Halo 3: ODST Review: The More Vulnerable Edition

Halo games are mighty productions, but Bungie's latest offers intentional and unintentional weaknesses, allowing the studio to experiment and excel. All this while showing rare vulnerability.

Bungie's fourth Halo game, Halo 3: ODST, will officially be released for the Xbox 360 this week. A side story of a campaign that leads into the events of Halo 3, the game stars less powerful protagonists than series champion Master Chief. It is packaged in a way that has provoked consumer doubt. And it's set for a market rematch against its only formidable competitor in the past eight years.

The ODST package is an unusual bundle. It combines a first-person campaign playable by up to four gamers and can be completed more quickly than those of previous Halos. It also offers three new competitive Halo 3 multiplayer maps, 21 Halo 3 maps that were previously available for purchase and 10 maps of a new cooperative combat Firefight mode along with an as-yet-unusable invitation to the online beta for Halo: Reach, Bungie's next Halo game.

The campaign puts players in control of a rotating cast of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, switching control back and forth between Rookie, who is playable in a timeframe set several hours after his team's drop into the besieged Earth city of New Mombasa has gone wrong, and different members of Rookie's squad. The latter are playable in flashbacks set immediately after the drop. It's all set in first-person, and the series-staple Covenant are the enemy. Master Chief's most powerful vehicle-jacking moves are gone and health is harder to restore, but ODSTs are still fierce warriors.

Loved Genre-Topping Combat: Halo 3: ODST has been promoted as an adventure of urban combat, an open-world nighttime journey through the ravaged city of New Mombasa that is interrupted by the game's main missions: playable, linear flashback sequences set mostly in broader battlefields like bridges, rooftops and the outskirts of the city's zoo. Whether set in alleyways or under a big sky, the battles engineered by Bungie are as interesting and dynamic as ever. The tactical triangle of guns, grenades and melee is pitted against a familiar and excitingly smart cast of enemies who rush and cover and toss their own grenades in ways that make most skirmishes tales worth re-telling in their own right. Bungie paces the linear flashback missions well. One highlight is a tense and constricted rooftop battle that culminates with the explosive defence of a landing zone from an intense aerial assault of fighters and troop carriers.

Vehicles Worth Driving: I've written before that Halo, to me, represents the digital realisation of the 11-year-old boy's fantasy of playing combat with his GI Joes. As a boy and now as a Halo player, I enjoy the toy experience of smashing enemies with an armed truck or flying down a canyon of skyscrapers with a purple hoverplane that shoots lasers. The most direct access to vehicles is in the flashback missions, and each fight through battlefield hell on a Halo ride is a thrill.

A Better Side Story: ODST creative director Joseph Staten has told Kotaku that Bungie's new game is inspired by noir and its cast of colourful, lone-wolf detectives searching for clues in the mean city. The players' main character, Rookie, gets to adopt a role like that as he creeps through the dark enemy-patrolled streets of New Mombasa using a series-new visor that highlights items and characters of interest amid the blackness. Rookie searches for beacons that trigger those playable flashbacks which star his squadmates in the hours right after the ODSTs' illI-fated drop. The beacons are curious items—a helmet smashed into a big monitor, a rifle dangling from a power line—that evoke small mysteries of their own. The flashbacks explain their origins.

Equally intriguing is the story the player gleans by accessing computer terminals located throughout the city. These discoveries drip, through voiceover and drawings, the surprisingly harrowing tale of Sadie, a young woman whose life was upturned in the Covenant attack. Extra credit goes to Bungie for figuring out how to introduce a surprise gameplay benefit to tracking down this side narrative, an accomplishment not seen in other games with rich side-stories, such as BioShock and Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Finally, Multiplayer For The Weak: Most of what I played for this review was ODST's campaign, but, for consumers, the most-played part of ODST is bound to be Firefight, an infinite co-op survival mode that supports up to four players against waves of enemies. The rules of these encounters differ from the oft-compared Horde mode in Gears of War 2. In ODST, the completion of Firefight waves introduces new gameplay complications designated as "skulls" that cause all enemies to, among other things, toss more grenades or more smartly evade danger. The best thing about Firefight is that, at last, all players of an online Halo match can play to the benefit of each other. No matter how good Bungie's matchmaking has been, venturing into a competitive match could leave the casual Halo gamer shellshocked from the abuse of multiple losses. In Firefight, the rivals won't teabag you or call you names. Humanity can finally band together to use its Halo skills against a common digital foe.

