Halo 3: ODST
Review by Gunpla Rob
The Halo experience is unlike the game genre it resides in, capable of successfully captivating audiences with a well written and engaging story combined with easy to figure out, pick up and play gameplay. Halo 3: ODST continues using the same formula the series it is named for, and gives new players a chance to experience another side to the popular Halo games.
PREPARE TO DROP!
The story of Halo 3: ODST takes place in the year 2552, during the war between the human race, led by the UNSC (United Nations Space Command), and the alien alliance known as the Covenant bent on exterminating the human race over their relationship to a mysterious race known as the Forerunners. While the title shares the number of the more recent Halo 3 (released in 2007), Halo 3: ODST takes place during the missing hours of its predecessor, Halo 2 (released on the original X-Box in 2004). The Covenant forces have discovered the location of Earth and seized the city of New Mombasa in Africa as their beachhead for the assault on the human home world. Meanwhile, the UNSC’s Office of Naval Intelligence prepares a top secret mission vital to the war based on the Covenant’s arrival to this particular city. Masking their intentions, they order a counterstrike mission by sending a team of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, the ODST, who believe their mission is to land on the Covenant flagship hovering over the city. However things go awry as the flagship makes a daring escape from the planet and scatters the Troopers across the devastated city in its wake. Long after the cataclysmic event, a lone ODST emerges from his crashed drop pod, The Rookie. Alone, he must covertly navigate through the besieged New Mombasa and put together the clues of the time he lost and find his missing comrades. It is time to drop.
The Halo 3: ODST package is divided into three components. The first is the ODST game and its subsequent multiplayer modes.
True to its franchise, Halo 3 ODST remains a First Person Shooter (or FPS) where the player sees things first hand down the sights of a weapon with cinematic breaks in between to elaborate the story. The action of the game is a combination of navigation and shoot-out action, with enough room for the player to engage enemies in their own way. While the FPS genre is populated by games that take players between narrow hallway fights, Halo relies on a broader scale giving players the opportunity of seeing a world through the eyes of the character and experiencing the fights ahead of them in their own way, be it a duck and cover firefight in a narrow corridor or across rolling landscapes in armored vehicles. This portrayal of scale is what Halo truly excels in, making players feel like they are only a small part of a bigger world rather than the biggest stick in a fight or the general target of the enemy’s offensive.
Figuring the player’s role in the game is also a matter of difficulty and Halo 3: ODST comes in the four flavors of destruction: Easy, Normal, Heroic, and Bungie’s ever so popular Legendary, modes where the increasing the odds against the player are measured in both enemy numbers and enemy behaviors. Enemies will appear in larger numbers and begin acting smarter; troops of Grunts swell into legions of the crazy, grenade throwing midgets that duck and dodge at every shot ringing over their heads and the phalanx of shield toting Jackals will be complimented with sharp eyed snipers that rarely miss. In the increasing difficulties’ means of devastation, the player’s assistant non-playable characters will be dwindled down in seconds, leaving the player alone against hordes of angry, gun-toting aliens of all different shapes and sizes. Believe it or not, this is a good thing when a game does not just overpower the player with a difficulty scale that is measured in damage point ratios. These ratios do exist however for fending off larger enemies, but it is not ridiculously scaled against the player.
Halo 3: ODST comes as a first entry into the Halo franchise to exclude the series’ lead protagonists: the Master Chief, the UNSC’s armor clad Spartan II super soldier (and Microsoft’s Poster Child) and the Arbiter, a leader figure of the later deposed Covenant species, the Elites. Instead the game centers on a whole group of regular soldiers rather than seemingly unstoppable individuals, which becomes one of the greater challenges players have to overcome. Playing as ODST compounds the sense of vulnerability where players from the previous Halo titles will miss the game’s patented, bullet-absorbing energy shields that recharge instantly. Instead, players will have to rely on scattered med-kit health packs between enemy encounters. With death more imminent than anticipated, survival begins to look like a better idea than how many kills a player can get.
DANGER AHEAD! KEEP RIGHT!
