The Kotaku visit to Bungie headquarters last week wasn't all about lobby tours and police imbroglios. It was an opportunity to finally play Halo 3: ODST's campaign. Skip the money arguments for a moment. This one feels different.
ODST is the dark Halo. It is the one that even though it puts players in the bots of a cast of different heroes instead of just one Master Chief feels the loneliest.
That's the first impression I got, having played about an hour of the game in Kirkland, Washington last week.
The game's creative director, Joe Staten, told me during my recent studio visit that he and his team were inspired by film noir. They wanted to emulate the rhythms of a detective story.
I can relate some of how that noir mood worked in the sections I played if you read on. There will be light spoilers, but I'm a gamer and I know the kinds of things most players don't want ruined by a write-up. I won't mess things up.
ODST is about a squad of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, elite commandos who are sent into the heat of battle by the human UNSC forces. In the four sequences I played in Kirkland, I alternated between segments featuring the faceless, voiceless Rookie and flashback sequences starring other squadmates set during the six hours Rookie was knocked out in his escape pod. All of the ODSTs had landed in the Earth city of New Mombasa, their mission having gone awry by the end of the game's first cutscene. Rookie's segments occurred six hours after the drop. The other characters' missions took place while Rookie was unconscious.
Bungie's designers do the smart small stuff. Your first playable moment puts you in an interesting situation: In an escape pod dangling dangerously high over a street. I was playing a Bungie preview build that had no aiming setting set for me, so the game had me remove look around to activate four explosive bolts, blow the hatch and drop me to the street. The drop hurts the Rookie and therefore introduces the player to ODST's new health system. Graffiti on the wall sets the mood of a city that's taken its beating: "UNSC = Liars.... We're next!"
The city was dark in Rookie's sections. The score that plays includes piano. I found it necessary to almost constantly keep activated the ODST's visor, which outlines objects and characters of interest in coloured lines that indicate threat level. Without it I would not have seen the first packs of enemies walking through New Mombasa's streets. That score and the lack of light encourages you to play gently, to take it slowly.
That mood comes all from the set-up. When I initiated combat, I felt like I was back to Halo 3.
Staten said that the ODSTs were designed to feel less overpowering than Master Chief. "Tension" was a popular word during the development process of this game, he told me. Playing on Heroic difficulty, a notch up from the default, as I was, introduced plenty of tension. But in my first hour with ODST I wasn't feeling any more or less capable in the heat of combat. I did start with low ammo weapons, but the health system, which I thought would make things feel different, swiftly had me playing ODST the same way I played Halo 1-3: Advance... Shoot... Retreat... Recover.. Repeat. Master Chief had regenerating health that would only be depleted a level if he stood in danger for too long. The ODST's vision goes red and his breathing becomes accelerated and audible when he's hurt. During those moments, his health meter can be depleted. I found, however, that backing off when I started to hear him huff and puff kept him alive and in full health. An ODST doesn't act as coolly under fire as Master Chief does, but I felt like I could play them the same.
It wound up being not the health system that made the ODST feel like a more threatened combatant than Master Chief but the vibe of New Mombasa. The dense darkness applied sensory pressure and a contrast to how the game felt during flashbacks.
When I got into the boots of other ODSTs I felt a dramatic tonal shift. I played a pair of their segments, both activated when Rookie found items in the hub city of New Mombasa that were emanating signals. The first, staring Buck, had me battling through the streets of New Mombasa, climaxing in a city-square skirmish that included snipers, brutes and some even tougher, familiar enemies. During that battle I learned that ODST's pistol, which had seemed like an underwhelming addition to my arsenal, is, when zoomed, a capable and superb tool for sniping distant enemies. The second flashback was set near the New Mombasa zoo and featured no animals but plenty of classic Halo vehicles. During the flashbacks, the sun was shining and the music was set to a triumphant war-drum pace. I felt like I was meant to skulk in the Rookie segments. I felt like I was meant to charge in the flashbacks.
The second flashback mission concluded with a curious event that finally launched the mystery of what is really happening in the story of ODST.
I was more comfortable in the flashbacks but I was more intrigued with the newness I felt in the Rookie scenes. As I explored the darkened New Mombasa, the city's central computer, the Superintendent, would show me my path to waypoints I set by changing digital signs and billboard screens to arrow-pointers and detour alerts. I found a terminal that began to tell Sadie's Story, the side-narrative to ODST that unfolds in voice-overs an illustrated stills.
When my hour or so with the game concluded I had just reached the point when ODST opens up. All players will go through the first four missions in the same order, but then four beacons pop up on Rookie's map. He and you can slip through the city and investigate those in any order. Each would launch another heroic, playable flashback.
But that was all I could do.
I liked the change of pace in what I played. I liked the effort to convey a darker, more mysterious vibe and the lurches, in the flashbacks, to more bombastic action. I wasn't left feeling that Rookie as his ODST colleagues are as different to play from Master Chief as I thought or hoped they might be. But I can't judge if more dramatic gameplay changes would have made the game more or less fun.
I got a lot of classic Halo combat in a somewhat different wrapper. And I got a mystery. That's a good start.