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Monthly Archives: October 2009

Opening Acts

With triple-A titles now becoming as abundant as leaves falling from trees, this is not just the time of year when Games of the Year (TM) start making themselves known but Disappointments of the Year (TM), too. There are very few who have not experienced that moment of clarity when the game they have yearned for ever since the appearance of the first press release has proven to be no more than hyperbole and spin. Even with the most awful of games many will plough on regardless, desperate to get value for their money, but how long do you give a game before throwing in the towel?

Whilst every game is different, the one ever present factor is how important the initial experience is. Drawing the player in early and convincing them that what is on offer is worth their time and effort is key to securing their attention for what game developers hope to be many joyful hours. First impressions count for a lot, though, and a stagnant introduction, an overly verbose tutorial or a barrage of cutscenes could make for a very short lived experience.

When it comes to opening acts, the most polarising game of recent times is Fallout 3. The majority of my gaming circle bought into the idea of Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic world but when it came down to actually playing it many failed to even leave the initial vault. Sold on the thought of exploring desolated wastelands and adventuring into the unknown, the time spent confined underground as the story gathered pace was too claustrophobic for some to bear and they walked away disgusted.

To those who revelled in furthering your character’s relationship with the others in the vault this may sound shocking, except we must remember that not everyone is made from the same mould. It is incredibly hard to tailor an experience to suit everyone out there whilst still remaining true to the designer’s vision. Boiling down aspects to the lowest common denominator may well strike a chord with more people but it is also likely that the knock on effect is that there will then be very little substance behind that veneer to keep players interested.

One such example was the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time followup, Warrior Within. Not content with crafting the beautiful and acclaimed return of the Prince, Ubisoft bought onto the Nu Metal band wagon, no doubt this was thanks to a quick check of what was scored highly with the teenage demographic they were see obviously courting. The opening exchanges saw me witness the now emo, heavily fringed Prince swear, move along to a thrashing sound track and battle bikinied, bare-cheeked pirate captains, resulting in me losing any sense of good feeling I had towards him.

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It is with new IPs, where there is no brand awareness or expectations, that these first impressions really count. Who could forget the first scenes in Bioshock, first with the plane crash and then your initial discovery of Rapture, or the cinematic introduction to Dead Space. Both brought about a sense of wonder and a desire to discover what disaster had befallen the world you then found yourself in, one that spurred me on to the very end.

By contrast, slow starters, such as Borderlands, or those that decide against introducing themselves with some sort of apocalyptic event, need much more good will to see them through. Shaped so much like an MMO that when the first two quests are “Kill 5 swamp rats” and “Kill 8 raiders” that you have to wonder whether the Borderland designers truly thought about their early stages. Whilst the game opens up to introduce a lot more depth and variety, the first hour of mindless and generic fetch quests does not paint it in a good light.

To get around a similar problem, Id’s Rage is taking a refreshing approach to development. Technical Director John Carmack has gone on record as saying that they are going to build the first level of the game last, taking advantage of everything that they have learnt during development and giving it the best chance possible of a great first impression. The logic seems almost infallible and it is more surprising that this approach is only just being discussed now.

Stoked – Review

Originally posted on www.7outof10.co.uk

I have been known to board in the past. There was once a time when I skated through the streets of Southampton and glided down the slopes of the Alps. Ranking as a complete amateur in both, I have often attempted to live out my delusions of grandeur through the Tony Hawk’s and Shaun White’s videogames of the world. Both big name riders, but at times their series have had a tendency to play on the reputation of the brand and not always on the quality of the product.

Whilst Stoked’s cover may not be decorated with household names, it attempts a far subtler approach. Initial training is taken by Snowboarder of the Year Wolle Nyvelt and, with the wooden voice acting you’d expect from a professional athlete, he leads introduces you through the fundamentals of Stoked.

The focus on a refined experience allows any reliance on the joypad’s face-buttons to be removed. Body movement and positioning are controlled on the analogue sticks, whilst grabs and prewinds (the act of preparing for a spin) are initiated with the triggers. Movement feels fluid and intuitive; carving through the snow by leaning from side to side with the left stick, with an upwards flick on the right sending your rider into a jump. Once your boarder is in the air, hands need to be contorted with a series of sharp tugs on triggers and jabs at sticks to do grabs, twists, spins and grinds. Simple variants are available but expect several minor layers of complexity – and numerous bone crunching landings – to lie between you and more advanced feats.