Trapped behind enemy lines, the Rookie is alone against the odds in the besieged city. Under the cover of night and with no mission to guide him, the story of the Rookie has the player searching for clues scattered across the city to uncover the events of the time he lost. True to another facet of Halo’s story design game design, the player is never truly alone thanks to the guiding lights presented by New Mombasa’s Superintendent, an Artificial Intelligence entity that controls the city’s functions. The Superintendent is by no shape a replacement for the Halo series’ digital heroine Cortana, who normally is tasked with providing the player with their sense of direction in scripted dialogue and comedic banter. The Superintendent instead communicates to the players through his functions: flickering street signs and random traffic announcements placed at locations guide player through the city and point the Rookie in the right direction if he gets lost. Beneath the surface, the Superintendent has its own secret story buried in the game which the player can discover by accessing random kiosks and phone booths throughout the city. These scattered messages delve into the events transpiring during the Covenant’s invasion of New Mombasa and shed light on clues that the Rookie will come across. Accessing these points will unlock useful locations for the player later in the game.
The City is an open sandbox designed as a hub with series of interconnected zones that become unlocked in relation to the player’s progress of the game’s story. There is quite a bit of backtracking involved when going between the key locations of interest, but at no time does the process feel old repetitive thanks to the randomly moving Covenant patrols.
Throughout the city, the Rookie will have to contend with Covenant patrols comprised of the main enemy forces as they were arranged in Halo 3, despite Halo 3: ODST’s chronological placement in the hours of Halo 2. The Elites, who were the dominant enemy species in Halo: Combat Evolved (and the early portion of Halo 2), are replaced entirely by the Brutes, who command the Grunts, Jackals, Drones, and Hunters. Some patrols will also be supplemented with the assistance from a previously unseen species of the Covenant, the Engineers. These seemingly harmless, floating creatures have been the subject of interest in the Halo universe, revealed in the game’s tie-in novels written by Eric Nylund (The Fall of Reach and First Strike) and Halo 3: ODST’s lead story writer Joseph Staten (Contact Harvest). Until now, the Engineers have been reluctant from appearing in the Halo games. In Halo 3: ODST, the Engineers serve as support for the other Covenant species by bolstering the patrolling forces’ survivability with extra shields and making them tougher to beat in a gunfight. Fighting any of the patrols as the Rookie is almost an optional affair unless it is unavoidable. Coming across these patrols in large enough spaces, the player can choose whether to fight or move around them without being seen but along the narrow roadways, the enemies will often spot the Rookie before the player sees them.
The scripted interactions between the Rookie, his team, and the game’s layout make this the most Story driven entry into the Halo series. As the Rookie encounters the clues he is searching for, the game cuts to a series Flashbacks which take players out of the Rookie’s perspective and drops them into the roles of his fellow ODST squad mates. These missions change between different times during the day light hours in the areas the Rookie passes through during the night while the majority of these missions send the player to areas the Rookie cannot access. The episodic format in which these missions take place is an interesting adjustment to Halo’s standard “start to finish” formula where the game’s feature of placing the player in an ever changing situation from one mission to the next. As an expansion pack to the overall Halo experience, these missions play out as samples of the different variety of combat zones from the other Halo games ranging from ground combat in the city of New Mombasa to being in the driver’s seat in high octane vehicular mayhem across the war ravaged landscape.
While the ODST lack the implied armor and stamina of the Spartans, they do have the gadgetry to improve their place on the battlefield ranging from specialized weapons to suit functions. The new perks exclusive to the ODST include the VISR, a virtual night vision system with a sharply colored heads up display that not only breaks through the darkness, but highlights significant objects in the environment such as accessible doorways, items, and enemies. VISR also works in conjunction with the game’s menu system, with a pull down map display at the touch of a button. This replaces the main Halo games’ motion-tracker radar with a full screen view of the environment. The VISR has tabs dedicated to labeled missions objectives, which combine with the map to show the player where they need to get to next and what they need to do when they get there. While the VISR is a useful tool in the ODST arsenal, the game restricts its use primarily to the Rookie because of its night vision function. Using it during the missions of his squad will blind the player when trying to use it because their activities in the daytime hours. On the other hand, the VISR works perfectly inside buildings.
