Review by BloodGod65

"Once More Unto the Breach"

Even though the Halo story was satisfactorily completed with the release of Halo 3, it is probably no surprise Bungie decided to keep making games based in the Halo universe. When you've got a fan base that will practically eat up anything that's tossed at them, it's not hard to see why. But ODST isn't a brand new game per se; in fact Bungie originally stated that it was little more than an expansion pack to Halo 3 and as such, would carry a reduced price tag. Naturally the geniuses over at Bungie realized they'd make less money this way and so decided to make the game a full-priced affair. Again, with such a rabid fan base it's not hard to see why. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that Halo 3: ODST is a complete departure from the other entries and the many changes Bungie has made to the formula go a long way towards rejuvenating the series.

The first of these big changes is that players will no longer be traipsing about in the emerald armored boots of the Master Chief. As the title suggests, ODST focuses on the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, elite soldiers that drop into the battle zone from high orbit. The ODST are called in when the Covenant start attacking New Mombassa and players will strap into the drop pod of the rookie member of the team, aptly named “the Rookie”. After a short introduction, the pod drops and players will get to watch from a first person perspective as the tiny craft drops out of the sky and to the ground miles below.

But things go wrong almost from the start as one of the Covenant ships hovering over the city initiates a Slipspace jump. The resulting shockwave screws up the drop pods and the Rookie is knocked unconscious when he hits the ground. He wakes up six hours later, lost and out of contact with his squad. The city around him is dark and it is clear the Covenant have taken the city. For the rest of the game, the Rookie will scour New Mombassa looking for evidence his fellow Helljumpers are alive.

While the story isn't as epic in scope as previous Halo games, this has a number of side effects that ultimately benefit the narrative. First and foremost, the increasingly convoluted and nonsensical lore of the Halo universe is eschewed entirely. And second, the plot is more personal and character driven. Badass though he may be, the Master Chief was never brimming with personality and Cortana's endless parade of snarky comments and unrequited come-ons didn't make up for it. While the Rookie is totally silent, the other characters make up for it and their down-to-earth personalities go a long way towards making the player relate and care about what's going on.

The actual gameplay is even more of a shakeup to Halo tradition than the story. Not only is the Master Chief nowhere to be found, but the Rookie also feels a little different and comes with his own unique abilities. Obviously, without the help of a Spartan's MJOLNIR armor, the ODST troops are less resistant to enemy fire. But the Rookie still has a shield of sorts in the form of stamina, though it dwindles faster and takes longer to recharge than the Chief's shields.

While his shield isn't as effective, the Rookie has a lot of hardware a Spartan would kill for. The VISR, a glorified helmet HUD, has numerous functions that range from providing some lackluster night vision to a much more helpful target identification system. Once turned on, this basically highlights all sorts of things in bold colored outlines. Yellow lines pick out environmental objects such as debris, green lines are friendly soldiers and red lines pick out enemies. While it feels quite similar to the HUD found in Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, it's still pretty cool. That's not to mention that most of the game occurs at night, so it helps to even the odds against enemies hiding in the dark.

Another great change is the map. Previous games have lacked this feature and even though the environments were fairly linear, the fact that locations tended to repeat over and over meant it was easy to get lost. But addition of a map alleviates that problem entirely.

It's a good thing too, because the biggest change to be found in ODST is the removal of those linear paths and environments. For the very first time, Bungie has created an open world environment. As you might imagine, this has a drastic effect on the game as a whole. From the Rookie's starting point, he'll be given an objective in another part of the city. Using the handy map and VISR system, players can choose their path through the devastated city streets while scoping out and avoiding enemy positions (if that's the tactic you want to take). As you complete objectives, the city opens up further, allowing more freedom to choose routes.

This freedom also has a big impact on how the game itself unfolds. While there are objectives to complete, the game doesn't totally railroad players into tackling these missions in any certain order. Once the Rookie arrives at an objective, he'll have to search the area for a piece of evidence. After he finds it, he'll enter a sort of flashback state where the player controls another member of his squad as they try to regroup with the rest of the team. Each of these missions takes place in a specific time period and completing one reveals another piece of the tale. The cool thing is that since objectives can be tackled in almost any order, you can get a non-chronological look at how things occurred. Depending on how you choose objectives you might see two squad mates find each other then team up to fight Covenant or you might see them fighting together and then see how they met. Some might not like the fact that this can present a very disjointed tale, but it fits with the idea that the Rookie is looking for clues and piecing together evidence as he goes along.

Series fans will be happy to know that despite the pervasive changes, the best things about the Halo series remain untouched. The FPS combat is as silky smooth as you'd find on a PC, the action is constant and frenetic, and there are still several vehicular levels that are as good as ever (possibly better). But at least one persistent series issue has found its way over to ODST; the unreliable checkpoint system.

For some reason, the checkpoint system in Halo games has never been any good and creating a system that works is a skill that still eludes Bungie. If I had to guess, I'd say checkpoints only register about half the time. You can go for quite some time before one actually registers and in the intervening time you might have made your way through one or two huge set battles. If you die, it's back to the last checkpoint and then you'll have to fight your way back to where you were. It's quite irritating to die after an extended sequence one time and then see the checkpoints work the second time around - even if you do everything exactly the same. More concerning than this is the total save failure I had. At one point I saved and quit the game only to find I had lost well over an hour's worth of progress when I returned.

On the technical side of things, I'm surprised that a series this important to Microsoft doesn't get more attention to the graphics. While watching the opening sequence, I was shocked to see just how ugly the facial rendering and texturing was; it is, suffice to say, comparable to something we were seeing several years ago. Other than that, the game looks nice but unimpressive. At the very least, the environments are more varied than usual with day and nighttime versions of the city, underground complexes and even a nature preserve.

The graphics won't impress but the audio is as good as ever. The soundtrack can only be described with the word “epic” and Bungie takes its usual habit of hiring celebrity voice actors to the extreme. They've gained something of a reputation for taking recognizable actors and incorporating them into bit parts. Here though, many of the main characters are played by those typically relegated to bit parts and their character designs even look like their real-world counterparts.

I'm probably in the minority, but for me Halo has been on a decline since its second entry. While the first game was among my favorite Xbox games, the disappointing sequel (with its slap in the face cliffhanger ending) and a lackluster first showing on the 360 have steadily deadened my enthusiasm for the series. I think this is due in large part to the attention Bungie pays to the multiplayer component, which results in a single-player campaign that has increasingly felt like an afterthought. But if ODST is any indication of the future of the franchise, Bungie has me back onboard. The tightened narrative, game-changing additions and shift to a less linear format refresh the game (unlike lame additions such as dual-wielding) and make this the most intriguing entry since the very first. In a nutshell, ODST breathes new life into Halo.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 04/30/10, Updated 02/25/13

Game Release: Halo 3: ODST (US, 09/22/09)

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