Game Review 6: Halo 3 – ODST

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Rookie scopes out the drizzle as you scope out the review’s more immersive header image format, complete with witty caption.

I don’t think I ever really appreciated ODST when I first played it, and definitely not when it launched, no pun intended. I remember a friend bringing it round to mine so we could play the Firefight game mode, and all I thought was “The guns are smaller, the colour palette is stinted, and I’m weaker; what’s the point of all this?”. I played through it about… Man, around three years ago, now, and enjoyed it a fair bit, despite the gamebreaking bug before the last mission that meant I couldn’t progress, forcing me to replay the whole game again. As you can see, I didn’t have an amazing experience with it despite considering it a solid title. So I decided I’d give this love affair another chance.

ODST is a wonderful blend of toned down, isolated gunfights in the abandoned (save for squads of alien Covenant troops) streets of the forever-midnight city of New Mombasa, and blazing daytime battles through the surrounding areas. The player character switches from Rookie, the protagonist even muter than the practically silent Master Chief, as he looks for clues to his squad’s whereabouts six hours after they drop, to the various members of said squad, one level for each. The variety offered therein is a breath of fresh air sorely needed by the franchise by the time ODST rolled around, and it’s safe to say I more than appreciate the game after this (my now third) playthrough. I’ll keep the review short and sweet, just like the game. Little spoiler for some criticisms to come, right there.

The Good: 

Tone, tone, tone. Atmosphere. Mood, mood. Atmosphere. Tone? No, but seriously, as the Rookie, walking through the saxophone-accompanied streets at night as storms rage in the darkened sky and rain patters on your visor (actually, I don’t think water droplets on the glass were a feature, but I can see that being a must in an HD remake) is joyous. The environments in the other team members’ levels are also astonishingly pretty. Well, perhaps not that far, but a particular highlight was the Safari Park in Mickey’s level. Speeding your Ghost over a bridge while a space elevator exploded and was brought down in the background was some spectacle. The whole aesthetic has been given a grittier polish (forgive the oxymoron), and I really enjoy that. The game is a more human journey than the other Halo games (except maybe for Reach, I’d love to review that someday when I have the time to play through it again) and you consequently feel more fragile. The silenced SMG and Magnum Pistol reflect this nicely; your tools of war are just as dainty as you are, and that’s a good thing. It’s a welcome and refreshing change from the nigh invincible protagonists of all the other games in the franchise. The gameplay mechanics themselves haven’t changed much from Halo 3, as this sort of is a full-price expansion pack, but they have been toned down and stripped back a lot as you no longer play as the battlefield-dominating Spartan warrior but instead as a vulnerable ODST soldier. This forces you to switch up your strategy, but as we’ll see in a second, that isn’t always a good thing. As far as the campaign goes, short as it is, a nice bit of variety is offered when it comes to the ‘main’ missions (not including the Rookie excursions, again we’ll get to that in a mo). It features the obvious sniper, vehicle, stealth and tank sections, sure, but there’s nothing wrong with that formula and it does include some pretty enjoyable skirmishes. It’s also incredibly nice to be able to go through these areas again as Rookie, giving rise to some nice nostalgic little “Hey, I was just here, and there’s that one thing, and that’s that other thing!” moments. Though I would have liked some unique areas for him, perhaps a public park or a more open-ended area, instead of only the city streets, as they get a bit bland after a while, but I guess the developers did what they could.

To be Improved:

It’s an overpriced expansion pack, none of us can argue against that. Hell, I like the game and I’m willing to admit that fact, and I think it’s rather ignorant of fanboys to try and state otherwise. It should have been half it’s original price. Now, this issue almost never effects me when it comes to any game, because I’m always late to the party and get mine years after they release (see Mass Effect), but I can more than see why people would be upset. The campaign is further shortened because the Rookie levels don’t count, as they’re barely levels to begin with and can then be exploited to an extent where, save for the lovely lovely atmosphere, they could have been left out of the game entirely without losing anything save for some of the best tracks on the score. Most squads of enemies you encounter, save for a select few, can be easily snuck or sprinted past. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that the game actually hands you opportunities to do so, placing doors into buildings that allow you to cut through them and avoid enemies completely, and spanning small walkways over the top of squads who are often otherwise distracted. It’s all just a bit of a farce. And when you are finally forced to fight some unavoidable enemies in a few sections where it’s just a single stretch of road, its achingly obvious that the developers where actually aware of the fact that people were going to be able to evade most other encounters, so added some boxed-in sections in a crude attempt to spice it up. The stealth aspect is fun and perhaps it was intended that you were to sneak past opponents, but it feels more like an oversight than a conscious addition. Furthermore, the Visr, or night-vision which highlights enemies and weapons, is both a blessing and a curse. In the team member levels, it’s useless because it’s always daytime, so accidentally hitting ‘X’ to reload – as I’m conditioned to Mass Effect’s control scheme at this point – instead initiates a blinding flare that can get you killed if it’s at a crucial moment. In Rookie’s levels, the Visr is one hundred percent essential, because to turn it off even for a second plunges you into darkness. It’s all just a bit squashed in, and the levels feel a bit too much like they were designed without the idea of the feature in mind, and that it was instead hastily implemented later.

Overall: 7/10

ODST is fairly meh, I won’t deny it! There’s some nice variety in the characters and indeed it was the first Halo game to feature multiple main characters of the same… armour type, I guess? I don’t really know how to explain that. Basically, as the last of the Spartan-IIs you were the only one of your kind in Halo 1 through 3 but in this you’re part of a team. Perhaps I’d prefer that more if Reach hadn’t come in and completely dominated that aspect, making the ODST team look like reluctant allies at best. Furthermore, more than half of the campaign is creeping past enemies in ever-increasingly dull landscapes, and the Rookie levels stop being a welcome respite from the action and instead a tedious chore that you race through in order to get to the meat. Despite the incredible moody tone, spellbinding atmosphere doth not a good game make. This is Bungie we’re talking about, so it isn’t terrible by any stretch, but they could have done with a lot more deviations from their now overused formula in order to create a game that was as out of the box as, say, Reach was. Even so, it’s Halo, and I’m afraid the sucker for sci-fi in me does love it despite its drawbacks.

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