There was part of me that thought Halo 3: ODST was the beginning of the end for Halo. Whereas Halo Wars took the franchise in a completely new direction, the colon that hung around ODST’s neck filled me with dread. Was this, along with the already announced Reach, the point where the milking really began?
The most prominent aspect of Halo 3: ODST is that there is no Master Chief. The story takes place in parallel with the latter stages of Halo 2, whilst everyone’s favourite Spartan is cavorting across the galaxy in hot pursuit of the Covenant. Into his central role steps a squad of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, or ODST for short. They are no super soldiers but they are as tough a fighting force as you could want when your city is overrun, willing to be fired in torpedo like transport pods to land right in the heart of the battle.
Thanks to a slight disruption with the fabric of space and time however, the drop pod you enter the city via is thrown off course causing a less than graceful landing. The impact is enough to knock you out for several hours, during which time you lose contact with the rest of your squad. As you come to, night has fallen and with the surrounding area teeming with Covenant you must rely on your training not only to keep you alive but to reunite you with your lost squad.
Whereas Master Chief has often been alone, either through plot twist or because all those around him have succumbed to fire, he has never been quite as isolated as you find yourself now. The silent streets of New Mobasa are shrouded in darkness, lit only by patches of red emergency lighting, and are far from the brushed metallics and humming spaceships we so often seen from Bungie. Unlike recent apocalyptic games such as Fallout, the events that played out prior to the game’s beginning did not raze the city; buildings still stand tall and the streets show signs that people have merely fled with only intermittent signs of pitched battles. It has been taken over rather than destroyed and the intimation that everyone is simply gone reinforces your isolation.
Those that are left within the city walls are the Covenant. Small patrols of Brutes and Grunts that roam the area searching for survivors. Whilst playing as Master Chief these handful of enemies may have been nothing more than an interesting diversion but your first encounter with them as an ODST will underline the differences between the two soldiers.
My first inclination was to hurl a grenade into their midst to scatter them and bring down the Brute’s shields. As I did, however, the arc of the grenade fell woefully short; the super strength gained from wearing mechanised armour had vanished. The weapons, too, were of a more standard issue. With the patrol now alterted to my presence, the new and improved pistol proved adept at satisfyingly picking off Grunts from great distances. Against the heavily armoured Brute I relied more on a panic stricken “pray and spray” method of hosing him with bullets until he fell. As with so many weapons in the Halo-verse, though, each has their time and place and that comes with familiarity.
Gone too is the recharging shield, and in its place are the concept of stamina and a more traditional health bar. Being the toughest that the UNSC has, each ODST can soak up a small amount of damage before it truly begins to hurt them. Come under fire and your screen will turn a shade of red, indicating that your being hit and that you need to find a safe place quickly before your stamina depletes and your health bar starts to take a hammering. With no replenishing health, any injuries will need to be patched up through the use of health packs scattered throughout the city. They’re hardly scarce but neither are they abundant so when facing massed hordes it is often wise to know where the nearest health pack is and when to retreat to it.
The difference is not vast when compared to previous games but it’s enough to make you appreciate slipping back into a Spartan’s armour when you put in the multiplayer disc. Combat becomes more calculated, thoughtful, and those who rush in are likely to be sent very quickly back to the last checkpoint.
The one toy that the Troopers do have over Master Chief is their intelligent visor, specifically designed to work in low light conditions and to identify threats or objects of interest. Activating this allows you to see the street through something akin to Sam Fisher’s night vision, but with the added benefit that any enemy forces will be outlined in red and architecture in yellow. It’s an easy way to discern your surroundings in the dead of night but with a trade-off being that you are effectively waving a torch around meaning the Covenant are more likely to be alerted to your presence.
Very much like the recent Batman: Arkham Asylum and its detective vision, it is often tempting to play the entire game through this filter. Secrets are highlighted and enemies flagged but a lot of the visual magic is lost through the graininess of night vision. Many of the night sections may not be the most awe inspiring graphically speaking, but it is the clever use of lighting that makes the city so atmospheric and this is completely unrecognisable with anything other than normal vision.
