It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the Halo name carries with it certain expectations. The original, for all intents and purposes, can be singlehandedly thanked for bringing shooters onto consoles, leapfrogging even Goldeneye and Perfect Dark as the definitive couch shooters. When the sequel was released in 2004, Bungie had, again, redefined what it meant to bring a first-person shooter to consoles, breaking the final barrier by introducing fluid online multi-player. Halo 3 outperformed both of its predecessors by managing to sell over ten million copies worldwide, and bringing the campaign mode online for the first time, while adding new features such as the Forge, which allowed for customization of the multi-player arenas.
When Bungie and Microsoft announced that Halo 3 would be getting a standalone expansion with a new hero, a new story, and a new spin on the franchise, the excitement was palpable. When they announced that it would be $60, people were a little confused. It seemed like the developer and the publisher had some disagreements over the overall goals of the game, and it might have received an unnecessary $20 "Halo tax" to further pad a few wallets. However, with the Halo name attached, people expected great things, and Bungie didn’t seem ready to let anyone down.
While it's technically called Halo 3: ODST, Bungie's newest shooter actually takes place during the events of Halo 2, beginning with the USNC’s Orbital Drop Shock Troopers preparing to be dropped into New Mombasa to launch an attack on the Assault Carrier of the High Prophet of Regret. Right away, the game’s cast of new characters are introduced: Gunnery Sergeant Edward Buck, the leader, voiced by Nathan Fillion; Corporal Taylor "Dutch" Miles, the heavy-weapons expert, voiced by Adam Baldwin; Private First Class Michael "Mickey" Crespo, the explosive ordnance expert and pilot, voiced by Alan Tudyk; and Lance Corporal Kojo "Romeo" Agu, the sniper, voiced by someone who wasn’t on the cast of Firefly. The last character in the unit is the player, the mysteriously silent Rookie. Also dropping with the squad is Captain Veronica Dare, voiced by Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer. Dare is a hard-as-nails UNSC Officer in charge of the operation, which comes as a surprise to everyone in the squad with the exception of Buck. Apparently, Dare and Buck have a romantic past that apparently didn’t end well, leading to ODST instantly having more romance than any of the other games in the series, for better or worse.
Losing New Mombasa meant potentially losing the war for Earth, so the job of these soldiers is anything but trivial. After introductions, everyone gets in their respective pods and drops, ready to kick Regret out of the city. It's a wonderful beginning to the story mode of Halo 3: ODST, portraying the characters and their jobs in a fantastic way and culminating in the jaw-dropping free-fall towards the city streets. However, anyone well versed in Halo lore knows that the ODST’s timing couldn’t have been worse. Just as they take to the sky, New Mombasa is nearly wiped off the map by the Assault Carrier’s surprise jump to Slipspace, blowing most of the ODST's pods off course. Several hours later, the Rookie awakens. It’s night, his squad is scattered, and the city is crawling with Covenant.
Though it might seem like he’s alone in the city, the Rookie is far from it. Anyone who followed the game's development cycle likely remembers The Superintendent, with his green smiley-faced logo and "Keep it Clean" motto. In ODST, The Super is an AI system that controlled the city before the blast. Despite most of the city being in chaos, the power is still online, meaning the ever-watching Superintendent is as well. Luckily, he's on the USNC's side, and using road signs, flashing lights, and anything else that can point an arrow in the dark ruins of the mega-city, the Superintendent steers the Rookie to key locations on the map. For as silly as it might sound, having the omnipresent AI's help is calming, despite it not showing many signs of sentience. It's not a replacement for Cortana, who was obviously more than a simple computer; it's more of an automated helper, and it just happens to be the only thing the Rookie can rely on.
The story is told in a non-traditional style, especially when held up against the cut-and-dry narrative the Halo series has featured in the past. With the exception of Halo 2, which unsuccessfully attempted to dabble in parallel storytelling, almost every minute of the Halo series is spent playing as the Master Chief as he slaughters aliens. In ODST, Bungie has, instead, tried to get a little fancy with things. Throughout the game, the narrative shifts between the different members of the squad depending on which items the Rookie finds scattered throughout New Mombasa. See, the locations the Superintendent is guiding the Rookie to aren’t actually the location of the Rookie’s squad, but items that will lead him to them. Each item triggers a memory, showing how the other ODSTs spent their time while the Rookie napped in his pod.
These flashback segments actually make up a bulk of the story, with the player jumping between characters to live their lives in hour long chunks. Since each squad member landed at a different location and had a different weapon focus, their respective chapters play out in unique ways. Romeo's, for instance, gives the sharpshooter plenty of opportunities to show off his accuracy by constantly feeding the player Sniper Rifle ammunition. It's not mandatory, but it helps make the segments feel different, which is something the Halo games have always struggled to succeed at. Early fears that the chapter-based gameplay might ring reminiscent of the poorly received Elite levels of Halo 2 turn out to be incorrect, and the shifts definitely help spice things up for the Halo series.