Those who button mash will end up face first in the snow as a little consideration needs to be applied before each trick. Transitions between them aren’t quick and the key is making sure you’ve enough time to not only complete but land your trick.

This more grounded experience extends throughout the game. Mountainsides aren’t filled with half-pipes or conveniently placed railings, rather fallen trees and convenient clumps of snow. An initial run may seem quite barren but soon you begin to pick out the understated nature with which the landscape has been assembled. Soon it even takes on a sense of serenity, and cresting a rise to see the sun break over the mountain range and spill into the valleys below can be a striking sight. Visually, as you cut ruts in the snow or snake down the mountain through near blizzard conditions, you have to be impressed at what this small studio has produced.

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To occupy your time, challenges litter the slopes. All are quite basic in their focus – beat this score, do these tricks – but each explores a different style of play, acting like a more restrained but prolonged tutorial. Score challenges hinge on stringing together a handful of tricks, whilst the trick specific tests are there to show off your wide array of moves. Known as the Grab Bible, there is a list of tricks available in game to help you but given the sheer quantity of moves it’s guaranteed that when a specific grab is required you’ll head straight to the Bible armed with a piece of paper to note down just what is expected of you.

Each challenge beaten sees your fame grow and before long sponsors and the press are courting you. There is no character progression accompanying this rise in stardom, however. No stats are upgraded or specialist equipment unlocked, instead more and more events open their doors to you as you turn pro.

Up until this point, Stoked was at risk of falling flat. With more than 50 basic events requiring completion before becoming professional, the designers are testing the attention span of many gamers. Once pro forms are signed, the game then gains far more structure: photographers will demand lines of flashy tricks; competitions pit you against other riders; promoters set you timed runs; and in each of them the bar is gradually pushed higher and higher until nothing but the perfect line and quick fingers will see you through. Expect frustration throughout as many challenges, even early ones, will see your rider faceplant countless times before you prove victorious.

No matter how well it is handled, the thought that kept reoccurring was that even very late in the game I was still doing exactly the same things as I did when I started. New mountains are unlocked and you face an ever growing wardrobe of branded items but the base experience does not evolve greatly. There is a definite sense of your skills progressing as challenges push you harder and harder, but it is easy to lose heart and question why you want to attempt the next dozen photo shoots if their goals are in essence the same as the last dozen.

Stoked has an undeniably strong core, with good handling and a very natural style. Its own confident understated approach, however, may be its undoing; limiting the ways it can present events. Furthermore, taking anywhere up to a couple of hours to break the back of Stoked, to feel comfortable with the mechanics and to reach more engaging events, may ask too much of some.

Those willing to experience an incredibly solid and satisfying snowboarding game should stick at it. Trumping the far showier Shaun White, Stoked is a clear, well executed vision but will only be for the dedicated.

7/10

After Sales Care

Originally posted on www.7outof10.co.uk

A week or so ago I spoke about how Achievements, when used effectively, can extend the life of a game. They can be used to tempt and tease you into playing in different ways or even just trying to reach for the near impossible. Last night saw another Achievement hunting exercise for a handful of us as we continued down Bungie’s Road to Recon in Halo: ODST. Far from being just an attempt at boosting our gamerscore, it was a bid to unlock hidden titbits but also a fine example of how a developer can reach out to the community and make them feel special.

Ever since the launch of Halo 3 there a special style of armour has only been available to select few. Originally only Bungie employees were granted the ability to wear it but over time players who caught Bungie’s eye were also handed a set. As ever with a rampant community, what you can’t have you want and so began the lust for Recon, as it was known.

Bungie have always been a sterling example of how a developer should interact with the community. From weekly updates that drip feed information and give personalities to those usually anonymous names on the credits, to theming online matches around Halloween, Valentines Day and other major events, they are always reaching out and not only talking to their user base but listening to them, too. Well, at least those that don’t have a tendency to insert numbers where vowels ought to be. Out of this came The Road to Recon, a further meta-game within the Halo products that will unlock Recon for the player should they complete a list of objectives, mainly Achievements. The end goal of an alternate helmet may not seem a big deal for many who read this but to the Halo community it’s now a mark of your dedication to the cause and another well thought out offering to the community from Bungie.