Hated Underdone Overworld: ODST, like August's Wolfenstein before it, is a first-person shooter that connects its linear main missions to a hub world, allowing several of its missions to be accessed and played out of order. This structure gives the player more control of the game's flow, but being able to choose one's own adventure gains the Halo gamer little. It is no more illuminating or intriguing to learn the story of ODST's handful of flashback missions out of order than it would have been to learn them in an order mandated by Bungie. The benefit of the overworld/flashback design is supposed to be a contrast in moods: Dark, quiet exploration of the streets backed with a lighter soundtrack does evoke a softer, creepier anxiety than fighting in the flashback missions under bright sun with allies at your sides and war drums beating through the TV speakers. But I only experienced that contrast of moods when I played the game solo. The distinction was muted when I fought through the campaign in never-lonely, always-chattering co-op.

Unknown Hero: Master Chief might as well be an oversharing Twitter addict compared to ODST's lead, the Rookie. The hero of the game's nocturnal detective story reveals nothing about himself in this adventure. The reactions to our hero—the method through which so much of the Chief's identity was defined—reveal nothing that casts Rookie as a character with any character. It's better in the flashbacks, where the playable protagonists are more emotive and more interesting. Also more lively than our main man is the city's Superintendent, an intelligence that manifests itself through talking New Mombasa city computers, flashing directions by taking over digital signs that switch from ads to detour alerts. In Sadie's story, the Superintendent is so expressive through New Mombasa's network of technology that it can stop a train from reaching its station or make an ATM spit money to distract a menace. If only the interactions between the Rookie and the Superintendent were more frequent and more mechanically clever, then we could have had a more memorable lead presence.

Bad Habits: I won't spoil the thankfully infrequent tedious moments of ODST's campaign any more than I will most of the frequently exciting ones. But Bungie still can't shake its legacy of having created the dull and respective Library level in the first Halo and skates toward repeating that error in architecture in ODST.

The unusual collection of features that comes on the two-disc ODST set ensures that the value of ODST will vary among consumers more than most new releases do. Single-player fans will find a little less to do in this game than they did in 2007's Halo 3. If multiplayer is the attraction, buyer beware that those who have already purchased any Halo 3 maps will find less new content for their dollar here. That, among other factors, may sway some consumers to consider purchasing Modern Warfare 2 instead, the season's other big shooter. Two years ago, the last Modern Warfare proved the stiffest competition in terms of acclaim and online popularity to that season's Halo. Having not played Modern Warfare 2, we can't compare the games for you.

If you want to judge ODST for its fun without worrying about its price and the contents of its case, then know that its campaign hits the peaks of Halo 3 less often due both to its relative brevity and its uneven, experimental hubworld. The campaign can mostly be a joy. Firefight with a group of players is a blast. The main hero may be a bore, but the fiction is at least as interesting as it was in prior Halo games. Bungie's done good this time. That's a victory, even if that's a departure from a series which has often seen Bungie do great.

(Halo 3: ODST was developed by Bungie Studios and published by Microsoft for the Xbox 360 on September 22. Retails for US$59.99/AU$99.95. Played through the campaign on co-op with N'Gai Croal on the recommended Heroic difficulty at a Microsoft review event, using finished copies of the game, over the course of seven hours, with a break for lunch. Played through several missions solo on Heroic and the easier default Normal difficulty. Also played several rounds of four-player Firefight and all three new Halo 3 maps, the enjoyably cramped Heretic, the weapon-filled Citadel and Longshore. All multiplayer sessions were networked over system link; online connections could not be tested prior to the game's launch.)

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Comments

    Should you maybe play the game before reviewing it? Case in point, you can very well jack vehicles in this game. Nice journalistic integrity there Totilo.

      Stephen refers to Master Chief's "most powerful" vehicle jacking moves being gone, not all of them.

      I got the game on Friday and spent a couple very late nights and yesterday to get through the campaign on normal. Still need to go back in to find the rest of the messages for the "I Love Bees" style extra story of the city during the invasion.

      I agree about the main character being very blank, I hate silent protagonists, but all of the rest of the ODSTs have a lot to say and 3 of them are voiced by people from Firefly which is just awesome, and the Squad leader's love interest is Caprica 6 from BSG. The actors add so gorram much to the game. The solo parts with the rookie could get damn spookie, thanks the music and the darkness.