After each chapter ends, the narrative shifts back to the Rookie, who needs to find his way to the next checkpoint in New Mombasa. The city is moody, and has more style than anything else so far in the Halo series. As the Rookie wanders the noir landscape, smooth jazz plays in the background. It's strange at first, but fits the mood extremely well. When in battles, the typical action music that the series is known for kicks in, but when in Mombasa it's completely different. It amplifies the feeling of danger and desperation in the Rookie's journey, reminding players that things are different this time around. While it's far from the fully-developed character that Rapture or the USG Ishimura were, New Mombasa is still a wholly recognizable city that becomes almost too familiar by the end of the game. In fact, it's almost a shame that more of ODST didn't take place in the city, since it's going to be hard for Bungie to justify returning for a possible sequel.
To find his squad, he needs to travel around, fighting through buildings and enemy-filled streets. However, this isn't as easy as it might sound. Just as is the case with the rest of the squad, the Rookie isn't super human like Master Chief was. The Master Chief, the last Spartan, is a 7-foot tall, 1,000 pound monster. The enemies feared him, referred to him as the demon, and shuddered at the mere mention of his name. This time around, you’re… the Rookie. You look the same as the hundreds of USNC soldiers they’ve killed in the war. You’re the bodies Bungie threw into every room in Halo 3 to raise tension. You’re one step above a Star Trek red shirt, and there’s a reason for that. Whereas Master Chief had a rechargeable shield and the ability to dual wield, ODSTs do not. It’s a bit strange for a sequel to actually turn down the protagonist’s power, but that’s exactly what has been done, and it’s one of the best changes they could have made.
This lack of firepower is replaced with a few additions that help compensate for the ODST's shortcomings. A tactical map is available at any time, and shows enemy locations and the layout of the city in real time. This means it's possible to use the digital display to wait for a patrol to pass before attempting to sneak around them. It also means that accessing the map doesn't pause the game, so it isn't uncommon to pull it up to find out if there are any enemy's nearby and to find out by being shot in the back. Also available to the Rookie and his entire squad is his visor, which provide a similar view to the one found in Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter.
Whereas Detective Mode in Batman: Arkham Asylum covered up the game’s fantastic graphics too much of the time, the ODST’s visor actually helps the presentation. While viewing the world through the glass of their helmets, most of the blemishes of the engine are covered up; leaving a sleek, stylized view. By tapping X, everything brightens up a few shades, and the surroundings are all given thin borders. Environmental objects are a tan color, beneficial items are blue, mission objectives are yellow, and enemies are bordered in red. Using this view, it's possible to see when a group of Covenant are hidden in the distance without needing to bring up the map. Even in the darkness, ODSTs can see them, and plan their attack accordingly.
Unsurprisingly, being weaker means the gameplay is a bit different. It’s slower, more strategic. While the only time Master Chief took cover was when he was waiting a few seconds for his shields to replenish, ODSTs live behind crates and around corners, waiting for the perfect opportunity to leap out, shoot down an enemy, and disappear again. The game’s two new weapons, a suppressed machine gun and a scoped pistol, both work well with the gameplay style Bungie pushes in ODST. Most of the time.
Halo 3: ODST’s gameplay works best when Bungie doesn’t treat it like Halo 3. Master Chief was special, and he was the star of three games. This time, it’s about the ODST, who shouldn’t have a journey as epic as his was. This means a focus on guerrilla warfare and squad-based combat rather than flying Ghosts and riding tanks through companies of Covenant. Much of the game follows this ideology, and there’s hardly a time, aside from playing as the Rookie, that the characters are alone. Sadly, the AI teammates are usually all kinds of useless, proving to be completely imcompetent almost all of the time. Generic USNC grunts are usually worthless on the field of battle, and even the other ODST seem to act like set pieces, getting in the way of fire or hiding when things get rough. During Dutch's chapter, it wasn't uncommon at all to see Mickey crouched in a corner, or standing behind cover and never actually firing on an enemy. It's amazing that they ended up winning this war.
Even if they are just for show, having allies on screen helps to make ODST feel different. From time to time, however, Bungie seems to forget that feeling different is a good thing. Early on, there are legitimately tense fights in New Mombasa, requiring the ODSTs to constantly change position and move through buildings, scavenging for ammunition and trying to take out one enemy at a time. When a Brute or, even worse, a Hunter finds its way onto the battlefield, it's a triumph to finally take it down, giving a sense of satisfaction that was hard to come by in other Halo titles. By the end of the game, however, it’s back to playing commando, riding tanks through groups of enemies and screaming down hallways firing rockets. It's too epic, which is something that might sound completely ludicrous, but simply doesn't mesh with the otherwise personal story of Halo 3: ODST.
ODST also suffers from other issues that have plagued the Halo series since the original. Pacing is all over the place, and level design, on the whole, isn’t very original. In fact, it's wholly unoriginal, and some of the later levels look like reskinned areas of Halo 3. There were missions where room after room looked nearly identical, something that has been a criticism of the series for years. It feels, at many times, like Bungie wanted to stretch the length of the campaign by any means necessary, which means repeating identical battles over and over again, and fighting redundant waves of enemies. There are segments where ship after ship of Covenant fly above and drop troops to fight. They always last just long enough to overstay their welcome, which is something that an experienced developer like Bungie should be able to avoid. Luckily, the whole thing is pretty fun, or else it would get old very fast instead of just feeling out of place.
