Halo 3: ODST
The mammoth release of Halo 3 in Autumn 2007 once again saw Bungie send shockwaves through not just gaming, but virtual entertainment itself. Nintendo may be leading the way in terms of sales, yet Microsoft maintain the pioneers of forcing their latest cinematic spectacles upon the masses. 26th September 2007 was the day the world stood still for Halo. It was time to finish the fight.
Enter ODST; a somewhat awkward sidestep for a juggernaut accustomed to such exposure, and somewhat proportional to the experience itself. Every core aspect of ODST is scaled down from the cinematic megaliths of its predecessors; more Rainbow Six than the Gears of War-esque traditional experience. This time you’re not saving the world from the frontline, yet your actions still have a sense of relevance and importance in the bigger picture; a refreshing twist for the series. In retrospect to this, it’s also not tampering with the core game play dynamics which propelled Halo to such dizzying heights initially. ODST is not trying to re-invent itself and stand up on its own merits, but more seeking new ways to utilise the resources it already has.
So what actually is an ODST? The simple answer is you. Playing as alternating members of an advance ‘Helijumper’ unit, the opening spectacle sees you fall through the Earth’s atmosphere to the city below, on a vital reconnaissance mission. Naturally things don’t quite to go plan, with your ‘rookie’ ODST knocked unconscious for six hours, and the others segregated from one another. Approaching this game blind is initially perplexing; Rookie’s (the nameless silent hero) missions alternate between the present time and the events of the previous day, which are the missions the player undertakes after Rookie has found a specific object, triggering a flashback of the day’s events through the eyes of the other ODST soldiers. As the missions progress, the relationship between the two types of mission becomes clearer and the story concludes on a satisfying full circle. The daunting early phases are compensated with fantastic replay value, as the player will pick up on more of the subtleties the second time around. It’s hardly Donnie Darko, but the story feels far more open ended and in your control than its predecessors.
Initially there are few differences to life through the eyes of Rookie and super soldier counterpart Master Chief. The first few minutes spent navigating the darkened streets of New Mombasa will feel familiar, with a lack of clear direction the most striking difference. This sense of exposure makes the Halo universe feel far more intimidating than previously portrayed. Typically the only true physical alterations to your playing style come in the form of a ‘re-invention’ of the health system (read: a return of Combat Evolved’s shield), a lesser competence at jumping and the inability to dual wield smaller weapons. On the latter two difficulties these changes shouldn’t hinder your progress severely, but for the Halo veteran expecting to waltz through New Mombasa on Legendary, you may want to strip away the egotistical mentality a little, before hitting the latter stages of the game. Initially it feels as if you’re approaching confrontations in the same old fashion, yet these minimalistic changes force more discretion upon approach; hit hard and fast before the Covenant do.
To aid this process (especially in the deepest night of New Mombasa), ODSTs are equipped with a heads up display system called VISR, which features slight night-vision and an enemy/ally detection system to give you the heads up on a swarm of patrolling Brutes walking your way. Once again it’s not a revolution of the game play, merely a subtle option which helps distinguish the ODSTs from the Spartans.
You will also play as an ODST in the new mode Firefight, a cooperative arena mode similar to Gears of War 2’s Horde. Playing with up to four people online and up to two offline as a team, fighting through endless waves of Covenant is truly what sets ODST apart from the competition, and once again proves these game play mechanics are balanced to perfection. The latter levels will take a good hour’s play to reach, and so skulls are used to bring variety as you progress through the levels. One round the action may be explosive as the ‘Enemies love to throw grenades’ skull is activated, then the next tense as ‘Melee to regain health’ rears its head. Diving into a pit of grunts with just one life left after an hour of hard battle is an experience in itself. Firefight may not be the most original concept for a shooter, but then Halo has never tried to rewrite the rules, just perfect them. Whether it will match the lifespan of the competitive online mode remains to be seen, but at worst it is an incredibly satisfying alternative.
For the five or so people who don’t own a copy of Halo 3 and are interested in joining the fight, then a separate disc contains the ‘complete’ edition of the game’s online multiplayer, completely in synch with Halo 3 players. Hardcore enthusiasts who have already paid for the map packs may feel a little short changed, but owners of ODST can now play every single game mode of Halo 3 online, which should vary competition a little on the still rammed online battlefields. Few other online games could receive such a boost to the community, two years after the servers went live; Halo 3 online will likely remain the most played game on Xbox Live right up until Reach takes the series forward once more.
Every aspect about Halo 3: ODST feels as polished and complete as we’ve come to expect from what is now one of the most established, consistent and most popular gaming franchises of all time. Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori return with potentially the series’ greatest score yet, a blend of tense discreet melodies to orchestral wonders that create a sense of true scale and desperation that even the highest budget blockbuster film would be impressed with. The graphical engine may look a little dated compared to more recent releases, however the wonderful palette of colours dwarfs this qualm.
The Halo series may have passed its peak and ODST is not quite the world conquering release some may have expected, but it has grown from a small side project into a full release in its own right, which is truly worthy of Microsoft’s biggest brand. Those expecting even Halo 3.5 may feel a little underwhelmed, with 3-II the most relevant numerical comparison, but for anybody who has so much as enjoyed the series in the past, this is an essential purchase. Its disconnection from the core story of the universe makes it a perfect introduction for newcomers, whilst a fresh perspective into the Halo universe complemented by the debut of Firefight (a mode so complete and addictive it brings another dimension) will please even the most hardcore of fans.
Let the war rage on.