I will admit, I am a total Halo nut. Regular readers will know that it was Halo: Combat Evolved that got me into gaming big style, and led to the purchase of my very first self-owned console, the original black behemoth Xbox. There was something about Halo: CE – the story, the action, the characterisation – that ignited a spark that, up until then, no other game ever really had. I played that damn campaign for over four years, happily working my way through Assault on the Contol Room, Two Betrayals and Silent Cartographer time and again. And its draw was so strong that many of my friends, even some avowed non-gamers, were pulled in by multiplayer LAN fests, and ended up getting consoles of their own.
Then came Halo 2, and such aniticpation for a game I had never felt. I would spend countless hours when I had nothing to do daydreaming about what the story would be, what would happen next, what wonders awaited me. And eventually, when the game came, I was…happy with the result. Although the game was fine, somethow it didn’t grab me quite like the original. I had no problem with the shift of focus and the bifurcated plot. There was perhaps something about the gameplay that was, well, lacking. Halo 2 did not get played endlessly for four years.
Lastly, dawned Halo 3. I spend even more time speculating about the story in this game, no idea what would be happening next. What had happened to Cortana? Would we have lots of time on Earth? Would we find out who the Forerunner were? So many possibilities. And yet again, although the game was a vast improvement on Halo 2 something was still lacking. It was fun, but felt almost by numbers, and the game garnered a few playthroughs, but nothing like in the early days.
Don’t get me wrong: all three were fantastic games, and I rate them highly. But 2 and 3, sadly, missed out of the buzz that Halo: CE created. Despite a fantastic, wide-ranging story arc – I love a good storyline more than anything else – sadly I think 2 and 3 missed out on the perceived “newness” of the progenitor. They stood tall and proud, but were sadly in the shadow of the first.
So I was a little apprehensive about Halo 3: ODST. Would it be more of the same, fun but not fantastic? Just another FPS in a sea of similar titles? I decided to approach the game with as open a mind as I could muster, but I was fully unable to surpress all my doubts. So let’s see how it went.
Halo 3: ODST takes place between Halo 2 and Halo 3. Specifically, it runs just alongside the events at the end of the Earth section of Halo 2 – as Master Chief and the In Amber Clad piggyback a ride with the Prophet of Regret’s carrier to head for Delta Halo, a swarm of ODST’s drop into New Mombasa. Or rather, what is left of New Mombasa after the slipspace rupture caused by the Prophet’s carrier does its Akira-thing and causes all kinds of crazy white glowy bus-throwing shit to go down.
You play – initially – the game from the viewpoint of a new member of a six man ODST squad, known only as “The Rookie”, You and your squadmates Dave, Dee, Dozy, Mick and Titch Buck, Dare, Romeo. Mickey and Dutch are ODST’s, Orbital Drop Shock Troopers: the toughest of the tough, hardest of the hard, the elite marines, the closest thing to a Spartan that the regular military has. Faceless and speechless, you join your squad as they drop to a special – and secret – mission (which, in the best military tradtion, gets SNAFU’ed the moment it starts).
As ODST’s are wont to do, your mission starts with you being strapped into a tiny metal coffin – your SOEIV or drop-pod – and being thrown at the landing zone from SPACE at a billion miles an hour. The slipsapce jump of the carrier blows you and your squad all over the place, and when you plummet to earth you are knocked right out. You wake up six hours later, still in your pod, in New Mombasa, at night. You have lost contact with the rest of your squad, and have little idea where you are or what you have missed.
The game can be thought of as two games in one, divvied up apiece in sections. Half the game is played from the Rookie’s perspective. You creep around the somewhat battered and now abandoned city streets in search of your squad. As you do so, you have to deal with Covenant patrols along the way. However, thankfully you are not competely alone on the streets. Shortly after you find your footing and start your adventure, you are contacted by the Superintendent – a city-wide AI that would normally manage and run the city infrastructure, from trains to cash machines, services to street signs. It seems the Super has been somewhat damaged by the slipspace rupture – his communication with you is limited to key phrases from public announcements, activation of streetlights, signage, police car lights and traffic barriers. But despite this limitation, he seems to have a message and a misson for you, not to mention a pretty handy map of the city, secret weapon caches, and information as to where your squadmates might be. On these dark city streets, the friend who can only tell you to “Keep it clean!” or “Please take your ticket” is the best friend you could have.