However, your helmet’s functionality is vital in the search for your colleagues. With help from the AI running the city, beacons are marked on your helmet’s navigation software that leads you to clues as to their whereabouts. Each clue is an object from an adventure played out during your time unconscious, which is then played out with you switching roles to play as the central ODST in each particular escapade. Whereas New Mombasa by night could be considered the hub world, these are the levels which play out more traditional Halo-esque moments.
From driving Scorpion tanks through the business district to the E3 demo of blowing bridges sky high, there are some memorable set pieces. The kind that could not be achieved if the game was not based in the world of flashbacks as their presence in the midnight streets would have shattered all sense of ambience and as such are possibly even a more enjoyable given their change of pace. In the hub world you often come across broken Warthogs and shattered Ghosts but none are salvageable. Here, though, the whole Halo sandbox is opened up once more and those looking for large scale objectives and battles, or even just a more traditional variety of weapons, than they have found hunting for their squad round town will be more than satiated.
What this presentation style has also given Bungie is an ability to be flexible. Whilst New Mobasa is a single city, these chapters give them a chance to bounce from corner to corner pulling in the most interesting aspect they can depict and, most important, produce the best scenarios for the player. From something as silly sounding as escaping from the New Mombasa National Park to defending the Police HQ, they make the most of the African metropolis. The standard of level design in the cluster of missions available in ODST is high, only dipping disappointingly as the game draws to a close.
Throughout all the flashbacks there is a surprising narrative tying the whole thing together. Surprising because it is such a departure from the traditional Halo fare of Master Chief and Cortana taking on overwhelming odds and coming up trumps. It is a far more human affair of lost comrades, banter between those who work together and even a love story. Given the cast you could be fooled into thinking it was one of the lost scripts of Firefly as opposed to Halo. The humanity of the situation is emphasised all the more because of the surroundings, namely the actual defence of Earth on Earth as opposed to carrying out spec-op missions on a far flying battle cruiser.
Away from the solo campaign there is Firefight, a mode that pits up to four people against a never ending torrent of Covenant fighters. Those who have played Gears 2’s Horde mode will have come across something very similar. You spawn in a room that contains both limited health packs and limited ammunition and are then thrust out to face a series of waves of enemies, with five waves making a round. Each round begins with the meeker Grunts and Jackals but come the end Brute Chieftens will be ten a penny, all armed with Gravity Hammers to smack you into the middle of next week. It’s a mode about endurance, teamwork and decision making – mostly what firearm is going to be most effective and which body can I scavenge ammunition from?
All the Firefight maps are taken directly from the single player campaign, with varying degrees of success. Some are enclosed, infantry-only affairs whilst others cover large expanses opening up the possibility of tanks and aircraft. The trade-off being is that you might have more space and toys to use against the religious zealots being sent against you but so do they.
As an exercise in teamwork, or just as a way to mess around in the Halo sandbox for hours on end, Firefight’s qualities cannot be denied. Early impressions are that the never ending waves could become a little tired over time but as with all multiplayer games it’s mostly about who you’re with rather than what you’re doing. Given the right crowd, a Warthog and a never-ending procession of Grunts and you have yourself a guaranteed hoot and a holler.
As is traditional, the campaign can also be played through in four player co-op, and this is where ODST really shines, in my opinion, the fun found in fighting in Firefight is amplified as you have true objectives to work through. My second run through was with two other experienced Halo players and even on Legendary we made light work of it. It may have seemed easier but I would probably put it down to the way in which we operated. Whereas one ODST may seem underpowered when facing a gaggle of Brutes or a pair of Hunters, two or more can act as a pack: pulling their prey this way and that, exposing the weak spots and making light work of superior opposition.
It may be shorted than previous games but the price you want to put on that is entirely down to personal taste. Most places I’ve seen it has been reduced to compensate for that factor but at the end of the day I never believe in scoring something based on price, for that can always come down. What doesn’t change is the experience you buy and in Halo: ODST you have an experience that takes the Halo formula, shakes it up and gives you the best narrative thread and atmosphere of any of the games so far.
Ultimately, ODST is what I wanted Halo 2 to be. When launched it was pitched as Master Chief coming to Earth and fighting off the Covenant. Admittedly he did that but only for one solitary level before he disappeared back again into space. This fills that void and also some of the blanks surrounding what happened to city once the Chief had gone. It’s short but it is very, very, sweet.