An adventure worth experiencing, but not worth purchasing.
Like it or hate it Halo has changed the way shooters are made and the way shooters are perceived on console. It also was also the game that probably justified many people's purchase of an original Xbox. Come Halo 2 and Halo 3 it became very much the same situation. But the fight was finished in Halo 3 and the story of Master Chief came to a climactic end in 2007, however Bungie said that others have yet to finish their fight in the Halo universe and what we got this year was Halo 3: ODST.
It's pretty obvious from the start that this isn't really a true sequel to the Halo franchise, retaining the name Halo 3 and all, but in many ways ODST feels remarkably different while retaining a sense of familiarity, similar to what Halo 3 did to Halo 2. You don't play as a cybernetically enhanced Spartan, you play as an ODST or Orbital Drop Shock Trooper. Just think of ODSTs like your real life military Special Forces group, still human but just highly trained and badass.
The timeline where this game starts is more like Halo 2.5, in that it takes place after Halo 2's beginning battle for New Mombosa, but before Master Chief's return in Halo 3. In between that you play as the Rookie, a new ODST member and sent on a somewhat innocent mission of boarding a Covenant carrier and taking it over. However when you are in process of dropping onto the Carrier, it jumps into a portal and causes a burst of energy which scatters you and your team all across New Mombosa. SNAFU indeed.
You as the Rookie wake up Six hours after the drop, and you climb out to walk in the night time environment of New Mombosa. Your goal at that moment is to figure out what happened to your team during those six hours and you do that by picking up clues around the city. For example a helmet of an ODST member, which comes with a video of what they did. This is how ODST deals with its missions and goals as the video that the rookie is watching of his teammates, transports you to become that teammate in the mission. It's a fairly interesting concept to become this disembodied force as it gives you a better perspective on each of the ODST squad members, and allows you to experience multiple moments during this timeline that wouldn't be possible with a single character.
The gameplay you will spend for a significant amount of time is the exploration of New Mombosa, and finding your way to different clues so you can find different missions. On paper it looks nothing more than just a fancy hub world with enemies occasionally wandering for you to avoid or fight, but it's really more than that. The hub really gets you a feel for the environment, and the dark night time environments as well as the almost post-apocalyptic vibe with a Halo touch gives an uncomfortable and tense mood not really seen in the Halo series. There's also the fact that all the missions and flashbacks take part during the same environment you are in, and all the layout of the environment stays the same, giving a strange retrospective look of a somewhat before and after scenario of the flashbacks. There's also the Superintendent AI who subtly guides you to Audio Logs similar to Bioshock which tells a story about a girl named Sadie shortly before the covenant invasion, and gives you insight of the Superintendent and the city and a non-military perspective on the war. The clues to these are really well presented, with signs saying “Keep Left!” and police sirens attracting you to a destination. All of this gives a very engrossing and very different feel for the Halo series, and puts it closer with more scripted shooters like Bioshock and Half Life.
But primarily why Halo has been successful is the way Bungie handles the combat. Being a human as opposed to a cyborg, you'd think that this would mean a big jump from the way the game handles as opposed to the other Halo games, but in fact it plays relatively the same. It shouldn't be that much of a surprise considering the game still runs on the Halo 3 engine, but small and smart changes to the feel, make the game feel distinctly different from Halo 3. First off the energy shield has been replaced with a Call of Duty style “stamina” where the screen would turn red as you would take damage, and eventually that damage would translate to your health. Seems kind of an arbitrary change at first, but it gives a much better response on when you are about to die than Halo 2 and Halo 3's “only energy shields” policy. The new Visor outlines friends and enemies and amplifies light slightly, giving the game a slightly more tactical feel.
By the way, did I mention this game is Halo? It's probably for the best that they didn't change much of the game, considering that the way the combat handles is still so well executed. The AI, the speed, the scale of battle is still every bit as good or even better than the original Halo 3, which is saying a lot since Halo 3 was one of the best games of 2007. Small things like the SMG being the primary human weapon, the Pistol having a scope like Halo 1 make the game feel distinct from Master Chief's adventures, in fact you could say the small backpedaling things like the no dual wield, Health meter, and scoped pistol make the game feel more like Halo 1 in a whole, which some may argue had the best feel of combat of all the Halo games. Never the less the gunplay and the combat are very much like that you saw in Halo 3, it just feels a bit different.