It works on many levels, too. Even though the community is comparatively small, I like to think my involvement Viva Piñata has gone some way in enhancing the game for those I interact with, too. Whether it be talking with a dev frankly about the game, showing that we still care about a product several years after launch or even injecting the odd Easter Egg into proceedings here and there, I am a big advocate of the developer’s equivalent of after sales care.

So many studios, rightly or wrongly, treat the pressing of the final product as the end of the process. Whilst it might be the end for the developers have slaved day and night to get the game to your console, it is only the beginning for you.

Lego Rock Band

This week’s announcement of Lego Rock Band’s track listings and the option of exporting it out into older versions of Rock Band reinforced my faith in human nature; there are publishers developers out there who aren’t just trying to extract every possible penny from your wallet for minimal effort. Compared to Guitar Hero’s dozen or so releases in the last three years, each major Rock Band release has seen Harmonix jump through technical hoops in order to keep their brand as a platform rather than a batch of stand alone releases.

In a world where certain companies are willing to sell you unlock codes for items that used to be available through a simple button combination, or extra money in games you’re too lazy to earn it, it’s a refreshing gesture. Naturally there is a fee involved but considering when exporting Rock Band 1′s tracks to Rock Band 2 it cost less than a fiver for 60 songs it can well be considered one of the best value transactions in this digital age.

I gave up on Guitar Hero after, for the second game in a row, they wouldn’t let me import my old DLC into the newer game. It hardly makes for a fun social event swapping discs after each track, nor does paying for content that becomes defunct so quickly. Guitar Hero do seem to be sensing the error of their ways and are making efforts to amend the lack of song sharing, but it seems quite laboured by comparison.

Rock Band, Sing Star and even Hasbro Game Night are the direction social gaming should be going. Give me lots of releases, keep the content flowing, but also allow me to access it all from a single hub. Games that do so may suffer a hit from not featuring in retailer’s New Release section so frequently but as distribution turns more and more towards digital downloads that should become less of an issue.

Review: Facebook Roundup

Originally posted on www.7outof10.co.uk

Mafia Wars

The game that comes most readily to most people’s lips when Facebook is mentioned is Mafia Wars. This very casual RPG has proved a big hit for developer Zynga, constantly featuring in the social network’s Most Played charts.
Taking on the role of a Don of New York, you carry out jobs for profit, attacks against other Mafioso, and the day to day running of your underground empire. It’s a minimalist interface with all actions handled through a series of lists, each item decorated with thumbnails of the task at hand. All tasks are executed by a quick check against your character’s stats, the most important of which is energy. This allows you to perform a certain amount of activities – the grandeur of which grows as you gain more energy – in return for both XP and a swag bag full of loot, be it cash or miscellaneous knickknacks that can be used to improve your mafia.

XP slowly tots up and pushes you up through the ranks, each promotion granting you more jobs and more opportunities. Money collected from your nefarious activities can be invested in property to bring in a more stable source of income or an arsenal for your followers. All of whom can be equipped with a weapon, a vehicle and a piece of body armour and the better equipped they are then the better protected you are.

Your mafia is made up of those you know and love. Those who you never thought capable of a nasty thought turn out by your side, touting tommy-guns and talking in dubious accents aiding you in attacks against rival mafia. Whilst your single-player adventures fight against nothing more than a timer that slowly refills your energy, multiplayer consists of fighting and robbing other Facebook users. Your mafia are then pitted against your opponent’s with the victor leaving the other battered and a little lighter in the wallet. Those with small friends lists will suffer here as no matter how well pimped your troops are the sheer weight of numbers seen in some mafias will crush all that stand in their way.

It can be deeply addictive, rising through the levels and taking on random strangers. A slowly refilling energy meter rations the amount of time that can be spent playing a criminal mastermind but a few minutes here and there each day can be enough for you to grow an empire extremely quickly. Almost as soon as it begins, however, the shine disappears. The promise of heading to Cuba at level 35 may keep you grinding through the early levels but the realisation that Cuba is basically a reskinned New York breaks any illusion of progression. Once in a foreign land you must start completely from scratch, and the option of travelling to Moscow at level 50 leaves me in no doubt that the same cheap trick of extending the experience will be used again.
Prior to that revelation Mafia Wars had proved a compelling prospect; a web based RPG that appeared to have progression and sense of depth. A mafia full of well known faces is an amusing aside but with nothing more than the expectation of a new looking background at staggered intervals the game lacks any sense of purpose.

