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Halo 3: ODST (Xbox 360) artwork

Halo 3: ODST (Xbox 360) review

"Itís an adventuresome idea, but not one that works completely. ODST is, before anything else, largely competent and achieves most of what it sets out to do. The Halo lore is still very much intact, but the insertion of a new protagonist gives the game a new sheen: one of vulnerability. "

After the big three staple games of the Halo series, it became clear there was scope outside Master Chiefís one-man battle. The loose focus already pre-existed as one of the main draws for the franchise: the war that boomed around the Spartan wasnít static. Since day one, Halo has been full of human marines trying to even up the odds, sniping at far away targets, taking up the mounted machineguns in the all-terrain jeeps and cheering on that damn tank. After the collapse of Peter Jacksonís Halo movie, Bungie found themselves with an unrequited half-finished game engine plotted by a design team then found sitting round collecting dust. This was to be recycled and it was the war around the Chief they decided to plough their efforts into.

ODST (standing for Orbital Drop Shock Trooper) plays out around the edges of Halo 2 & 3 in the capital of New Mombassa. The giant African state was home to a desperate battle that the humans would finally lose, marking the first and biggest slice of damage dealt out to their home world. But, before that eventual and complete loss, there was war: Master Chiefís stay may have been brief, but he strode through the wreckage of burning Warthog husks and stepped over the corpses of soldiers long dead. ODST is their tale, seen through the eyes of a platoon of ship jumpers decommissioned from their orders to take out a Covenant flagship and instead sent plummeting into the razed streets below.

As such, the game thrusts you into the body of semi-regular troops, and not the heavy Spartan shell youíre probably used to. ODSTs do have their own customised armour complete with shields, but they also have a Halo 1-esque health bar that can drop all too quickly and is replenished with health packs found in aid centres. Dual-wielding is out: instead, they get overhauled weaponry with a penchant for silent kills and stealthy head shots. The also have a handy bit of software built into their visors that helps distinguish friend from foe and offers limited night vision.

Itís an interesting experiment and, when itís firing on all cylinders, a worthwhile step away from the norm. ODST is almost episodic in nature, offering you handfuls of snatched flashbacks featuring the disoriented troopers trying to make sense of their ravaged surroundings, and offering downloadable info dumps from a citizen stuck right in the middle of the bombardment and trying to find a way out. The game is played from the initial perspective of the newest platoon member (because the shit hits the fan hardest for any given team rookie) who finds his planetside landing the roughest. He awakens six hours after the rest of his squad have moved on, leaving him for dead.

This leads to an interesting non-linear and quasi-sandbox approach for the series. While he slept through the day and most of the action, New Mombassa at night is still crawling with Jackal snipers, pockets of Grunts and Brutes, as well as the odd Hunter lounging comfortably in his seven inch thick armour with an ion cannon grafted to its arm. From here, the rookie is free to explore, looking out for hidden armouries, information booths to collect sound clips and map updates, or to follow the trails of his comrades. ODST clearly wants to play out as noir with big guns and bigger tempers, dropping epic orchestra scores for jazzy overtures and swapping constant streams of smash-mouth set pieces for stealthy assaults and pockets of aggressive resistance.

The bulk of the action comes in the form of flashbacks unlocked when the rookie finds a clue on the fate of his team. He might find the charred helmet of his ill-fated commander, leading to his Sergeantís desperate slog through a fresh invasion force showing a lot more life than the small piles of corpses stepped over to discover his clue. A broken sensor reveals the heavy weapon specialistís trek through an abandoned wildlife preserve, now free of lions and zebra, but chock-full of plasma-spitting wraiths and lightning-fast ghosts. Each episode plays out on the same time line, but offers something radically different from the last. One dumps you in the shoes of a single soldier carving a path through the middle of an army to reach a downed comrade, while another will regularly give you new vehicles to try and even up the odds. One might ask you to fall back to a defendable position, blowing up bridges and sensitive information ports on the way before digging in and expending a lot of ammunition, while others have you moving from snipe point to snipe point, making you deal out as many head shots as you can before your small force is overwhelmed.

Itís an adventuresome idea, but not one that works completely. ODST is, before anything else, largely competent and achieves most of what it sets out to do. The Halo lore is still very much intact, but the insertion of a new protagonist gives the game a new sheen: one of vulnerability. No longer can you pick up your favourite firearm and run rampant with it: ammo is scarce, especially in the investigation section where, once you (quickly) extinguish your starting firearm, youíre left to fend with whatever you can glean from the scattered corpses. It forces you to adapt: never bothered using the tracking pink mist issued from needler guns before? Youíll bloody well have to now! Always thrown away light machine guns and pistols before? Theyíll become the welcome mainstay of your arsenal. The sudden necessity of scavenging and fretting over every bullet can turn the harder settings of ODST into a kind of diet survival horror, forcing you to explore dark corners of the city in the hopes of finding health packs or spare magazines and praying not to discover encamped aliens boasting more supplies than you.

In contrast, the flashback missions are the opposite; they are the frantic set pieces the series has been built upon, but with little dilution and no plodding Flood to radically alter the pace. As such, theyíre sugar-high explosions when atop the spike, but bite-sized and concluded quickly. This transgression forces you between the two extremes rapidly and jerkily. It also means, unless youíre resigned to exploring every hidden avenue or building of New Mombassa, ODST is considerably shorter than entries from the main canon, something not aided by its reliance on dressing up Halo 3ís multiplayer aspects, sticking it on a second disk and hoping nobody notices. Like every action franchise in recent years, itís also finally added in its own take of the dangerously-near-obligatory enemy wave game. Dubbed Horde Nazi Zombies Firefight, the enemy AI take centre stage here in providing a surprisingly brutal small scale war worth recommending. Here, the skull demerits previously championed make a full revival, smacking you with handicaps such as grenade-happy enemies, or upping foeís ability to dodge.

But it still feels too short.

Bungie might feel they shot themselves in the foot when the initial press release for ODST labelled it an expansion pack but, while the title has certainly outgrown that moniker, it still feels too threadbare to be considered a full stand-alone title. Itís an interesting experiment and a partial success; there is more personality in the assembled cast voiced by Nathan Fillion and the rest of the Firefly cast, and the heavy human participation goes a long way into breathing new life into the series. Itís not perfect; the new formula certainly has its share of teething problems, but just as the game starts to show signs of promise and just when the back-and-forth noir exploration and frantic gunplay combos start to find a rhythm, itís over.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (August 31, 2010)

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