IGN Review of Halo 3: ODST
Halo 3: ODST began as an idea for a simple expansion to Halo 3. It would be just a few hours long and help tide the fans over until Halo: Reach is ready in late 2010. That little idea grew to be so much more. The end result is a package that no Halo fan should be without, as it is the definition of fan service. You get a six hour campaign that expands the boundaries of what to expect in a Halo game, an excellent new cooperative mode called Firefight, and an entire second disc filled with adversarial maps. This isn't a full-blown sequel, which might disappoint some people, but you'd do well to take it for what it is: another great game from Bungie.
In many ways, Halo 3: ODST is a return to the roots of the Halo franchise. Master Chief -- with his magical healing Spartan armor, mockery of gravity, and dual wielding ways -- is sitting this one out. Instead, you'll take the role of the Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, or ODST. These highly-trained, but not quite super, soldiers don't have all of the strengths of the Chief. They can only aim one weapon at a time. They have a health bar that requires health packs to restore once their light overshield is depleted. They can't jump as high or fall as far or take as many bullets without stumbling into Death's open arms. They handle quite like Master Chief did in Halo: Combat Evolved, and they have a powerful scoped pistol to complete the throwback feel.
Though the ODSTs handle like the Halo of yore, the rest of the campaign is as fresh and exciting as you could hope for. With Master Chief on the sidelines, Bungie has scrapped its traditional galactic romp in favor of a focused, character driven tale. The result is one of the most satisfying Halo storylines yet and a great step forward for the franchise.
It begins high above Earth. A group of the fabled ODSTs are preparing to burn through the atmosphere and enter the battle for New Mombasa in tiny one-man pods. Other soldiers call them Helljumpers, a nickname you'll quickly learn is well deserved. In the moments before the leap of faith, you'll meet some new faces. There's Buck, the squad leader, Dare, a tough-as-nails girl with a mysterious history and a few others each specialized in one approach to combat. You'll find yourself in the shoes of The Rookie, a quiet, inexperienced fellow. Without so much as a cheesy tutorial section, you'll strap in and make the drop.
The squad's timing could not be any worse. Their actions take place during the events of Halo 2, just as Master Chief is wreaking havoc on the Covenant and forcing the Prophet of Regret to make an emergency slipstream escape. This exit takes place just as your squad is plummeting towards the ground. The resulting shockwave scatters the group in mid air and everything goes black.
Six hours pass before The Rookie regains consciousness. By the time, most of the battle for New Mombasa has played out and things did not go well for the humans. A light rain is falling across the dark city, lit only by fires that continue to rage and the odd electronic sign that remains lit. Smoking husks of cars litter the streets. The city is quiet. Everyone is either dead or hiding, but the Covenant continues to search for stragglers. Did I mention you're one of these stragglers?
In order to survive, you'll have to find the other ODSTs you burned in with. The city is huge and uninviting, and the excellent soundtrack only adds to the sense of loneliness and danger. You aren't totally alone, though. In one of the more clever ways of introducing a side-kick, ODST offers the Superintendent, an AI construct that runs the city's facilities. This wannabe Cortana offers tips, health packs, and will even lead those that keep their eyes and ears open towards a series of collectible audio recordings that delve into more of New Mombasa's fall. The way the Superintendent is woven into the story and the gameplay is quite clever and one of the high points of ODST for me.
With a little help from the city's AI, The Rookie's story plays out a bit like a murder mystery. Using a very cool ODST visor, you'll explore the dark streets looking for clues that might lead you to a joyous ODST reunion. The action here is light, punctuated with intense fights and anxious moments of sneaking in the shadows.
Each time you find a remnant of another ODST soldier, the switch is flipped and the setting flashes back to their daytime battles. You'll get to know the rest of the occasionally hilarious squad one at a time as they fight for their lives. The battles that rage here are packed with relentless action. Huge waves of enemies that present near impossible odds are common. Joy rides in tanks and other vehicles are on tap. Massive set pieces are delivered and destroyed. In these daytime battle sequences, it's a rare moment that you'll even be able to catch your breath.
This hub design -- centered around a massive city that branches off into action-packed levels -- is a big departure from the standard Halo formula. It works and it works exceptionally well by weaving the entire story together in a way that no linear series of levels could. Past Halo games offered sprawling levels with massive open battlefields that even the best of us found it easy to get lost in. In contrast, Halo 3: ODST offers much tighter level design while still delivering the huge city of New Mombasa to explore.