As the Superintendent guides you around the city, you find beacons – locations where he knows your squadmates have been. The beacons themselves are seemingly random items that, when you examine them, activate the second section of the game – the flashbacks. Although it is not explicit in the game, it is suggested that that when you examine a beacon item – for example, Dare’s Recon helmet – the Superintendent then shows you his CCTV footage of the events that led to that item being left there. Each little CCTV montage segues into the next mission, where you play from the perspective of that team member, doing whatever it was they did, and progressing the story. You learn the events that took place earlier in the day, whilst you were sleeping like a baby in your reinforced death-box 40 feet above the street.
These “pseudo-flashback” sequences take place during the day and offer a stark contrast to the moody, skulky night-time Rookie sections. These are more like the Halo you know and love. As you play each flashback as a different team member, you get the staple of Halo mission types – the assault, the vehicular push forward, the banshee section, the “drive a big-ass tank and blow shit up” mission, and more. As you do so, the story unfolds, and you learn a little bit about each character. Think of these as the standard Halo fare, and the Rookie sections as the open hubworld, pick-up-missions section – something not before seen in the Halo universe.
There is a good story to be had here, and as with Halo 3, there is also a secondary story – as you wander round New Mombasa at night you are guided by the Superintendent to find audio logs – a tale of one citizen of New Mombasa during the initial Covenant attack which, although seemingly just an interesting and unconnected tale, is actually very delicately intertwined with the story that pans out during the game.
But all that aside, what about the game? Well, I can happily report that, although not all the way there, gameplay in ODST does have more of a resemblance to Halo: CE than Halo 2 or 3, and it is welcomed. Many feared that the game would be more stealthy, more of a Splinter Cell affair, fuelled by some early comments from Bungie staff. This is not the case, although it is fair to say that as the Rookie, you have the chance to be a little more stealthy than you normally would. And this is not such a bad thing, As an ODST, you are not a Spartan supersoldier. You are not seven feet tall, you do not have superhuman strength, you cannot jump eleven feet into the air. You are just a dude. A hard dude, but a dude nontheless. As such, although the enemies are for the most part unchanged from Halo 3, they present a much tougher challenge. Even on easy mode, it is easy to die quickly, and often.
Unlike a Spartan, you do not have shields. In ODST, the original health model from Halo:CE returns. You have health, and stamina. If you take a few shots, your stamina decreases and the screen goes red. If you retreat from combat, your stamina quickly regenerates. If you remain in combat though, once your stamina is gone you start to lose health as you take more damage – and heath can only be replenished with medkits.
Okay, so, yeah, stamina is pretty much shields…but although totally incredulous it makes a little more sense. I guess.
Pisser is, of course, that the Covenant do have shields. In fact, even more than before. Now even Jackals and Grunts sometimes get shields. Bastards. And if there is an Engineer with a group of Covenant (at last – Engineers make an appearance!) then any Covenant troops within a certain radius of the Engineer have permanent overshields. This can make for some pretty tense standoffs. You could try and take the enemy down long-range, but if you have the pistol and the SMG…well, good luck with that. However, take the Engineer out and the overshields are gone. Although…as the Engineers also have overshields, and the Covenant troops will home in on your ass the moment you start firing on the Engineer…this is no easy alternative.
So, you have more tactical options when you play as the Rookie. And the Rookie sections actually really do work rather well and make a refreshing change to the usual run-and-gun Halo style. You can plan an attack, choose your weapons carefully. Or, if you know the weapons you have will not get the job done, try to avoid that fight altogether.
Other gameplay aspects are pretty much unchanged, for the most part, You cannot dual wield, but you have two new weapons. The silenced SMG is okay for spraying rounds at a Brute to whittle away his shields, and is scoped, but it is not fantastic and ammo being pretty spartan (no pun intended) you will probably forego it as soon as a Plasma Rifle or Needler come your way. The new silenced pistol is a throwback to the fabled Halo: CE pistol. Whilst not as ridiculously overpowered – no taking down Banshees with it in this game – it is scoped and is an invaluable tool for quick Grunt and Jackal headshots for thinning the ranks before tackling the Brutes. You will find yourself hanging onto this if you can, although the Covenant Carbine is a superior headshot tool, and doubles as a good Brute taker-downer.
