Since the release of the original Halo in 2001, Bungie have brought in millions of dollars worth of sales for Microsoftâs Xbox 360 console. Some fans strayed off the beaten track when Gears of War arrived on the scene, but there is no denying that the Halo franchise is still the coveted Xbox exclusive title with more clout. It also appears that there is plenty more room in the Halo universe for Bungie to explore. Their latest outing, ODST (initially titled Halo 3: Recon) offers us a new take on the acclaimed gameplay experience.
Firstly, Iâm just going to come right out and say it. I never liked Master Chief. Besides his ridiculously unoriginal name (they might as well have called him âBig Boss Dudeâ), I failed to form any sort of connection with him emotionally. I couldnât really care less if he died or if it was actually Swedish Chef inside that big armoured suit of his. Because of this, Halo 3âs storyline and single-player experience fell extremely flat. There was something about an Ark and some over-sized rings, something called an Activation index and then we all found ourselves inside some massive, pulsating intestinal thing. It was certainly playable, but I never felt emersed in the plot of the whole thing. Thankfully the game had an astounding multiplayer aspect that sold itself.
Bungie have picked up on this though and Iâm very happy to say that ODST presents a greatly improved, more complex and compelling plot than all of the previous titles combined. And all without a single appearance from King Leader or whatever the hell his name was.
Instead Halo 3: ODST tells a story from the point of view of several different characters, each one more human and likable than Master Chief. The ODST in the title stands for Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (you can see why they abbreviated it), a team of highly trained soldiers who are the first to be deployed into enemy territory. Each ODST lacks the heavy-duty shielded armour and super-human strength of Spartans and instead rely on faster movement and stealth in combat. Because of this, they are often dropped in small numbers behind enemy lines to carry out sensitive or covert operations.
This is all apparent almost immediately into the game. ODST wastes no time in throwing you helmet-first into the fray with nothing but a brief cut-scene for an intro. You and your squad are orbiting Earth and preparing for a drop into the over-run port of New Mombasa, thousands of kilometres below. During this brief sequence, you learn bits and pieces about your fellow ODSTâs through their interactions with one another. Each one oozes personality and although possibly a bit clichĂ© at times, you canât help but feel like part of the team. There is Dutch, the older more worldly wise and therefore negative veteran but with a heart of gold â voiced perfectly by Adam Baldwin. Self-proclaimed ladies-man Romeo who could hit a fly off a cow at a hundred paces with his sniper abilities. Lovable but naive Mickey, the youngest of the squad and although capable â lacks any real-life experience in combat. Followed by the leader of your group, Buck - a dashingly handsome and cheeky little bugger that reminds you instantly of Captain Malcolm Reynolds from the TV series FireFly. Which makes perfect sense because actor Nathan Fillion actually lends his voice to the character.
There are other, equally enjoyable characters to meet in the game as well. But before you can invite them all around to yours for a BBQ and some beers, everything suddenly goes horribly wrong and you are deployed into action. When you awaken and stumble from your drop-pod, you find you have crash-landed into a building deep within enemy territory and are stranded all alone.
From here the first-person shooter basically leaves it in your hands to figure out what to do next. Apart from the objective of finding medical supplies, all you can assume is you have to try and locate the rest of your squad and scope out the war-ravaged city you crash landed in. This creates an almost sand-box environment where clues and beacons are scattered around leading you towards a deeper storyline through side-missions and clever flash-backs. Each beacon opens up a new mission based around a particular character and each member of your squad may be in completely different areas, or even different points in time. One mission might be based along the roof-tops of high-rise buildings at night and another might take place in New Mombasaâs nature reserve where there are massive wide-open spaces and enemies everywhere. You will need to adapt to each environment by using different weapons, going in for quiet close-quarter kills or taking advantage of vehicles. There are moments where you will find yourself in the middle of an epic confrontation between dozens of units, and other times where you are sneaking up on a small band of enemies on patrol. Not only does it vary up the action with different maps, it all comes together beautifully to tell an amazing story too â all through the eyes of your squad from different angles.
