A insubstantial iteration on an all-too-familiar formula
The Halo franchise is incredibly popular, and for very good reasons. The gameplay and visual style are both excellent, and to many gamers out there the narrative surrounding that universe goes right up there with beloved sci-fi settings such as Star Wars. Still, aside from a few minor changes between each iteration on the series, Bungie has done little to innovate on their own formula. With Halo 3: ODST, however, they’ve finally stepped away from Master Chief and have given themselves a chance at going in a significantly new direction.
The single-player game focuses exclusively on the members of the United States Naval Corps’ Orbital Drop Shock Troopers -- going by the acronym ODST for the game’s namesake -- during the Covenant’s invasion on New Mombasa, which actually occurs during the events of Halo 2. You’ll take control of a mute, nameless character referred to only as “The Rookie” in an attempt to find out what’s happened to the rest of your squad following the drop into the city.
That’s really where the big gimmick within ODST lies. New Mombasa is essentially nothing short of a pile of twisted, burning steel and exists as an open world for you to explore while in control of "The Rookie". You’ll battle your way through pillaged streets in effort to reach various beacons scattered through the city, which each trigger a flashback mission. Other than serving as what I would personally call “filler” in between the actual content of the game, there are various audio logs to be discovered here and there, all of which tell an increasingly epic story that I won’t get into. It can also be used as grounds for achievement gathering, as many of them can be acquired without being engaged in an actual mission.
There’s one mission for each individual squad member that progressively fill in the blanks as to how the sprawling metropolis came to be a pile of ruins. The characters themselves have plenty of potential to be unique, but aside from Butch -- likened and voiced by none other than Nathan Fillion of Firefly fame -- none of them are really fleshed out to any substantiating degree. It’s obvious that Bungie intended the campaign in this title to be heavily character-driven, and in that regard it decidedly comes up short on many fronts. Mechanically, however, everything is almost exactly what you’d expect from the Halo moniker.
The only notable change-up here is that you are not, in fact, Master Chief. Still, as the ODST are presented as a more privileged and elite group of infantry, you’re at least a step up from the everyday soldiers whose corpses line the corridors of every past entry in the series. The characters you’ll control survive off Stamina, which is just as bit as reliable as Master Chief’s energy shields, only the alert that you’re about to run out has been switched from an annoying beeping sound to a flashing red border on the screen. While Stamina can be restored automatically, health cannot, so unlike before you’ll actually have to scramble around searching for medical packs. Fortunately, they’re fairly easy to come across, so it’s generally a non-issue outside of combat. During combat, however, you’re approach toward foes will have to be significantly more tactical than ever before. Stamina runs out quickly, as does the health meter, and it doesn’t take more than a few seconds of overzealous play to toss you back to the most recent checkpoint.
I’ve pushed through most of this review with an extreme focus on the campaign, which might seem a bit odd considering that the Halo franchise is known first and foremost for its incredibly popular online play. My reasoning, quite honestly, is that ODST does little more than simply recycle the multiplayer experience you’ve likely familiarized yourself with in Halo 3.
The game comes packaged with an additional disc entitled “Multiplayer,” compiling Halo 3’s numerous online modes with every released downloadable map pack, as well as a few new ones exclusive to ODST. To those enjoying the original game without these maps, this actually might seem like some real value, but for everyone else you’re really just paying for something you’ve already bought, plus a little extra. Depending on who you are, it may be worth it, but for me it most definitely was not.
The only entirely new feature in ODST outside of its campaign is a new multiplayer mode called Firefight. If you’re familiar with the Horde mode found in Gears of War 2 or the Survival Mode DLC from Left 4 Dead, then you should already know mostly what to expect from Firefight. You’ll start off equipped with a few basic weapons, some grenades and multiple lives with which survive as long as possible and score as many points as you can before exhausting your resources. Where Firefight cuts away from this particular gameplay trend emerging within the industry is through skulls. At the start of each round, different skulls will activate, initiating a new trend for your copious amounts of enemies. They can suddenly have twice as much health or become extraordinarily obsessed with lobbing grenades at you. They can also become proficient in dodging your attacks.
Firefight can be a lot of fun with friends, but alone the level of enjoyment brought on can be a real crapshoot. The real problem is that Firefight contains no online matchmaking, forcing you to play by yourself or only with friends. If you’re someone without a lot of gaming friends, or who just doesn’t know a lot of people that enjoy Halo’s brand of multiplayer, you probably won’t get much use out of this feature, and that’s really a shame as it drags what could be an extremely entertaining experience down for a large number of users.
Halo 3: ODST is sewn together with the conventions of Bungie’s typical first-person shooter, with a super-thin extra layering gently fastened over the corners. It fails to achieve the impact it so obviously hopes to with its character-driven narrative, and the multiplayer feels recycled. Ultimately, this title feels like the expansion pack that that its name suggests that it is, and given the full retail price-point, that isn’t at all a good thing. That being said, if you like Halo, you’ll like ODST. What it boils down to is whether or not you’re willing to pay full price for a new coat of paint on a game that was released two years ago.