Compared to other games in the First Person genre, Halo has one of the more diverse varieties of weapons to choose from and Halo 3: ODST only adds to it. Unlike the bombastic front line action of the main Halo titles, ODST is crafted around infiltration and the player is given two new firearms geared for stealth in the forms of the scoped, silenced pistol and sub machine gun. Both weapons are a useful in any situation, but are more in tune with the Rookie’s side of the story. Moving through the darkness of the city, the silenced pistol can covertly topple the legions of smaller troops without the player being seen or heard and the scope function on both weapons allows the player the freedom to hold enemies off from a greater distance away. During the Flashback missions of the other Troopers, the player is given the chance to sample through the Halo series variety of louder, more explosive, weaponry and vehicles. Often some of these weapons are located where the player will need them the most but the game is lenient enough to give something to the player at each mission’s starting point. As the Rookie, weapons are rare except for discarded items found near battle sites, and ammunition is limited. To save the player from constantly being low on supplies, weapons depots are scattered through the city which are unlocked by accessing the previously mentioned phone messages left by the Superintendent. These depots are set so the Rookie can replenish his starting arsenal or swap out for an alternative weapon located in each depot. If too far from a depot and running low on ammunition, the player can always take the survivalist’s route and claim weapons from defeated enemies to tide them over.
NEVER FIGHT ALONE!
While the campaign of Halo 3: ODST is a designed for a single person affair, the developers have made the extra effort by included their popular Co-Op (or cooperative) mode. Co-Op supports up to four players who can team up to complete the story together via a single console, on X-Box Live, or LAN party system link. Contrary to the idea of playing as multiple copies of the same character, Co-Op mode will set the Host player in the role of the main ODST character for each flashback and the other players in the boots of blank Troopers. While Co-Op makes the game far easier even when each game is set to a higher difficulty setting, the experience boosts the fun value when getting to play with friends.
Halo 3: ODST has another cooperative game called “Firefight.” Firefight is an escalating gauntlet game where groups of up to four players face off against waves of Covenant forces being dropped in over a closed map. Firefight is arranged into three round sets where winning the game requires defeating all enemies in the field before moving on to the next set. How the game plays out is dependant on how well the team works; if players are not cohesive or fast enough, they can be overwhelmed by enemies in a short time period. Maintaining supplies is also another complicating factor of the game, where the players are restricted on starting weapons available to them and weapons placed on the map that will not be replenished until after each round is completed. The group dynamic is the core concept of the game’s penalty system, with the players sharing a given number of ‘Lives.’ Every time a player is killed and revived at the starting checkpoint, one life is deducted from the group. Completing each set will reward players with additional lives, and if players can complete a bonus round after each set, they will be rewarded extra lives to continue playing.
Adding some variety into the game, a series of “Skulls” are activated which act as point modifiers change the enemy Artificial Intelligence (AI) behavior and stack the odds against the players. The Skulls have a number of different functions, ranging from how enemies avoid danger to how little ammunition they leave behind in dropped weaponry. Adding some frustration into the mix, Firefight is able to mirror the difficulty settings of the ODST campaign mode from Easy to Legendary, which greatly affects the level of intensity the game can play at. Even on Easy, the Skull modifiers keep the game intense and the thrills alive.
Making Firefight a diverse game mode is the selection of characters to use. A familiar format in games such as Gears of War (by Epic Games), the player can select a default character from the game’s story to use as their avatars in the online component. Although there are no perks relating to each character such as starting weapons or unique abilities, each character does have a series of spoken expressions and individual appearances that make each player distinguishable from each other. Players seeking to use these characters will have to go through the game’s story mode first; where completing each Trooper’s mission will unlock them for use in Firefight. One character not unlocked this way is Sgt. Johnson, a recurring character from the main Halo storyline. Johnson is an exclusively downloadable character for players who pre-ordered Halo 3: ODST at select retailers activated by a special download code.
SOUNDS OF ORCHESTRATED WAR!
The sound design of Halo 3: ODST is an extensive display of sounds and music with an excellent voice cast to boot. The sound effects behind every weapon, character, and item are distinct and resonate perfectly to their interactions, sometimes cuing to whether or not the player will see what they think they hear. Continuing his audible reign over the Halo series is composer Marty O’Donnell, who has provided the music for the whole Halo experience with an orchestral balance of epic excitement and intense emotional outpour. There is a certain feeling of urgency with Marty’s score for ODST that evokes the seriousness and tension of the events in the game, transitioning between soft tones for the Rookie’s solitary quest through the abandoned city to the bombastic overtures during the action of his squad’s stories played out in scale battles. O’Donnell’s score combines with the game so fluidly that it really exemplifies a truly balanced soundtrack and gaming experience. The game’s voice cast consists of former “Firefly” stars as key members of the ODST squad: Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, and Alan Tudyk. To make their characters stand out, Bungie modeled Nathan Fillion’s character Sgt. Buck after him and leading female cast member, Tricia Helfer of “Battlestar Galactica,” who plays ONI specialist Veronica Dare.