The level design is a bit more different in that it feels more scripted than Halo 3. Rather than dropping enemies onto the map and let the AI dictate the combat, the game more gears towards putting out certain enemies at certain moments. By doing that, it brings more set piece battles which make the game more memorable. Another small change is that you're no longer fighting alone or with a group of marines vastly lower than your skill level. Most missions will have you fighting with another of your ODST members, and equipped with the right weapons, they can deal with enemy forces at a greater level of competency. This adds to the feel that your not some super soldier taking on vast enemy forces and that other soldiers that are on your level are fighting with you. Though some moments will leave you by yourself, but the change in attitude for the player of the game can lead to greater satisfaction as your doing more “tactical” maneuvers to outsmart and equalize the opposition. Because of the lack of excuse why you could take down so many brutes gives you the satisfying impression that you were simply better than them.
Graphically the game on the technical side hasn't done much. Warthogs look like Warthogs and the colorful pallet has not left the scene. But what ODST does do is give a much more different artistic look of the Halo universe. The Visor gives a cool futuristic look of the world as it outlines each edge with a dull yellow, and brightens the world with a tint of green. The darker world of New Mombosa is really the star of the show. You could actually say that ODST is a response to the old complaints of Halo 2 where more of the players wanted to fight on earth. The Halo stylized version of a post-apocalyptic world is well realized here. Flickering lights, broken machines, crashed police cars, and burning debris gives the impression that there were civilians once living here, and it gives a disturbing view on the war once you see graffiti calling the UNSC liars and people losing all hope scribbling “were next!” In the graphics department, ODST successfully creates a world that is familiar, yet uncomfortably different for us in the Halo universe.
The Audio is a surprising accomplishment. It just proves that getting a good theme is more than just luck, it's a combination of skill and talent that Martin O'Donnel and Michael Salvatori have. The Halo theme has much become the John Williams score of Star Wars, memorable and phenomenally produced but we heard it a bazillion times already. So ODST actually throws the Halo theme out the window and substitutes it for it's own that is no less a work of art than the original Halo theme. The deep strings accompanied by the lone piano and saxophone perfectly reflect the investigative and lonely journey of the Rookie to find his other squad mates in the dark city of .
The voice acting I found to be generally good. While some may object to the quality, they certainly get the job done, and while the writing and delivery may not be as good as Mass Effect, they certainly lend to the personality of each ODST squad member. It also helps keep them memorable for the remarkably short time you get to know them.
The new multiplayer component of Halo ODST is Firefight. Firefight allows 4 players to fight wave after wave of covenant forces. The switch up is that there will be skulls that change aspects of the gameplay every so often. So instead of waiting back for your stamina to go back, you have to melee sometimes, or enemies will throw excessive amounts of grenades. This switch up forces players to change their tactics on the fly, getting closer or further from enemies depending on what skulls are on. While the mode itself certainly is not original, it's the most entertaining innovation on the mode I have seen, and Firefight can be said to be the most refined out of all the “horde-mode” rip-offs.
Is Halo ODST perfect? No, not really. While the presentation, audio, setting, and premise all are well executed and has great innovation throughout the Halo universe, the gameplay is certainly lacking in the great potential in this new premise. It would be a much more interesting game if the whole “I'm human, but I'm in a team” concept had been pushed much further into something like Squad tactics. There's also the problem of Value. Now I would be one of those people who think that a well built single player experience no matter the length is worth whatever you paid for, but in the case of Halo ODST what you get is the single player which lasts 4-5 hours, the new Firefight mode, and a full packaged Halo 3 multiplayer component with all the new maps. I find the new maps to be a non-factor in the value section simply because of the fact that people who did not have the maps like me, had no real interest in the Halo 3 multiplayer experience, while those who were into the multiplayer scene most likely already have the maps, and those casually liking the multiplayer will simply wait till those maps go free with the original Halo 3. So unless firefight is really important to you, and you already own Halo 3, you'd get everything you can out of the game from a 3-day rental.
But Halo ODST is really the sum of its parts. The small changes like the stamina, the pistol, the combat, the premise, and even the setting really add up to a well designed and well executed single player experience. While the value makes it hard to recommend a buy at 60 dollars, the single player is certainly worth experiencing for any casual or hardcore Halo single player fan. A rental is certainly a very valid choice, and this reviewer recommends renting the game instead of buying it full price, especially if you already own Halo 3. But the unique artistic aspects of Halo ODST make it worthy of any collection, so I also recommend when the price becomes maybe a little reasonable, that Halo ODST makes it into your collection. Never the less, Halo ODST is a fantastic single player experience worthy of being on par with Master Chief's adventures.