Not much else has changed from Halo 3 though, other weapons remain much the same (although, to be fair, the Needler is again awesome). Vehicles are unchanged, although the Scorpion tank seems a little more hardy this time around. You still have the annoying passenger-operated .50 cal turrent designed specifically to shoot at rocks, buildings and dead vehicles and not the three Banshees, two Wraiths and four Fuel Rod Cannon Brutes bearing down on you – I miss having a cannon and a chain gun under my control.
Playthrough is a well-balanced mix of standard mission fare broken up by the Rookie missions. On-foot flashback missions are well-balanced, with enough challenge – you will find yourself at some spots fighting Brute Minor and Majors, Chieftans, Grunts, Jackals and Jackal Snipers all at the same time, whilst being harrassed by a dropship and a Wraith. And some of the setpiece battles can get pretty intense. One downside to the new health system is that on harder difficulties, when battle get to this point the red-screen telling you to get your ass out of there for a minute appears ofen – very often – and very quickly, and this can get rather annoying.
Througout the game you will play often alongside friendlies or fellow squadmates. The friendly AI is pretty good, and for the most part knows what to do in intense ground battles. You can get through tough spots by making sure you equip your guys with the relevant power weapons. Enemy AI is as good as ever. In the Rookie missions, long-rage sneak attacks can decimate enemy numbers without many enemies coming your way – after all, it is dark, and they don’t have night-vision (you, on the other hand, have VISR mode – a sort-of night-vision that also applies outlines to objects in the game-world. Different colored outlines denote different thinsg, with enemies outlined in red, and this comes in real handy in very dark spots when you may not have spotted a Grunt or Brute otherwise). But, if they do spot you, they will attack, flank and often send lesser troops ahead to engage and harass you, soften you up for the Brutes.
Oh, and Hunters? They are perfected in ODST. Bungie are evil. They put you in the game as a feeble, normal ODST, then ramp up the Hunter challenge. Not conent with that, they then give the Hunters one last new ability: don’t think for a minute you can run inside an office building and up a few flights of stairs to snipe them from above. Those fuckers will follow you. They can fucking do stairs.
So overall, campaign gameplay is a blast, and being honest, is pretty close to the rush of Halo: CE. Beats Halo 2 and 3 any day.
Visually, as always, the game is a treat. Although by today’s standards there are a few frayed edges here and there, this is a two-year old engine. Some imporvements have been made to lighting and shader effects, and the night-time ambience in the city is great. But I am not going to complain – this is, after all, a labor of love for Bungie – not a whole brand-new game, merely a new bit of stuff cobbled together in a year by a tiny splinter team – a year – as a thankyou to the fans. No point in building a whole new engine for it – that’s being done for Halo: Reach, due out next year, which will have had the full 3-year development cycle.
Audio – as ever – is fantastic. Although for the most part unchanged, some weapon sounds have been beefed up – the Carbine has more punch – but Bungie’s skill at crafting an engaging and mesmerising 3-D aural experience is second to none. And Marty’s soundtrack is sublime. All the known themes from previous games are thrown out, and, as Marty O’Donnell has explained, the moody, more jazz-like music is intended to convey a more human feel to the game, fitting with the mere ODST you play as (and fitting with the detective-mystery feel to the Rookie missions). One gripe I would make – Marty went to a great deal of trouble to give the music that rainy, city street film noir style – so where is the damn rain? I was dissapointed that the most we got was the odd drop here and there. I was hoping for pissing down, miserable dark city streets, Bladerunner-style. Oh well. Note to Bungie: learn to do damn weather!
As always, I’m not really going to cover multiplayer. As 99% of people playing ODST will already have Halo 3, I don’t really need to go there. It’s Halo 3‘s full multiplayer package on a disc.
However, alongside the 4-player co-op campaign, there is also a new game mode called Firefight. Some have basically called this out as a rip of Gears of War‘s Horde Mode. It kind of is, but 100% better and more fun. Essentially, you and up to three other players blast through an endless co-op campaign that runs in waves, rounds and sets. Each game takes place in one single location, and the simple objective is to last as long as possible.