The second portion of the Halo 3 ODST experience is the Mythic Multiplayer disk. This standalone disk is exclusively based on the existing Halo 3 Multiplayer game which exists already in the form of Halo 3. What makes this disk a part of the ODST release is the inclusion of three new maps which are not available through the X-box Live Marketplace (where players would normally download expanded data) for the original game:
These three maps are scaled to the various forms of game-types Bungie has developed for Halo 3’s Multiplayer from the larger (16 player) big-team games to the smaller (8 player) free-for-all slayer games. These maps however come as the game’s strongest negative mark where the multiplayer disk makes players who already have Halo 3 purchase the same Multiplayer game a second time. Despite this, the Halo 3 Multiplayer game is still fun and amusing when playing with friends.
THE FALL OF REACH!
The last portion of the Halo 3: ODST package is the Beta for Bungie’s next project, Halo: Reach. While nothing is available now, the ODST game disk will act as the Beta’s access come its launch period. According to the story of Halo, the planet Reach was the UNSC’s largest military outpost and site of the last major conflict of the war before the Covenant’s arrival to Earth. Detailed in Eric Nylund’s “HALO: The Fall of Reach” and “HALO: First Strike,” as the last time whole teams of Spartans were seen in combat. There are only scant clues as to what Reach will be about, but the general consensus is that the game will focus on squad based combat, hinted at by the game’s promotional poster where a group of what appear to be Spartans are shown in silhouettes set to the background of a burning world. In other speculations, Halo 3: ODST could be the example of a new format of telling the story of multiple characters through flashbacks. Until Bungie releases more information behind their secrets, the gamer world will have to wait patiently. Unlike the Halo 3 Multiplayer Beta that was limited to first edition copies of “Crackdown” released in 2007, Bungie made certain the Beta for Halo: Reach is available through all copies of Halo 3: ODST.
Overall, Halo 3: ODST proves that the Halo franchise can do more than get by without its more recognizable characters and fits into the game series for all of the right reasons. If there are flaws to the game that damage it, it has to be the game’s overall length and price point. Start to finish, Halo 3: ODST is not a very long game but it is not very short either. Players spending time as the Rookie and scouring the ravaged New Mombasa will get their hours worth of entertainment, whereas aggressive players will find themselves beating the Flashback missions of his squad in no time at all. To the more casual audience, the story breaks and cinematic cut-scenes make up for the playable length. While the costs of video games have gone up over the years, it is disappointing that even the shortest games cost as much as the longest ones. However to its credit, the standard market price for Halo 3: ODST is made up for by its included features. The Mythic Multiplayer disk is only a deal if first time players do not already own a copy of Halo 3 but is still an upset to those existing Halo multiplayer fans who bought ODST buying the same game twice. The invitation to the Halo: Reach Beta is something of some concern too. While the automatic guaranteed entre is assured, players are paying now for something that will be available later without the guarantee of getting to play it. This same thing occurred for some players during the Halo 3: Multiplayer Beta that was released in Spring/Summer of 2007 where the access to play it did not guarantee the time to play until it was disabled. If Bungie plans to make the Beta functional until the final build of the Halo: Reach game is released, then the Beta will justifying the price of this game. Until then, the world may never know. None the less, Halo 3: ODST is a well crafted and executed game, marred only by the publisher’s marketing strategy.
Thanks in the making of this review go to Danny "Boomathingy" West and Andrew "Treb Rigander" Morris. Shown here riding along while I drive.
All Screenshots for this review were taken by Rob Braun*, MobileSuit_Rob of Collection DX, using the game’s Theater mode. All visually printed material is copyright of Bungie LLC, used with permission.
(*) = X-box Live gamertag: Had Weltall
|Posted 15 October, 2009 - 10:24 by Gunpla Rob|