Review: Halo ODST

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Playing as the Master Chief in Halo has certain advantages: you have a regenerating shield, health, and are seen as a hero by many of your peers. So why would anyone want to play as a lowly, and somewhat nameless, ODST trooper?

The answer is simple: there are a lot of stories to be told in the Halo universe. While the Master Chief fights for humanity by taking it to the Covenant, there are many more simply trying to keep the fires from spreading behind the lines.

Halo: ODST had started out as an expansion pack for Halo 3 before evolving into its own campaign setting filled with interesting characters, plot twists, and featuring VO work from Adam Baldwin (Chuck), Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Serenity, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog), and Tricia Helfer (Battlestar Galactica) among others. As a side story, it takes players into the boots of a rookie ODST trooper who is part of a squad suddenly tasked to assist a naval intelligence operation in a daring daylight raid by landing atop a Covenant carrier hovering over the city of New Mombasa on Earth.

ODST stands for “Orbital Drop Shock Trooper” and they do exactly that by dropping in from orbit, riding pods down through the atmosphere until they land at their objective. Also called “Helljumpers”, ODSTs are considered elite not only because of their choice of entry but because they are among the best, taking missions that few others would consider and able to hold their own against the Covenant despite the odds.

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Of course, things don’t always go to plan and the carrier that your squad of ODST buddies were supposed to land on jumps out, leaving behind a shockwave that scatters the pods and rains hell on the city below. The Rookie is knocked out and comes to only six hours later when it is night. Alone on the streets of New Mombasa, the Rookie has to piece together what has happened in order to get back home. Halo fans will recognize the city as a part of the setting for Halo 3, only this time, they’ll witness the occupation of the city and the destruction of the orbital elevator that was at its heart firsthand.

The story tries very hard to create the kind of camaraderie found in titles ranging from Gears of War to Modern Combat with memorable characters, but its fleeting characterizations are quickly consumed by the chaos of every firefight and the generally scattered approach of its story. As brief as the single player is within each thread and given that most of the dialogue consists of screaming chatter, there’s not much time get attached to anything other than the trigger.

In ODST, you’re far more mortal than everyone’s favorite SPARTAN. Stamina takes the place of the regenerating ‘shield’, and once that’s gone, you start taking real damage as your flesh starts to char from the plasma hurled at it by Covenant soldiers eager for some target practice. The only way to patch yourself up is by going back to the healing pack mechanic that regenerating health had all but made extinct in most every other current-gen FPS, finding these at convenient dispensers located throughout the city.

This adds a deeper, mortal twist to the usual FPS mechanics of Halo by forcing the player to be far more cautious in engaging the Covenant than they may otherwise be as the Chief. Going in head-on had quickly gotten me killed and the lingering damage from a brutal face-off forced me to hide in the shadows to stay out of the way of oncoming troopers. To players used to laying waste to every Covenant grunt and hunter in their way, this can come off as a harsh learning curve which can be appreciated as a proof positive of why the SPARTANs were made in the first place.

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Besides the weapons, ODST helmets are also equipped to enhance their vision, tagging enemies and allies with a light patina of brightened outlines, and in general, making dark areas seem a lot brighter. A mapping function helps to locate alternate approaches to objectives in New Mombasa along with following nearby enemy movements, objectives are easily tracked, and discovered audio logs can also be played in this private theater making me wish that the Master Chief had also gotten a few of these upgrades.

The story unfolds as the Rookie tracks down the last known location of each of his teammates thanks to the city’s ever-aware AI system tied into his helmet which serves as the ever-present, but not intrusive, HUD onscreen. As he makes his way to each one, a mission focusing on that individual member unfolds as a sort of flashback placing players in control of that trooper as they do whatever it takes to survive, watching the events of the last six hours from each soldier’s unique perspective.

It’s an interesting way to tell ODST’s story and not every mission will require you to shoot everything on foot with the occasional Warthog and Scorpion tank thrown in to mix things up. If you want to take over Wraith tanks and flying Banshees, you’ll have to forget about doing that. Not being Master Chief limits your options, but along with working with having other squadmates watch your back, it does shake up the pacing and potential tactics for vets used to being the hardest soldier in the UNSC’s army.

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Visually, the game looks like Halo 3. There’s no quantum leap here in terms of eye candy, although Bungie’s artists have managed to bring out the claustrophobia of New Mombasa’s alleys and the fear of wandering out in the open with its wide avenues thanks to a variety of architectural styles within the city. The music has also raised the bar on what the series can offer your ears as candy. Wandering through the streets of New Mombasa during the night while a slow, jazzy beat, tinged with a little local flavor added a unique angle to the atmospherics for the game in driving home the feeling that the Rookie may be all that is left.

As attached as the game is to the Halo universe, there are a few things about it that are getting a little long in the tooth such as the FPS formula that it has been using since the first game. ODST offers nothing new in that quarter other than in making its protagonists a lot more fragile. They can still wield gravity hammers like the Chief and make use of any other weapon that they stumble upon.

Using New Mombasa, even if only a sliver of it, as an open hub is a nice touch but it riddles it with respawning patrols of Covenant soldiers that further grind down the experience. As linear as the original series is, there was always that sense of progression in surviving one fight after another. Here, that kind of action quickly became stale. If it weren’t for the locales that the individual stories take place through, it would have felt pretty routine after the first hour.

The main campaign can take less than six or eight hours depending on how much time you like exploring the city for little extras, like the audio logs for Sadie’s Story which gives you a taste of New Mombasa’s chaos from a civilian perspective. If you’re a Halo fan that loves to immerse themselves into its lore, reaching the ending climax can be worth the effort, although its short length can still leave lingering doubts as to whether it was really worth the price.

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ODST comes on two disks: one for the main campaign, and another for the multiplayer maps that had been released on XBL as well as a new multiplayer mode: Firefight. Firefight is similar, in a way, to surviving waves of Locust in Gears of War 2′s Horde mode only this time, it’s set in maps based on the main campaign with the Covenant as the ones doing the shooting.

Firefight also comes with a few twists to make things a bit more interesting. For one thing, players start off with a set number of lives just as if they were in an arcade stand-up. They can either solo their way through as many waves as possible to score points, or they can team up with three more ODST buddies to better their chances with everyone sharing from a pool of extra lives can can be occasionally replenished. Halo’s multiplayer fans may get the most out of this, but there’s a Catch-22 with that as well.

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For many hardcore fans that have kept up with every map pack on XBL, the inclusion of only one new mode atop of what they may already own can seem even less compelling. Coupled with its short single player, it may also not be enough to convincingly justify its AAA price. Much of how guilty one might feel from dropping the money on this will depend largely on how much your Halo love can overlook these shortcomings and are willing to play as a Master Chief knockoff.

Technically, ODST still comes across as a solid, straightforward FPS title, but its aging formula is starting to see a few cracks within its Mjolnir armor. Put simply, it’s Halo fanservice for players that can’t get enough of Bungie’s sci-fi universe. I’m excited about the direction in taking the franchise to explore the other stories within its growing mythology, such as what Halo Wars had done, and hope to see it branch out even more of this in the future.

And at the same time, I’d also like to see it approached with more than what feels like a retooled expansion pack priced as if it were Halo 4.

Halo: ODST
Xbox 360
Microsoft / Bungie
Rated M for Mature