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Halo 3: ODST Review

By Matt Cabral, 9/21/2009

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Remember Halo 3 Recon? Unless you count yourself among the most faithful of Master Chief followers, the title may not ring a bell. It was the name originally given to this week's highly anticipated next entry in Bungie's unstoppable sci-fi shooter series. Yup, ODST was once Recon, but the name switch only represents one of the changes this Halo 3 spin-off has seen. The game began as a multiplayer map-pack expansion, but quickly grew to also include a full-on single-player campaign as well as a new co-op mode, Firefight, which closely mirrors the live-as-long-as-you-can Horde game from Gears of War 2. Because of ODST's shifting focus, fans expectations may be all over the place, leaving them wondering whether this latest chapter suits their particular play preferences. After digging deep into all aspects of this double-disc offering, I'm comfortable recommending it to anyone who's enjoyed past Halos, online or off, as they'll certainly find something to love in this content-crammed package.

For me, the appeal was jumping back into Warthogs, carefully lobbing sticky grenades, and scoring a high Covenant corpse count in an all-new solo campaign. And, while the 8-10 hour kill-spree didn't meet all my expectations, it easily hooked me hard enough to dive in for a second play-through on a harder difficulty setting. ODST's pre-release buzz touted a new direction for the series, one that not only replaced Master Chief with a rotation of more vulnerable Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, but one that got away from the growing-formulaic gameplay of Halo 3. Experiencing this new design direction firsthand yielded some of the title's absolute best aspects as well as its few flaws.

The set-up sees you, the “Rookie”, crash landing on New Mombasa after events that originally took place during Halo 2; a shockwave triggered by a Covenant ship's slipstream escape knocks you and your fellow ODST's pods off course and into the alien-occupied city. The story is told in a twisty Tarantino fashion through playable flashbacks where you see what the other members of your team were up to after their troubled arrival. These chapters, where you'll play as the various ODSTs, are like comfort food for Covenant-haters. They deliver the same bullet-whizzing action fans have come to expect from the series, placing them in a variety of against-the-odds scenarios that see them defending areas against hordes of enemies, piloting Warthogs, sniping Hunters in the back, and generally experiencing plenty of “booyah!” moments.

Without the skills of a Spartan protecting your ass, the challenge is slightly increased beyond previous entries with ammo being less plentiful and Chief's regenerating health being replaced by a health pack/regen-shield combination. Additionally, some of the more breathless battles almost seem like training for the Firefight mode, as seemingly endless parades of pissed-off Covenant charge a point you're defending. Keeping with the series' cinematic flair, there are also some amazing scripted moments and set pieces that'll make you feel like you're experiencing this epic sci-fi series for the very first time. I won't spoil them for you here, but let me just say your adrenaline levels will peak more than once during these flashback missions.

The biggest departure from the franchise's traditional formula comes when you play as the Rookie. Quietly exploring the dark streets of New Mombasa, you'll uncover clues that unlock the more intense missions, but you're also free to explore the open-world environment. It was during these moments where ODST both hooked me and let me down. The mostly empty—save for some destroyed vehicles and Covenant patrols—streets complement an effective solitary eeriness; you 'll definitely feel alone in a place you're not welcome. It's awesome walking around freely, only to be stopped dead in your tracks by a group of Covenant who haven't spotted you yet—do you engage them, or simply find a less dangerous path? Equally engaging is the way in which the clues you discover open and eventually conclude the flashback sequences. One of the coolest sequences finds the Rookie stumbling upon a mangled sniper rifle caught up in some power lines. This triggers a cinematic of him inspecting the item just before you jump to a mission that will ultimately conclude with the reveal of how the rifle ended up bent and dangling from above. It's a neat narrative trick that helped shape what is the best Halo yarn to date.

Despite the slick storytelling and haunting exploration, the Rookie's segments slip up in a few areas. For one, New Mombasa at night is very dark. Now, ODSTs are equipped with a visor that highlights enemies and key items, but even when activated the world is drenched in darkness. This does set up some amazing visual moments, such as when burning skyscrapers sharply contrast with the dimly lit streets. However, having to creep through the shadows and rely on my infrared visor would have been far more effective if it was worked in more sparingly. My other gripe is that there simply isn't enough to do on the night time streets of New Mombasa. You get to explore a fairly large world, and the game's mysterious Superintendent is a great navigational tool—and story element—but after playing Arkham Asylum, where nearly 250 story-pushing items were to be discovered, I felt like ODST could've packed in more fan-pleasing treats. That said, there is a beautifully woven side-story, told through discovered audio and video logs, that's totally worth seeking out. In fact, it's because of the inclusion of this bonus tale, as well as some of the other cooler elements hidden within the abandoned city, that I criticize what's not there. These devices inject so much unexpected originality into the series, that I would've loved to see them go even further with the exploration and sandbox structure.

That said, I had more fun in ODST's campaign than I had in the last two Chief-starring entries. The story is better, and the blend of head-shot-scoring and city-searching is an amazingly good fit that nicely evolves Halo's rich universe. The new campaign alone will be worth the price of admission for most fans, but the dedicated multiplayer content only sweetens the deal. The package's second disc contains every Halo 3 map ever released through retail or DLC, as well as three brand new ones. Granted, the multiplayer-loving masses probably own most of this content already, but even the most seasoned online player is still getting the new maps and the Firefight content. And the latter is not to be missed. If you've played Gears of War 2's Horde mode or Left 4 Dead's Survival mode, you already know the drill—live as long as you can! Firefight's just as fun, only it's bathed in Halo style, so the weapons, enemies, and vehicles you've spent the last several years getting comfortable with are injected into this endlessly addictive co-op game. The addition of challenge-amping skulls make this mode even more intense; the longer you last, the more skulls get turned on, giving your adversaries just that much more of an edge. My personal favorite, Black Eye, forces you to melee a baddie in order to regain health--can you say suicide? Long after you've conquered the solo content and even tired of the new MP maps, you'll find yourself gathering with friends online and off to defend against endless waves of Covenant scum.

Whether you're looking to go it alone, check out Halo 3's full suite of multiplayer options, or just see how long you and your buddies can keep the Grim Reaper at bay in Firefight, ODST has something for everyone. Throw in a beta key for Halo Reach's eventual multiplayer component and you've got a box brimming with Covenant-killing goodies. In a season packed with pricey, crap-containing special editions, it's refreshing to get this much bang for your buck.

Overall: 90%



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