takes quite a few stylistic elements from the film noir genre and blends them into both the gameplay and the story. Some work well and others not so much. The setting is definitely inspired by film noir as you're tasked with exploring a rainy city at night time, searching for clues to find out what happened to your squad. Admittedly there's no real detective work done on your part as all you have to do is physically locate items but it does give you the sense of unraveling a greater mystery.
But this mystery never comes to an appropriate conclusion because, just like in Halo 2, the main plot of ODST doesn't reach a satisfactory ending. Even though ODST takes place during Halo 2 and Halo 3 has already been released ODST branches out into another storyline and it's not clear how it directly affects the rest of the Halo universe. So again we're given an ending that not only doesn't end the overall story arc, which is fine, but also doesn't provide proper closure to the game itself. It's a shame because the main story in ODST had a lot of promise.
Like almost every film noir ODST's story includes a tension-packed love interest. However unlike good noir films ODST's romantic elements, which are between your squad commander Gunnery Sergeant Buck and Captain Veronica Dare, are not only not integral to the plot but also never feel full or fleshed out. Instead they comes across as forced, tacked on and amateurish as you have to try and cobble together what you think happened between the two.
Thankfully ODST does pack some great new stuff. One of the great additions is a new vision mode called the Visual Intelligence System, Reconnaissance or VISR for short. Essentially it provides you with night vision and makes areas of interest, such as weapons, enemies and intractable objects easily identified by highlighting the edges of them. Admittedly Bogart never had night vision but when VISR mode is enabled the city has noticeably higher contrast along with a grainy look. This emulates the grain often seen in film noir, due to the film stock required in shooting in low-light conditions, as well as the fierce lighting contrast that has become synonymous with the genre.
The general gameplay of ODST is effectively a throw-back to Halo 1. You can't duel-wield like Master Chief, you can't fall massive distances and the health bar has returned. Though it's said you don't have a shield you essentially do, it's just been renamed Stamina. Like shields once stamina runs out then your actual health takes damage. You can recharge stamina, again just like shields, by not taking damage for a small amount of time. Though these may not seem like a massive difference the reintegration of a health bar does force you to play a lot more carefully. Brutes and especially Hunters feel infinitely more dangerous as you can't fully recover simply by hiding for a few seconds. Still, while you don't have the overall survivability of the Master Chief, you do feel like a certified bad ass.
Your time spent in the campaign will be evenly split between playing the Rookie and the other ODSTs of your squad. As the Rookie you have a moderately open-ended city to explore with the guidance of the Superintendent so you're never lost. Once you find certain items of interest you then play through flashback sequences controlling another member of your squad. In addition to the main story missions you're also able to find additional audio logs contained in phones, ATMs and other specific electronic devices. Totaling 30 in all these audio logs, which are essentially a radio play akin to Halo 2's I Love Bees, unlock a sideplot about what has happened to the Superintendent and take place through the eyes of a young girl named Sadie. Sadly, like the main story, the audio log subplot has a glaring flaw that really sours your enjoyment of it. I won't go too far in depth for fear of spoiling everything but will say that the male antagonist in the story is given almost no motivation whatsoever. Again forcing you to come up with your own fill for Bungie's blanks.
Now in addition to the campaign you get the entirety of the Halo 3's multiplayer. Yes, every single map pack released including three new ones exclusive to ODST. However this feels more like a back-handed addition to justify ODST's far too high retail price than anything else. Halo 3: ODST was a game marketed as being for the fans of the Halo franchise. With that in mind who purchasing it hasn't already bought a few map packs for Halo 3? Yes, this is a pretty good deal if you've never bought a Halo 3 map pack but if you're like me and have the only thing this offers is the ability to free up some hard drive space.Thankfully there is an additional multiplayer mode that's a great addition to the game called Firefight.
In Firefight you can fight solo or with a group of up to four against increasingly difficult waves of enemies, much like Gears of War 2's Horde Mode. As you progress through these enemy waves the trademark difficulty skulls of Halo get activated to increase the challenge. These skulls increase difficulty by causing enemies to toss lots of grenades, drastically reducing bullet damage, preventing you from recharging stamina unless you melee an opponent, among other detriments. In addition to the skulls you have a limited number of lives that are all shared between you and your team. This forces you to work together to last as long as possible because if one person dies it affects everyone.