      The feel of the gameplay has gone back a lot to the way Halo 1 played. With the sniping pistol which is now silenced so you can pick off grunts with 1 shots and watch the rest run away. The brutes take more work and usually the quickest take down is to shove a grenade onto them. The Hunters are just a giant menace, especially when they follow you indoors so you have nowhere to dodge.

    Not another Library type level for the Halo franchise *shudder* But good review anyway, this is a maybe for me

    I don't want to come across as a Halo fanboy - but unfort alot will think i am...

    But, when reviewing a game. Review it like any other game. I haven't played this - so some things you are saying are probably correct. But it seems, for a franchise that has had nothing but success (and contains very rare flaws within each game) you are trying to pick at the tiniest of details to criticize.

    People, correct me if i'm wrong, but i'm pretty sure Bungie stated that the Rookie isn't meant to exactly have his/her own history & backstory. The role of the rookie is meant to be YOUR role if that makes sense.

    Eh anyway, this article is by no means going to sway my opinion of this game even when i haven't played OR stop be from buying it. But i bet that the MW2 review will follow closely with this in terms of criticism.

    mwhahahaha, been playing it since friday. its good

    Its not whether the fact the story may be weak or the graphics ain't as good as they should be that makes me unexcited about this game.

    This game promised you to be able to play as an ODST trooper, and unlike the chief your vulnerable. Supposedly because of that your play style is more tactical versus the chiefs tanking. So why is it with every single video, ODST plays exactly the same minus the med packs?

    Thats just poor.

      I have been wondering the same thing. What is the point of having a silenced weapon when you run in guns blazing.

      If the ODSTs were actually weak a fire fight with a single brute should be an epic event. Rather everything show portrays it as being the same as ever.

      Nothing is going to hold back the waves of Halo fans from this, but I lost interest after the first Halo. I have played them all and found that nothing significant has changed. It all feels a little stale.

        The point of silenced weapons is that you WON'T be running in guns blazing. The Idea of ODST is that you are no longer the nearly invincible Master Chief. You are more vulnerable is this side-story to Halo 3. You will need to duck behind cover more frequently and think more strategically. The silenced weapons are not only for the gameplay though, but rather mostly to add to the feeling that you are alone is the city of New Mombasa, have been separated from your squad, and need to be careful.
        Bungie didn't want to be constantly changing significant pieces of the Halo series because that would take away from the idea of you you are playing. In all the other Halo games you played Master Chief, the last spartan. The entire idea of not changing significant things was in order to maintain the feeling of being the last one. If they constantly changed his main aspects, he wouldn't seem so special anymore.

      What I have seen of the game is completely different. Every review I have read, as well as forum-goers who have described the game, have said that you must think much much more and that running in guns blazing, like previouis Halo games will always lead to death. And in response to ResonanceCascade, some reviews actually specifically stated how intimidating Brutes are in this game. One even specifically said that it feels "epic", like you said. You can see even from just videos of firefight that this is the case.
      Out of interest, it doesn't say anywhere in this review you're still a tank in this game. Where are you getting this opinion from when every review out there says the opposite?

      But even with all that said, this'll still be just a rent for me. Full-price for what is essentially just a new campaign doesn't seem worth it. It isn't really the complete shake-up of the formula I was looking forward to, but hopefully Reach will be.

      I think thats because alot of the Video for this has been either Firefight or the Flashback Mission, which have been said to be the normal Halo Linear Action "Levels" where you have alot of allies to back you up

      What we havent seen, well what I haven't, is alot of the Gameplay from the Hub World, where its just You vs. the Covenant. So you will need to think before you go in guns blazing...

      But yeah, thats just the way I look at all the video thats come out.

    another halo.....yawn.i played 1 2 and 3 and none of them impressesd me.

      By playing all of the Halo series something must have impressed you, you don't play a game on a console, then it's sequel and another sequel on a next gen console if you weren't impressed, so in short you have contradicted yourself.

      That's like me saying I've read all the Harry Potter books but I wasn't impressed, by reading the series as a whole it showed that I was compelled to the series and I was impressed with something whether it was the storytelling or even the literature.

    Halo is the Mars Lite of first person shooters. Diet Coke. Bandaid with cartoon characters drawn on them. Or period pads covered with PokeMon, for that matter...

