Review by shezamiah

Reviewed: 09/30/09

Campaign and story review

This review focuses on ODST’s campaign and story and won’t go over, in too much detail, things that other reviews have already discussed.

ODST is your typical Halo game with typical Halo gameplay. Sure it has its nuances – Halo: CE health system (requiring medkits), no dual wielding, no equipment, no radar, fall damage, greater grenade capacity, the VISR (night vision)… etc – but it’s recognizably Halo. There’re still big battles and vehicular segments, you just have to be more careful when you go Rambo on the Covenant.

You’ll definitely feel weaker than a Spartan – but not weak enough. I’m willing to overlook the fact that ODST’s can carry turrets and flip vehicles for the sake of gameplay.

The most significant difference is the hub and spoke design. There’s a ‘hub’, New Mombassa, which you explore as the Rookie to get to ‘spokes’. The hub is less action-filled and more moody while the spokes are typical.

There are 8 levels (not including the hub): the game gives you some discretion to choose the order you complete them, though the last quarter reverts to linear progression.

The game uses a checkpoint system but if you want to save your game to continue, there’s no autosave. Make sure you save and quit (like previous Halo games). When you complete a level you can choose to replay it from a menu, or select the hub to search for missed goodies.

If there’s any complaint it’s that the hub, despite its atmosphere and punctuated battles, can be too empty: audio logs, supply caches and other doodads notwithstanding.

Level design however, is top notch. Each level encourages a particular style of gameplay without denying options: it’s much more focused. A downside to that focus is that the campaign is short. 5 to 10 hours on solo Heroic difficulty for most players. This is about on par with Halo 3 (thanks to the hub).

You have to remember that ODST was made in a year, so shortcuts are plentiful. This IS an expansion pack. A damn good expansion but an expansion nonetheless.

The city is almost symmetrical – the difference is in the detailing. Several missions have you defending waves of enemies (taking place in day time areas of the night time hub). Whilst padding, I felt ODST benefited from this. It worked in two ways: it advertised Firefight and made you feel like an ODST rather than a Spartan.

If you look at the previous Halo games, you were always assaulting the enemy, powering through their lines. In ODST however, you’re frequently on the defensive – one level in particular has you being pushed back and on the retreat. Padding? Yes. Good padding? Debatable, but I certainly think so: it gives ODST a unique feel.

It’s not all copy and paste though, levels will take you outside the city as well as to flooded districts – the game never felt derivative, which is what matters most.

There’re two new weapons, the return of old favourites and the cutting of others. There’s a new enemy type and fresh takes on old (gold hunters, shielded drones) and Bungie fixed Halo 3’s missing shield effect.

Campaign scoring has been improved and there’s a ton of replayability. Skulls return (all unlocked from the get-go) and co-op is akin to Halo 3. There’s a level of polish here rarely seen in a lot of games and the campaign stands shoulder to shoulder with those of the previous titles.

Bottom line: if you liked the previous Halos then you'll like ODST, but ODST is unlikely to change your mind.

ODST’s story is as simple or complex as you want it to be. The main story of a squad of ODST’s is straightforward: your squad is separated and you, the Rookie, explore the noir city in search of clues as to your squad mates’ locations. Upon finding a clue you play a flashback mission. Slowly but surely you’ll piece together the mystery of New Mombassa.

In retrospect, the story IS simple but it’s told in a compelling way. The characters are one dimensional, but that’s because they’re inspired by noir archetypes, and the juxtaposition of day-night is jarring, but effective. The game does a good job of building tension.

If you look a little deeper, there’re a lot of non-obligatory elements that add to the story: from evidence of brute-elite infighting to the well produced audio logs. These logs – 30 to find – tell the tale of a young woman, Sadie. This story will seem separate from yours (at first), but the two intertwine: you’ll have a better understanding of the overarching plot. Indeed, some parts play out in an altogether different manner, depending on fidelity to Sadie’s story (e.g. changed character interaction and cutscenes… etc).

I’ll admit, even with all the above, the story is a little above average (though it does benefit from the wider Haloverse). There is one thing however, that pushes ODST over the edge and into the realm of awesome: the entire game is a cleverly disguised retelling of Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy. I kid you not.

This isn’t in-your-face metaphor/symbolism like the previous games (the Ark, the Flood, John 117… etc) where you say, “I see what you did there.” In fact, I didn’t pick up on it until I saw a massive thread on analysing the whole game with respect to Dante’s epic poem: from passing comments by NPC’s to level design (even layout of enemies) and the structure of the audio logs. Suddenly it seemed like a veil was lifted from my eyes – connections came left, right and centre and the campaign took on a whole new light.

I can tell you this isn’t an afterthought – the whole game was designed with this in mind from the get-go.

And this is what Bungie does well: they create a campaign where the story is as simple or complex as you want it to be. They’ve done it in previous games but never as well as this.

Graphics and sound:
ODST runs off of the Halo 3 engine, so it isn’t a technical powerhouse. That said, Bungie have used it to great effect: it's the art that shines. Bungie have always had a problem with animating faces but they’ve improved a great deal for ODST.

The colour palette deals in blacks and moody reds, due to the game’s noir influence and the VISR produces a cool outline effect – highlighting enemies, friendlies and objects of interest. Again, the game is recognizably Halo but unique, which is a fine line to walk.

Marty has outdone himself on the score, producing some great music. I won’t go into this too much – just look at pretty much all the other reviews. I’ve always thought the voice acting in Halo was great, and the addition of the Firefly cast is genius. No complaints here. Combat dialogue is equally stellar and, sometimes, laugh-out-loud funny.

Value and closing statements:
Shocking as it may sound, I bought Halo 3: ODST full price only for the campaign and story. I have never read any of the Halo novels so I’m not big on the lore but I’ve always played Halo for the campaign. And ODST is great. The campaign is just as long as Halo 3’s, perhaps longer and just as replayable. Value is for you to judge – don’t ignore the other facets of ODST – but the campaign is a lot better than most of what’s out there.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

Product Release: Halo 3: ODST (AU, 09/22/09)

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