5/10

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Paradise Paintball 3D

As an example what could be achieved by using Facebook as a platform and not as a confine, then Paradise Paintball should be held aloft. With a plethora of little-and-often, two-dimensional, RPG-lites, Paradise Paintball stands out by being a highly colourful, fully three-dimensional, FPS. Set on a series of tropical islands, your large headed character is dropped in with a hopper of paint pellets and let lose on the unsuspecting public.

Technically, it is very impressive. The game itself is very smooth with barely a hint of lag throughout all the time spent in Paradise and the water effects of the sea lapping the lush beaches could put many more well known titles to shame.

Whilst it may be different, difference is not always enough. The concept may be good enough and the controls solid but individual matches offer very little in the way of order. Often it is hard to tell who is on which team, what the objective is or even if there is an objective at all. To this day I have never finished a game; not because I didn’t want to but because they seemingly never end. All too frequently Paintball Paradise turns into a flashy tech demo which was not followed up on with a fully thought out design.

I do encourage you to visit Paradise, but I’ll be surprised if you stay.

3/10

Replayability

Originally posted on www.7outof10.co.uk

Last Christmas I was very kindly given the complete Friends boxed set. Whatever your thoughts on this American sitcom, I can contently sit and watch them back to back even though I’ve seen them so many times I can recite the lines backwards. Compare this to films and I can’t watch the same one twice within the space of a few years, not even my most cherished Jurassic Park. However odd it may sound, when I already know how plots will unfold the commitment of a couple of hours always makes me hesitant about settling down on the sofa with a movie. As such my DVD collection is mostly TV box sets that are wearing thin with repeat viewings sitting alongside a large smattering of films I’ve only ever watched once.

The same is true of my gaming habits; I find it very hard to replay lengthy sections that I have experienced before. Many reviews, including my own, speak about longevity and whether the game has legs after the initial play through, but unless there is an interesting twist on what has gone before, or even a particularly juicy Achievement, then I am more than likely to place the disc back in its case and move on to a fresh challenge.

Those most likely to succumb to my apathy are first-person shooters. I’m getting to the stage where many are becoming indistinguishable, for if you’ve saved the galaxy once through a set of iron sights then you’ve probably saved it once before and will do so again in a very similar fashion. There has to be a certain set-piece or quality in the AI to draw me back. Even though it is a fantastic game, I don’t think I could force myself through Call of Duty: Modern Warfare a second time. The entire basis of the franchise to date has been advancing through a relatively linear stage against an enemy that has infinite reinforcements until you push past a certain trigger point. Although this may encourage the player to leave the safety of his sandbagged trench and urge his troops forward, knowing the only the solution to your situation is getting to point X takes the magic away.

Even half-way through a game I can fall foul of this sentiment, with Grand Theft Auto IV being the greatest example of recent times; it suffered from constantly recycled and bland mission structures with the flair and inventiveness that had been the trademark of previous GTAs somehow lacking. Most were drive from A to B to kill C or take dodgy package from D to E whilst being followed, and by the end I really didn’t give an F. This was exacerbated further as I could clearly recall in previous entries in the series being chased down storm sewers in a homage to Terminator 2. Whilst IV may have taken on a more gritty and surly persona, it did so by sacrificing the variety that had drawn me in.

The unforgivable situation of replaying a section, however, is that of the corrupt save game or an ill-judged checkpoint. Knowing that you are playing through a game again because you wanted to is an entire different matter when compared to being forced to because your game has saved at a point moments before a mortar impact inches in front of you (Call of Duty 2) or because it simply doesn’t like to travel on a memory card (Braid).

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The TV sitcom counterpart to these Hollywood blockbusters are swiftly becoming those games that can offer either a great variety in a short space of time or provide an experience that fits into a bite sized chunk. Take football games as an example, although every simulated 90 minutes might seem the same it is the minutiae which makes them great; from facing fresh opposition with varying tactics to attempting to hone your own techniques and moves, one game can be wildly different from the last. For one, I find it incredibly tough finishing and so each break into an opponent’s penalty area is equal parts drama and excitement as I see whether I can hit the back of the onion bag.