      So.. EPIC and VERY POPULAR. Critically acclaimed too.

      For example: Diet Coke introduced obviously a less sugar/fat version of Coke. The girls went wild and they could drink it without getting fatter. Slim girls. Nice! Same with Mars Lite.

      A pokemon pad - insane!

      Cartoon character band-aids are the SHIT!

      So yeah, i see your point! Halo is wicked. =)

        No, no, you've misinterpreted, probably in some Halo based fit of self righteousness. I was referring to the way it widens its reach (my god, that is NOT a pun) and fails at any real innovation.

        In comparison I was thinking along more 'hardcore' lines of more intelligently made FPS's that don't rely on multi million dollar marketing campains, rather using their merit as actual games instead.

        Halo is a cheesburger not a game. Sorry bro. We share the same nickname so I like you. ;)

        Jay is no nickname for the record & nah, i beg to differ. I think you really meant how i explained it.

        Nothing anyone says is going to change the sales or outcome of the Halo franchise. It is what it is, so people should just shut up & deal with it. I mean we've dealt with Mario for HOW long?

        You are clearly basing your "multi million dollar marketing "campains" as you spell it on ONE game which was Halo 3. Halo 2 had a big marketing "campain" too but no where near as big as Halo 3. I think Halo 3 didn't NEED the amount of marketing spent on it like MS did, but it turned out well in the end. Either way it was going to sell but it surely sold a lot more with the marketing they pursued.

        Halo 1 stands alone with its own merit as a "intelligently made FPS". All games are intelligently made, no matter how bad they are. Dev's are able to understand a different language that isn't even spoken and turn it into a gaming engine & create entertainment from that. Halo is pure evidence that those dev's (Bungie) know what they're doing and know HOW to entertain.

        I wouldn't classify myself as a Halo fanboy - i own the Halo games but thats where it ends. People need to stop hating on BUNGIE when it clearly isn't their fault that Halo has become what a lot of people believe to be another milked franchise. It's MS' fault and thats all their is to it.

        Either way - Halo sells & thats all that matters at the end of the day. If it means spending a few million here and there to create an awesome live-action trailer for a game when, if watching it without the ODST at the end, you wouldn't know it was advertising game, then so be it. Let them do that. That is no common sense, takes away the "intelligence" from a game.

    Here is my experience of Halo:

    I play through the expansion packs for the original Half Life, Opposing Force and Blue Shift. Great games. Not made by Valve by the way. Gearbox if I remeber correctly.

    I buy Halo a few months later. And then I ask myself "What the hell is this shit? Could this be any more boring? Havent we seen this all before? Why is this getting the big wraps from critics?"

    The answer: Microsoft backed it from the start, and its literally impossible for a game like that to fail. What was so great about it? It had vehicles? Please explain to me the redeeming features of Halo that other games have not done far better.

    I've played through Halo,completed it, and then Halo 2, and 3. The games follow piggyback design rules, recycling old ideas and passing them off as new. The characterisation is at a junvenile level. The story is generic and boring and does not lend itself to the level design. The game reeks of 'press x to win' and similar designs to make the game as easy as possible to consume.

    The multiplay is good, for sure. But nothing I've poured tonnes of hours of effort into. You know why? Because the only people who play it are complete douchebags who think Halo is the be all end all of videogames. If the community matured a little I might change my mind.

    The simple fact that there is now Halo spin offs like anime and Halo Wars and Reach just means its The Sims for first person shooters.

    Now, back to Fallout 2.....

    And another thing: Why the hell do they show you which buttons to press while you play? SURELY Halo gamers are smart enough to remember? How more Wii Fit could they get???

      let them play my boy you cant fight them, they are the cattle, be the wolf

    Been playing it since Friday night. It's very halo 3 ish I feel. I took good game's advice and started on heroic and its not that hard. The overworld is dark & moody (forget playing in the daytime, cant see sh*t) but its pretty slow and once again, not difficult.
    The flashbacks are way better but when you think it might be getting difficult (eg 2 wraiths) they leave a spartan laser just lying around for a 1 shot wraith kill. The only time a wraith the problem (there was no Sp Laser) I just walked up behind it and plasma grenaded it. Maybe because the gameplay is so well known now, there is less challenge than I would have liked. Maybe should have started on legendary.

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