The purpose of Firefight is to get a high score and it works much like level score ranking available in Halo 3. Headshots, multi-kills, grenade sticks, killing sprees and other stylish kills offer score bonuses, all of which are multiplied by the amount of activated skulls and the level of difficulty, which ranges from Easy to the infamous Legendary. Now you may ask what can you do with this score? Well after 200, 000 points you unlock a 10 gamerpoint achievement for the map you're playing on and that's pretty much it. Still it's an absolute blast to play with friends.
Sadly, like almost everything else with this game, there's a downside. You'll notice I specified that it's a blast with friends. That's because Firefight has no match-matching or lobby search system at all. You need to specifically invite people to join to get a game started. The excuse from Bungie is that Firefight is based on the coop code of Halo 3 and they would need to recode it in order to add a lobby system. This again reinforces why this game is overpriced. For an expansion price I could accept that reasoning but for a fully priced game? Not at all. If it's full priced game it should be fully developed, which includes recoding when necessary.
In addition to the lack of ease in starting a Firefight game if you don't have enough friends, there's a lot of lag present in Firefight when compared to both Halo 3's regular multiplayer and coop. The lag is only a problem in game when you can actually get a Firefight game started. Maybe it's just bad timing because I'm playing this right after release but I don't remember encountering nearly as many problems joining and forming parties in other games as I have with Firefight. Trying to start games with friends was a nightmare as we all received repeated Could Not Join Party errors when every other 360 game we play works fine with our current network configurations. After some tweaking, some minor and others requiring physical alterations to home networks, we did get our games working. Still it was an additional hassle that we haven't encountered before. It's such a shame too because when you get a decently lag-free game Firefight is some of the most fun I've had in a Halo game to date.
The final problem I have with ODST is the AI of the enemies. For me one of the major highlights of Halo has always been the enemy AI. Half Life 2 when compared to Halo may have looked better and had incredible physics but the enemy AI had nowhere near as much depth. Yes ODST still has your trademark 30 seconds of fun as grunts still comically retreat when their more powerful allies have been mowed down, while jackals provide support fire and brutes try to flank you. However in less than a week of gaming I've encountered numerous occasions of enemies getting stuck in some sort of loop where they literally run, or fly in the case of buggers, in circles. Granted your experience may vary but I found that the AI in all the previous Halo games had tremendous polish thus making the AI flaws in ODST very off putting.
Thankfully there's two parts of the game that really do shine through the mixed bag of everything else. The first is the voice acting. It is certainly a high point of the game, especially if you're a fan of Josh Whedon's masterful and criminally short lived TV show Firefly. Nathon Fillion, Adam Baldwin and Alan Tudyk all reprise the spirit of their Firefly personalities by lending their voices to the more colourful characters of your ODST squad as Gunnery Sergeant Buck, Corporal Dutch and PFC Mickey respectively. The combat chatter between them is perfect, especially with the IWHBYD (I Would Have Been Your Daddy) skull which enables additional, more humourous, dialog. There's another voice acting treat for Battlestar Galactica fans as Tricia Helfer plays Captain Veronica Dare.
The second high point is the soundtrack as Marty O'Donnell incorporates saxophones and jazz into it while keeping the feel of the original Halo soundtracks. It really has the noirish inspiration that Bungie was going for and, along with the voice acting, is one of the best elements of the game. You can also rest assured that there is thankfully there's no Breaking Benjamin nu-metal trash in this.
Ultimately Halo 3: ODST is the poorest Halo FPS release so far and it's due largely in part to it being overpriced. For $20-30 less (keep in mind I'm in Canada so this sold for $70) almost every problem with the game could have been forgiven. After all it was created with a smaller team than Halo 3 and they had less time to deliver a final product. But, as it stands, we're being charged full price for what is effectively half to three-quarters of a game, depending on how many multiplayer map packs you've already bought. It's a real shame because this is the first time I've been disappointed with a release from Bungie and I'm sorry to say that I'm going to be more conservative in my enthusiasm for their future releases. Still, despite its flaws and the fact it's overpriced, I can't deny that Halo 3: ODST can be a blast at times.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 09/29/09, Updated 10/02/09
Game Release: Halo 3: ODST (US, 09/22/09)
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