Puzzle games, too, are seemingly endless with the perception that the only reason you failed the previous round was because of your own deficiencies. I have first-hand experience of this with my wife’s incessant Zoo Keeper habit.

Whether my strange insistence on constantly experiencing new is unique I cannot tell, but I doubt it. There are those on my friends list whom can play the likes of JRPGs for many months at a time without showing nary a sign of boredom but then there are those with a fresh game every Friday. For me there’s a happy balance. I may only play a solo campaign through once but co-op and multiplayer options will see a game nestle round my consoles for far longer periods than the Assassin’s Creed and Bioshocks of the world. Quality titles they both might be but you can never recapture that initial magic of Rapture the second time through.

Review: Blood Bowl

Originally posted on www.7outof10.co.uk

Blitzing into view is this year’s second greatest American Football game. If Madden’s photorealistic simulation isn’t your idea of how a pigskin should be used, then maybe gridiron mixed with Orks is more your thing with this faithful recreation of the classic and ultra-violent board game, Blood Bowl.

Games Workshop’s Blood Bowl is a fantasy, turn-based interpretation on America’s favourite sport. Given a team of hardy individuals each with their own special skills, you must block, tackle and foul your opponent into submission and carry the ball into their end zone. The victors are the side with the most touchdowns, whether that be after the allotted number of turns or because one team has been battered into submission.

Every action is taken with dice, with the success based on an individual character’s attributes of agility, strength, armour and movement. Stronger players will survive better in the rough and tumble of tackling, whilst the more agile can skip through defences and will be more adept at catching passes. The key is knowing your team’s strengths and your opponent’s weakness in order to exploit them to create gaps in their defence.

It has, however, been many, many years since my ratty Skaven team have been pulled down from the loft and forced on the field of play. Whilst I had a vague recollection of what was required, I felt it safest heading directly to the tutorial to refresh myself. What is presented is woefully inadequate. Most rules, even the very basic concepts of the game, are presented through reams of tediously, lengthy pop-ups. The amount of information that bombards the player is overwhelming and presented very inefficiently. Just one case in point is that when reeling off the dozen or so ways a player’s turn can be ended it is displayed in twelve separate pop-ups rather than a simple list. Worse still is that much of the information cannot be accessed from anywhere else, so any vagueness on the rules can only be righted by inflicting the tutorial on yourself again. This is at odds, however, with the welcome foresight of putting the bewildering array of a team member’s special skills in an encyclopaedia on the pause menu.

Thankfully there is a training match that offers you the chance to play a simple game of Blood Bowl that at every opportunity explains just what you and your opponent are doing. This definitely helps pull the separate parts of the tutorial together and adds a lot more context to the numerous pop-ups.

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Outside of this learning curve, the actual recreation of Blood Bowl is very competent. There seems no omissions or compromises in bringing it to the DS and those who have played before should feel at home. It can be summarised as “angry chess” and is a very tactical game where you must weigh up the odds of success against each action you take in your bid for the end zone. The dice rolls are all hidden, which can lead to minor consternation at times as you try and work out just why your star player is face down in the mud but is clearly done with the intention of speeding up play.

Opponent AI seems well rounded, providing a good test even at the base Rookie difficulty, with victories earned rather than given. The downside seems to be large pauses during play for no perceivable reason. Whether it is the DS’s limitations or not, I very much doubt the Blood Bowl equivalent of Deep Blue has been included and it always prompts me to question whether the rival coach is deep in contemplation or has just crashed.

Those willing to sink time into the sport can head to the game’s main mode, the Championship. Based on a normal league format, you start at the bottom of the third division and aim to play yourself to the top, buying in a team of players and then building them into stars as your rise through the standings. The long term depth of Championship – again pulled directly from the board game’s team building – may not be enough to win over those fresh to Blood Bowl, though, as it seems very much a title that will only find success with those who already have prior experience with Games Workshop. There are just too many barriers preventing the uninitiated embracing the game and many will not be able to get passed the stuttering tutorial and the constant minor annoyances of an unresponsive UI.

As a faithful recreation of a classic board game it should be commended but the final verdict is a missed opportunity to bring in new players.

5/10

Review: Halo 3: ODST

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.

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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.

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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.

9/10

Updates

Hello? Anyone still there? I’ve been meaning to do this for a while but from now on I aim to at least push everything I write to both here and www.7outof10.co.uk. Shame to seem the place go to waste.