Speaking of weapons and vehicles, not a lot has changed since Halo 3. Perhaps it is a bit disappointing, but I did appreciate the sense of familiarity of seeing a Warthog and knowing exactly what I can do with it. There was no time wasted figuring out what my gun does or what advantage it could bring for certain situations. Instead it was just good old fashioned instinct-driven mayhem. The health system has changed slightly though, as not being a beefy Spartan means no regenerative shield. But the dynamics of play havenât changed greatly. Instead you now have âStaminaâ which doesnât have a meter on your HUD but is indicated by sounds of heavy breathing and general grunting when running low. When it sounds like you are about to have an asthma attack, you can have a quick rest and let it build up again. Very similar to the whole shield concept but players do seem more vulnerable than what we were used to in Halo 3. Luckily health packs are well placed through-out the maps too.
The other (much cooler) new feature of being an ODST is your visor which not only gives you night-vision but identifies enemies and colour codes targets in real-time. Enemies and friendly units are clearly distinguishable, objects and weapons outlined from a distance and more importantly low-light amplification for the levels that take place in the dead of night. Quite often in games the whole night-vision / thermal mode thing is a bit of a farce but ODST offers a completely different element to the gameplay when using it. The night missions require a more subtle, tactical approach where stealth is key. Of course it also just looks totally awesome.
Graphically, the game still uses the Halo 3 engine and therefore does show its age slightly. But Halo 3: ODST gets around this by tweaking the visuals nicely with an over-saturated palette and a foreboding tone that gives the game an unique feel. Besides there wasnât much wrong with the Halo 3 engine to begin with so it is at no disadvantage. The music is a clear highlight though and features one of the most immersive and dramatic scores I have heard in a game for a long-time. From the very start of the game when you are followed by a haunting piano through to the sweeping orchestral and electronic movements later on - Halo 3: ODST makes love to your ears.
And finally, the multiplayer. When ODST was announced, all anyone could talk about was the new Firefight mode. Possibly because fans werenât expecting the game to have such an impressive single-player campaign. But ODST still delivers a comprehensive online component that we have grown to expect from Bungie. For those who donât know, Firefight is a co-operative multiplayer experience where teams of up to four nest down and defend wave upon wave of enemies from all directions. Working together is essential, with ammo and vehicles all scattered around the map offering their own advantages when used intelligently and collectively. The difficulty ramps up over time and players can collect modifiers that change aspects of the game known as Skulls. Everyone has compared it to Gears of Wars 2âs Horde mode but there was something about Firefight that made it feel more personal. It felt as if I really was one in a band of desperate humans doing everything they can to survive and wipe out over-powering numbers of Covenant forces. It was a huge amount of fun but I was amazed at how long a game of Firefight lasted. Donât expect to while away thirty minutes before work as an average match for me took nearly two hours. My boss wasnât happy either. But it didnât once feel like it took anywhere near this long which is a definite sign of a solid multiplayer experience.
Halo 3: ODST packs in a lot of online madness for your dollar thanks to a second game disc that includes the âcomplete Halo 3 multiplayer experienceâ. It features 24 maps in total, including the open-ended frag-fest of the Sandbox map and 3 brand-spanking new maps yet to be released. Not to mention a sneak-peak at Halo: Reach beta.. oh, and the fact that you can also play ODSTâs campaign mode again with multiplayer co-op as well. For Halo fans it is without a doubt, great value for money and one for your collection.
Truthfully, ODST isnât a âcompletely new gameplay experienceâ that Bungie initially promised. It feels and acts like Halo 3, but contains enough improvements to make the experience refreshing. Most importantly though, it appears that Bungie are learning how to write and present an excellent single-player story to match the multiplayer prowess of Halo. Although the campaign mode only takes around 6 to 7 hours to get through, every moment is memorable and action packed. The future looks good â even without Master ChefâŠ I mean Chief in the line-up.