scad's Halo 3: ODST (Xbox 360) review

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I have had an unusually hard time writing this review for Halo 3 : ODST, in part, I suspect, because I am so conflicted in how I feel about it.  Half of me (the Halo fanboy half) loves it wholly and completely, while the other half can sometimes find nothing but faults.  ODST is very much like night and day, both literally and figuratively, in that way - inspiring equal parts giddy-adoration and controller-splitting abhorrence.  So, let's start with the bad news, shall we?

Oh, DST, how I scorn thee.  Let me count the ways.

1) There are shining moments of excellent story-telling (of which I'll comment on later), but sadly, there are just as many head-scratchingly bad ones.  Chief among these is the mute Rookie - the character through whom you experience the majority of the game.  I understand the concept of a 'blank-canvas' character, intended to allow the player to project him/herself into the main character's role (although, the Rookie is clearly male, so... good luck projecting too much ladies.)  The problem with this is that the rest of the cast is so expressive and unique that the Rookie seems like the dead shell of a zombie puppet (if I can even use enough negative adjectives to describe him) being pulled limply along to experience the others' stories.

2) The Halo 3 engine is in its terrible-twos - and it shows, most specifically in the monstrously morbid faces of the ODSTs (so thank God the Rookie leaves his helmet on at least.  I'd hate to see what that doofus looks like.)  The worst offenders are Buck (Nathan Fillion) and Captain Dare (Tricia Helfer), probably because they are actually modeled after their respective voice-actors, allowing that uncanny-valley to rear its ugly head (literally.)  Even the level terrain itself is beginning to look dated, although this is partially mitigated by virtue of over half of the game taking place at night.  Here's to hoping that Halo : Reach is built from the ground up.  Perhaps Bungie can take a cue from Naughty Dog, who thanked them in the credits for Uncharted 2, and borrow some of their awesome modeling and animation technologies.

3) Can I trash the Rookie a little bit more and still hold your attention?  Okay, good - because how frakin' stupid is it that the game supports four-player co-op, but each person has to take the role of the flacid Rookie?  Even Halo 3 used the Arbiter and two other Elites in order to make co-op more canonically plausible (and with Bungie's obsession with its canon, I can't believe they didn't at least contrive some other 'lost' ODSTs or something.)  To me, it just seems lazy - especially since the game was complete back in May!

4) Firefight.  I love Firefight.  So, why is it in the 'scorn' section you ask?  Well, I hate the inescapable lag I seem to always experience - something that Bungie acknowledges but can't fix.  Maybe it's my Brighthouse connection, or my friends' small-town Scottsboro Cable.  Either way, it often makes this otherwise brilliant mode all but unplayable.

5) Another aspect of the game that I was going to put in my 'love' section, but thought better of after a little contemplation, is the 'Visor' - a light and terrain-enhancing mode activated by pressing the 'X' button.  I have to commend Bungie on the aesthetic value of it, but that's about it.  The fanboy in me immediately cries, "Why on (or off) Earth would the ODSTs, but not the Spartans, have this visor!?"  I'll lay down a bet now that when we inevitably see the return of Master Chief, he'll somehow have Mark VII Mjolnir armor with a new enhanced visor (maybe including a new thermal and/or x-ray mode ala Metroid Prime - which is a good game to copy considering it is the Citizen Kane of games and all.  The visor has utility while playing as the Rookie at night, but you'll never turn it on during the day-time segments.  In this same vein, I hate how the ODSTs have recharging shields adrenaline, not to mention (although, I'm going to) taking a step backward in game design with health packs.  I mean, New Mombasa must have had some sort of health-care crisis to install so many magical cure-all aid stations.  Maybe Obama should look into some of those.

6) Finally, with its many, if niggling, flaws and relatively short play-time (even on the Legendary difficulty, which was a bit easier than past Halo games), I just can't justify the sixty-dollar price tag for this expansion-turned-full-game.  Thirty dollars would be the sweet spot in a price-value evaluation, but I understand that Bungie is in the business of making money, and they knew that we fanboy nimrods would fork out the full sixty.