At the start of each wave, enemies arrive via dropship or other entrances, and once the last enemy in each wave is eliminated, a fresh wave begins. Although the enemy spawn is pretty much random, it follows a set pattern of increasing difficulty, with maybe Grunts and Jackals in the first wave, ramping up to the inclusion of Hunters in the fourth. The fifth wave always includes hammer-wielding Brute Chieftains, and trust me, this causes more brown-trouser moments than Hunters.
When the fifth wave is finished, this is one round completed. There is a brief pause and health supplies and weapons caches are restocked. After you complete 3 rounds – 15 waves – you get a bonus round, with only countless Grunts as enemies, a time limit, bonus multipliers on points scored and all skulls activated.
This all continues on ad infinitum, until you all run out of lives. This is the trick – you have a shared pool of lives, and each time one of you dies, this is reduced. Lives count is restored at the end of a round, but if all the lives are wasted before then, game over. Because of this, team co-ordination is VITAL. Ideally, you want to balance your weapons and skills out amongst the four of you. Got a good sniper? Make sure he gets the high vantage point and the sniper weapons. As your starting weapons can run out of ammo quickly, and you come to depend on dropped armaments, it is important that you don’t all just run for the dropped power weapon. Someone else may do better with it, or already have one and need the ammo because they already have one. I often found myself passing up the Fuel-Rod Cannon, instead telling my team -mate who had one where it was. It also is no use whatsoever to run in to the middle of battle on your lonesome, because you will simply die, and reduce the pool. Add to this that Firefight features random activation of skulls including (amongst others) famine (which leaves dropped weapons low on ammo) or catch (which makes the enemy all too keen to throw a million grenades your way) and you can see that without teamwork this game would be short. When you have a good team, a game can last hours. Trust me, for smokers, this is a pain in the ass, but worth it. Firefight is awesome fun, messy, full of carnage and “Oh crap oh crap” moments, and hilarious, all at the same time.
Some have complained that you cannot play firefight through matchmaking. But this would not make sense. Firefight uses the co-op architecture for game creation, not the multiplayer architecture. And, when you think logically about it, with team dialog and co-ordination being absolutely necessary would you really want to play alongside a guy with no headset, someone playing music down their mic, and a pre-pubescent sweary Mary American child who thinks everyone is “gay” and a “faggot” and won’t. Shut.The fuck. Up?
Really? My name is dogsounds, and I support this message.
Now, much has been made of the price tag for this game, and that we shouldn’t be paying full-price for what is essentially an expansion pack. But this argument pales a little when you consider what else you get in the box. Now, granted, being honest, Bungie’s target audience for ODST probably already have Halo 3, and therefore all the DLC map-packs that are included in ODST, save for 3 which are only on this game-disc. So, for someone who never played Halo 3, they get the campaign, Firefight and the full multiplayer pack. That’s pretty much full-price justification right there. But if you alread have Halo 3, you get campaign, Firefight, and 3 new multiplayer maps. In that case, maybe not fully worth the full price. But not far off.
I think the problem here is that Bungie labelled it as an add-on, right at the start, and it was meant to be just that. But they themselves later admitted that as time went by they added more and more and it became bigger than they had originally planned. Unfortunately, their earlier statements stuck in the mind of gamers, and an add-on at add-on prices was expected. I suspect they won’t make that mistake again. Plus, you have to remember, they aren’t setting the price, the publisher is. And that would be Microsoft.
For what you get in the box, yeah, I can live with the price. At the end of the day, this was built in a year, and I can’t imagine it was easy. And with the amount of extra life that Firefight gives the package – you will be playing that for some time to come, trust me – I’m not gonna lose sleep over it.
So, in conclusion, I would say that if you like you some Halo, then you will like ODST. A fun campaign with replay value, an addictng time-suck in Firefight, and multiplayer to boot will all keep you sated until Halo:Reach next year. Not perfect by any means, and nothing fantastically ground-breaking other than Firefight. Yes, the campaign is short, but not too far off the average. But in truth, there are so many games at full price that we have all played through, tried the multiplayer once or twice and put back on the shelf never to be touched again that the addition of long-life extras such as multiplayer and Firefight make ODST worth the price.
Sometimes more of the same isn’t such a bad thing.