Review: Halo 3: ODST

As a fan of the Halo series, ODST was sitting high on my anticipated list. I mean I remember sitting down in my flat to play Halo 3, and then suddenly wondering when my flatmates had gotten back from work and why my eyes stung so much. The pre-release hype from Bungie seemed to imply something along the lines of “Halo, but not Halo” – I guess they delivered on that, but not really in the same kind of “oh wow” way that other titles in the Halo series have.

Lets go with the “not Halo” bits of the game first. The big change is that you no longer play as the Master Chief. Instead you are the Rookie, another completely faceless protagonist, although you now lack a voice as well as a face. In theory this should mean you feel even closer to the character, but all it means is you feel you’re character is kind of on the periphery of the action. Surely as you’re not the Master Chief you’d expect the game to feel different, but it doesn’t really. Instead of shields you now have stamina, which can take a few hits before your health starts to wear down. Your stamina does regenerate so it’s basically a shield in all but name. I don’t know about you but stamina, for example, gives me the ability to run longer but does not allow me to take a plasma bolt to the chest with almost no ill effects. The only real difference here is that your stamina will take significantly less hits than Master Chief’s shields, and your health doesn’t regenerate so you have to keep an eye out for health packs. This does make you feel more vulnerable than you do in the other Halo titles, and thus you’ll probably shy away from rushing into battle.

Open world games work because there is something to do, some side distraction to occupy yourself with between missions, or something you can do that you couldn’t do in real life. GTA? You drive cars recklessly, squish pedestrians and shoot helicopters out of the sky. Assassins Creed? You climb buildings, stab random people and punch beggars in the face. ODST? You walk everywhere. Slowly. Ok yes you do get to shoot squads of Covenant nasties, but that’s the point of the missions as well. The point of an open world means that you have all this extra stuff to do outside of missions, sadly Bungie seem to have forgotten this in ODST. The only thing to do is find audio recordings, which is hardly “something you couldn’t do in real life”. I could have Davs lay a series of audio CDs around TSA Towers and then go and hunt for them if I wanted to. No-one would stop me. Taking the GTA example, I couldn’t have him set up a series of inviting pedestrian targets for me to run other, not without someone asking some very awkward questions and then reading me a list of my rights.

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I know drawing a comparison to proper sandbox games isn’t really fair, but there’s not really a lot of titles in the “sort-of-open-world-bit-that-links-missions” genre. The problem I have is that the sections where you play as the Rookie don’t really seem to contribute anything to the game. They were originally built up as being ‘noir’ and that you’d be playing detective. You’re not at all, there’s no need to search for clues to find your team mates. You get one clue per mission, and they’re not exactly hidden in the world. They could have really fleshed the investigation sequences out, with hints of a gun fight that indicates they went into the building over there. If they’re inside a building the route will be marked with signs of a firefight normally, but as there’s only one route through the building it’s not exactly like you’re looking at the clues for a hint at direction. Anything like that would have actually made me enjoy it a lot more.

Now onto to the aspects that very much identify this as a Halo title. Once you go from the open world into a mission you stop being the Rookie and become one of the other members of the Rookie’s team, playing through what is, in essence, a normal mission for Halo. These missions are what save the game really, they’re enjoyable, challenging, have good variety and are a lot more fun than the open world bits. They’re probably the best that Halo’s ever been (that’d be a great quote out of context), and that’s simply because the missions don’t need to connect with each other. Whilst the missions do join up and tell the real story of the game – there’s a small side story told through the aforementioned audio recordings in the open world parts – they’re each told from the perspective of a different ODST meeting up with the rest of the scattered squad. That means that while the endings have to gel together (like two or more of the ODSTs meeting up) the beginning of one mission doesn’t have to connect to the ending of a previous one. This left the door open for Bungie to do pretty much anything they wanted to, and they did. The mission that sees you ride through the city in a tank was excellent with a good set piece to cap it off. And the sniper mission? Brilliant.

Of course the controls are very much still Halo, whilst you don’t jump as high as the missing Master Chief your jumps still feel floaty. It’s still a fun arcade shooter, the most two most advanced tactics in the game are ‘bigger guns kill stuff quicker’ and ‘shoot Hunters in the back with big guns’. I’ll admit that it’s kind of weird that whilst you can rip a turret off it’s mount and carry it with you, you can’t dual wield pistols but I guess they have to leave something for Master Chief to do. Ground based vehicles still handle intuitively and aerial vehicles are still freakishly difficult to fly. The AI, particularly the AI squads that scatter if you take out the leader, is still very much the highpoint of Bungie’s coding skills and is still a joy to compete against.

Graphically it still looks like Halo for the most part, and doesn’t exactly look bad  for a game running on a two year old engine. On the other hand it doesn’t look great either and, whilst there clearly have been some tweaks, it’s still identifiable as the Halo 3 engine. Whilst I gripe about the game play in the open world sections, the art assets here are great – for a start it’s the only real area you’re going to use the game’s VISR, the equivalent of night vision. Not only does the area become lighter, but the outlines that get attached to buildings, characters and objects add a really nice aspect to the games art style. They may look a little retro, but they make the game stand out and differentiate the art style from the crop of generic shooters. However turning the VISR off for a few minutes to remove the washed out overlay that it adds really shows off just how good the scenery looks. Bits of the city burn around you giving brilliant lighting to buildings, adding to the atmosphere and just looking right for a war torn city.

The story boils down to this: Squad of ODSTs gets dropped into warzone, squad gets scattered, Rookie finds clues about squad location, squad slowly relocate, as squad are about to leave they remember that they didn’t come for a holiday and actually had a mission, squad complete mission. That’s pretty much it. Feel the deep tapestry, and the profound way that it’s weaved into the rest of the Halo mythos.

Finally, multiplayer. This is the core of Halo for some people, and whilst ODST only adds Firefight it should keep them happy, as Firefight is good. Very good. If you’re familiar with the Nazi Zombies in World at War or Horde in Gears of War then you know what Firefight is about. The difference here is that drop ships come in and drop the enemy off as well as vehicles. These changes to the format make it feel like it fits with the rest of the game more, rather than being just a nice multiplayer addition. Aside from that you have all of Halo 3’s multiplayer content, but at this point anyone who wants to play that surely owns it by now so it seems a weird addition.

Pros:

  • Firefight
  • Something new in the Halo franchise
  • Graphically interesting
  • If you like Halo it’s still Halo

Cons:

  • Short
  • Poorly paced
  • Feels disjointed from rest of Halo universe
  • If you dislike Halo it won’t change your mind

Verdict: ODST is very much still Halo, but overall it’s only a passable experience. Whilst I had a lot of fun in the missions during the campaign, the open world parts completely spoil the pacing. At the end of an epic tank battle or sniper dual the game should continue to build and flow from it. Instead you’re slammed back into the open world, with very little going on. The story feels lazy, and the ending is – frankly – bizare given the rest of the Halo mythos. However the individual missions, along with Firefight, saved me from being completely underwhelmed and boost it up enough that I can call it “OK”.

As for the “should it be a full price game?” argument? No, it shouldn’t be. Compared to other Halo titles it feels rushed, sloppy in places, and not up to Bungie’s normal standards.

Score: 7/10

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