Oh, DST, how I love thee.  Let me count the ways.

1) Anything that advances the story of the Halo universe, even just a smidgen (as is the case with ODST) has my vote of confidence.  Aside from the Rookie, ODST has some very strong characters that inspire real empathy from the player - especially the side-story of Sadie, told in the collectable audio-logs strewn about the game's hub world.  Honestly, I have to think playing as a civilian fighting to survive the Covenant invasion would have been more interesting than being an ODST wandering the almost barren streets after the fighting is already over - but that's a venue I'm sure Bungie? Microsoft will explore in the future.  Overall, the complete story arc of ODST, once assembled together through the flashbacky-thingamajigs, audio-logs and the very Halo ending, is immensely satisfying.  I'm particularly happy to finally see the Engineers - an alien race previously only detailed in the novel, Halo : The Fall of Reach.

2) I know that I sort of trashed the graphics in the last section, but I have to admit that the night-time bits of ODST have a particularly beautiful and sometimes ethereal ambience.  And though I have canonical qualms with the visor, I love the way the lines crawl out and over the terrain, highlighting the edges of all objects as they go.  One could conceivably be caught up switching the visor on and off again just to watch it spread throughout the level.

3)  Though the pacing is pretty different from past Halo games, mostly due to the vaguely open-world semi-linearity, it most assuredly feels like Halo - a point of much importance to fanboys like myself.  Every jump, grenade throw, and trigger squeeze instantly reminds you of the past three titles, even if you aren't clad in the green giant's armor.  Speaking of which, Bungie did an admirable job of simultaneously reminding you that you are not Master Chief while giving you reasons to not really care.  You may not be a Spartan, but you can still send Grunts and Jackals running in terror - a feat that is still supremely satisfying, especially since you can now legitimately use stealth to ambush groups of enemies instead of simply storming into the center of them, bullets spraying and plasma.  It is exhilarating to inch your way closer to a group of enemies bit by bit, darting from shadow to shadow, picking off Grunts or sticking their commanding Brutes before they've ever laid an eye on you.  Master Chief never really had that luxury (except when it came to killing those poor defenseless sleeping Grunts) since levels were mainly corridors filled with aliens purposely awaiting your arrival.

4)As I mentioned earlier, I love the Firefight mode.  I still don't really think it's anything more than a Halo-themed Horde mode, but that doesn't make it any less satisfying.  I can't even recall the amount of times I've found myself edged to the end of my chair, leaning forward, furiously tapping buttons while uttering into my headset some incoherent amalgamation of a scream and laugh.  Again, I don't believe ODST should have been a sixty-dollar game, but Firefight is easily the most compelling reason to shell out the dough.

5) Nathan Fillion is my hero.  I fall in love with pretty much every project to which he is attached (although, I haven't seen any episodes of Castle yet, so I can't quite make that a blanket statement.) I agree with some of my fellow online pundits in that I don't exactly believe him in the role of a commanding officer in the UNSC, or any other militant organization for that matter, but as always, his deadpan, sarcastic delivery is spot-on and often very funny (maybe not Captain Hammer funny, but chuckle-worthy nonetheless.)  Oh yeah, Tricia Helfer and those other dudes weren't bad either.

6) I hate to do this, but I can't really think of another aspect of the game that I loved enough to warrant its own section - I just needed another paragraph here for overall symmetry. (That's me - breaking the fourth wall of amateur online game blogging/journalism since 2008!) In summation, ODST is a bit over-priced, but despite this, I really believe that the sum of its parts are greater than the whole.  However, while writing this review, I was surprised to find that I had more bad to say than good.  So, that leaves me with a bit of a quandary - do I ultimately recommend ODST or not?

My answer:  Yes!  It's Halo; I mean, come on! (Seriously though, it's pretty good.  If you like Halo, it's a foregone conclusion.  If you think you'd like a slightly different type of shooter, give it a weekend rental at least.) 

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