I was ready for a new Halo experience. I bought the game (at full price, might I add), cracked the seal, took in the familiar new disc smell, and popped it in my Xbox 360. The menu screen said Halo 3: ODST, and it is obviously a Halo game, but does it live up to the sequel we already know and love? Read on to find out. (Oh, and no spoilers in here. Well, not really.)
As you probably already know, this game is different. You’re not Master-Chief, but rather play a team of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers in a story that bridges the gap between Halo 2 and Halo 3. The game plays out somewhat like a murder-mystery; you travel around New Mombasa as the Rookie, separated from your team, and find clues as to your teammates’ whereabouts. Finding these clues triggers flashbacks where you continue as other ODSTs in the squad and the story progresses in a linear-non-linear fashion.
ODST has the tried and true style, great storytelling, and recognizable enemies (notice I didn’t say characters; more on that later) of a Halo story. But the basis of the game is just too different to be considered a Halo campaign game. And it’s not really trying to be. But it does seem to suffer somewhat of an identity crisis: its six hour campaign is not really a full game, Firefight multiplayer is not really multiplayer unless people are sitting next to you (that’s right, no Firefight over Xbox Live, folks), and I’m not going to count the Halo 3 multiplayer disc because we’ve already played 90% of those levels. So why pay the full price?
I played through ODST and beat it in about four hours, running through to get from one end to the other. It has never taken me more than two days or moderate play to get through a Halo game, but four hours is ridiculous. If you remember The Library from Halo: Combat Evolved, it felt like that level alone was four hours! The game is much darker and, while I’m used to this from games like Splinter Cell, it just doesn’t fit for me. The Halo trilogy got progressively darker at its finale, but even outdoor levels with a brilliant sunlight maintained the heavy mood and direct confrontation that would usually require a benevolent environment to achieve. And yet, since I’ve finished the game straight through, I have probably replayed it about four times over.
Okay, multiplayer. Well, what’s left of it from the original Halo formula. Firefight is a near-verbatim Gears of War 2 Horde ripoff. It is something you could play for hours on end and ends up getting really tough after just a few rounds. Really tough. Unfortunately, Firefight is fine tuned strictly for multiplayer, which makes it rather limited. I’d like to be able to practice beating some baddies, and Firefight would be a great way to do it, but there is no sense of satisfaction at the end of a match because the game sets pars for each level around 200,000 points, and a single person is lucky to get anywhere close to 40,000 or 50,000; multiplayer is executed well, but unfortunately, single player Firefight is sorely ignored.
I just can’t figure out what to think about this game. I mean, Halo Wars, okay, that sucked. But ODST is a traditional experience with non-traditional methods. You don’t play Master Chief, hence no Cortana, there are no flood (that might be good or bad – take your pick), and no Elites whatsoever. What gives? One or two of these things can be missing, but take out five HUGE parts of the traditional Halo story, and the game feels disjointed. (I know, I know, this isn’t supposed to be the original Halo story.) At the end of the day, I feel like I’m playing a weakened Spartan and, maybe I’ve been spoiled into automatic recharging, but man does it suck not being Master-Chief. At the end of the game, I felt no connection to the characters, I didn’t remember them, and no, they didn’t each have a unique play style. I call bullshit on that one, Bungie.
I mentioned recognizable enemies before – sure, there are grunts, Brutes, jackals, and hunters. But what about the recognizable characters? You can’t expect Master-Chief or Cortana, but perhaps a transmission from Sgt. Johnson? Somehow work a monitor into the space? A reference to the Pillar of Autumn would’ve been enough, but we don’t get any inkling that this is a Halo campaign other than the kickass gameplay. Hell, you could replace everything in the game with non-Halo assets and I would toss it to the curb. So why would it only be a mediocre game but still makes a great Halo game?
Because it’s Halo.
Update: Something I forgot to touch upon, which is really such an integral part of any Halo game, is the music. The soundtrack for the game is very much of a departure from the traditional themes, although still composed by Martin O’Donnell. The music is dominated by strings and subtle woodwinds and sets the player into a very calming state. It is a fantastic juxtaposition given the intense battles you face and does actually invoke much emotion from the user. I felt much more for the ODST I was commanding and the music brought me into the experience probably deeper than any other element to the game. Well done, Marty.