The story is a little on the short end, only clocking in at about 6 hours, but it’s action packed, and fits well in the Halo mythos. It’s character driven, and while the characters’ personalities aren’t all that unique in their own right, their interactions with each other are interesting enough to make it worth trying to see how each story ends. This is heavily aided by the all-star cast, who truly bring the characters to life, with wonderful voice acting and surprisingly good character models. Besides lending their voices to the character of Buck and Dare, Fillion and Helfer also signed over their likeness rights, meaning both characters look and sound like some of the most recognizable characters in the science fiction space.
Besides the campaign, a side-plot is revealed as the game's story progresses. As the Rookie explores New Mombasa, different objects will also unlock segments of Sadie’s Story, told through 30 COM tapes, which can be listened to with or without art by comic book artist Ashley Wood. They're reminiscent of the recordings found in BioShock or Dead Space, save for the fact that they're not meant to be personal logs. Instead, they are all captured by the Superintendent, as Sadie attempts to march back into the under-siege New Mombasa to rescue her father. Sadie’s Story acts as a parallel to the ODST’s journey, never directly intersecting with the events of the game. In order to find all of the recordings, the Rookie needs to do a fair amount of exploring in New Mombasa, which is a fairly dangerous place. Sadly, Bungie didn’t go as far as they should have in filling the city with interesting things to find, and besides Sadie’s Story, the only other things the Rookie might come upon is some scattered weapons and advertisements for Bungie’s next title: Halo Reach. Because of this blunder, it’s usually not worth exploring the city for Sadie’s story alone.
After completing the single-player story, which can be played with up to four players over Xbox Live, gamers are likely going to want to dive into some multi-player. Since launch, Halo 3’s online component has enjoyed a long run of being among the top played games on Xbox Live. Bungie has consistently created new downloadable content for the title, bringing new maps and modes for the millions upon millions who play it every day. How could they possibly hope to improve on one of the most popular online games of all time?
Enter: firefight mode. It’s not a new concept. Hell, it seems like every developer is scrambling to include something like it in their title. In Gears of War it was Horde, in World at War it was Nazi Zombies, and in ODST it’s called firefight. The concept is simple: defend. In large arenas usually taken from locations in the single-player game, waves of assorted opponents are dropped out of ships and pushed out of doors, doing their best to take out the players. After each round, some weapons are dropped in and a few lives are added to the total. Every three rounds is a set, and between each set is a bonus round, where the team can rack up points by slaughtering Grunts to hope to earn a few more lives. As the game goes on the opposing forces consistently grow in terms of number and difficulty, until entire Phantoms worth of Brutes are dropped at once.
There are an assortment of maps available, each with their own conditions. Some force everything into small buildings, while others are sprawling landscapes, with vehicles dropped in from time to time to spice things up. To make things even more difficult, each round adds another skull to the mix. Skulls are difficulty modifiers, giving the opponents better shields or quicker reflexes. Alone, each Skull isn’t really all that much of a problem, but as the game goes on more are added, until they’re all active, meaning the enemies drop less ammo, have more health, and throw grenades nonstop.
When compared to other games that have the defend and hold cooperative gametype, Firefight provides a much different experience. It’s not about finding a location and camping out, as it is with Horde, and it's not about simply holding out in a building like in Nazi Zombies. It’s about constantly moving, working together to take out the enemies as fast as possible while trying desperately to find health, grenades, and ammunitions. Games can last for hours, providing some extremely tense, but entertaining experiences. It’s tremendously fun, and might actually be the best thing about ODST. The only issue with the mode, and it’s not going to be a problem for everyone, is the fact that there’s no matchmaking. Like the campaign, which also allows for four-player cooperative play (which turns ODST into the squad-based shooter it should have been all along), the only way to get into a game is to use the friends list, either joining in with buddies or recent players. It’s only an issue if no one is online to play, but it’s still an issue, since there aren’t always optimal situations for getting people into a game together.
Also bundled with ODST is a second disk, which contains the entirety of Halo 3’s multi-player component, with full Forge capabilities. Three new maps, Heretic, Longshore, and Citadel, join the 21 previous Halo 3 maps, bringing the total to two dozen, which accounts for all of the downloadable content released for the title to date. The new maps are attached to the Mythic Map Pack's playlists and achievements, and it's possible to play with the already massive Halo 3 community. It's also possible, by unlocking certain achievements in ODST, to gain access to the elusive Recon Armor, a fan favorite among Halo fans.
It’s obvious fairly early on that Halo 3: ODST was meant to be an expansion, and eventually grew to something Bungie couldn’t justify not charging a full price for. While some might be upset, there’s really no reason to be, since the six hour campaign is only slightly shorter than the standard shooter, and the multi-player offerings are above and beyond what most other games supply. Firefight mode, in particular, more than justifies the $60 price point, providing some of the best multi-player thrills of the generation. It might not win any Game of the Year awards, but Halo 3: ODST is a fine game in its own right, and the single-player campaign should hold over fans for Halo Reach releases at some point next year.