The difference between the night and day sections of Halo 3: ODST is quite stark, made even more so by the art style and music. This game runs on the Halo 3 engine which is beginning to show its age, but the artistic efforts in ODST are enough to make this the best looking Halo game yet. The color palette is stretched beyond the oranges, grays and purples of past Halo games to provide a greater sense of atmosphere. The environments are brought to life and even without hearing The Rookie's voice or seeing his face, you can sense his despair just by looking at the wastes around him.
The emotional response ODST elicits is in large part thanks to the powerful score. Few games have soundtracks that add to the excitement as well as the Halo series. There's a tradition of excellence in this franchise and ODST carries the torch with style. is You should expect such quality by now and then prepare to have your expectations exceeded.
The campaign in Halo 3: ODST is a whole lot of fun, but it did leave me with a couple of gripes, two of which have to do with its scope and one with storytelling. If you play through the campaign co-operatively, you'll find that the sense of loneliness and tension the nighttime sections offer is largely lost. The co-op mode isn't woven into the story at all and is simply slapped on top. Do yourself a favor and play through the game alone on your first run through. On the Heroic difficulty -- without any co-op help -- the campaign lasts about six hours when moving at a leisurely pace.
This compacted experience is also felt occasionally in the gameplay. The action is more focused, but this sometimes devolves into simple shooting galleries. You'll find yourself bunkering down and simply standing in one place while a few waves of Covenant squads drop in for a fight. It's a standard game mechanic, but it's used just a tad too often for my tastes in Halo 3: ODST.
Of course, shooting galleries do have their time and place. As you work through the campaign, you'll unlock several such areas to play in the new cooperative Firefight mode. This four player test of skill and endurance is flat out awesome. Eight different maps are available, with two of them coming in day and night flavors for a total of 10 settings. I really can't say enough about how fun Firefight is. Even as I write this, I can hear coworkers playing Firefight. The jealousy is like going to a party and seeing an old girlfriend with a new guy. The fun that I know my coworkers are having is enough to make me want to give up on this review and just go play.
Firefight is by no means a truly original mode. Call of Duty: World at War and Gears of War 2 are two recent games that beat Halo to the punch with this kind of setup. As great as Nazi Zombies and Horde mode are, the Halo take on the formula is even more addicting. The action is non-stop with one random wave of Covenant foes coming after another. As you make it further into the match, difficulty modifiers, called skulls, get turned on, dramatically increasing the level of challenge. Once you start getting the skills down to play matches that last two hours or more, you'll find shared moments of greatness burnt into you and your friends' minds -- even while you struggle to maintain focus over such a drawn out match.
The real reason Firefight is so much fun, though, is that the idea of cooperation is built into every facet of the game. The team of four shares a pool of lives and a limited stash of health packs, meaning it is just as important to keep your friend alive as it is yourself. The waves of enemies come from all directions, forcing you to keep your squad close and to stay in constant communication if you want to survive. And once you find you're out of ammunition as a Brute Chieftain comes charging your way, your reliance on a friend will become as plain as day.
You may have noticed that I repeatedly referred to your Firefight squad mates as "friends." There's a reason for that. Halo 3: ODST is built on the Halo 3 engine with little work done to update it. In Halo 3, there was no matchmaking for the co-op campaign. The same is true here and it carries over into Firefight. For most people, this won't be an issue. If you don't have a lot of friends that play Halo, however, or want to play and none of them are online, you'll find yourself struggling to put together a fun game. Without people to play with, Firefight loses its allure entirely.
If you don't play nice with others, there's always the second disc in the Halo 3: ODST package. Here you'll find every single Halo 3 map released to date and three new maps just to sweeten the deal. The gameplay, matchmaking, and general layout is unchanged from Halo 3, so don't expect to go into this game with the ODST's sweet pistol or silenced SMG. This is simply more of the Halo 3 adversarial game you've been playing for the past couple of years.
The three new maps are each great additions to the library. Two of them are small arenas, perfect for hectic small team games. The third feels like a new take on Zanzibar -- one sided, open and perfect for one bomb or one flag team matches. The Halo 3 online community is still going strong and these new additions will give it the added variety it needs to continue on for months to come.
If you never downloaded the extra map packs for Halo 3, or never picked up Halo 3 at all, this second disc is a fantastic deal. If you're a Halo fan, though, you probably own almost all of them already. In this new age of Xbox Live and downloadable content, why is anybody being forced to buy something they already own again? It's a nice checkbox for the old marketing materials to say that so many multiplayer maps are included in the package, but its inclusion is rather superfluous for the Halo hardcore.
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