Review: Prepare to drop... your money on this game (in more ways than one).
The post-Master Chief era has begun with the release of Halo 3: ODST. Originally envisioned as an expansion pack to Halo 3, ODST kept growing in scope until Bungie decided to release it as a full-sized (and full-priced) retail package. Slotting neatly between the events of Halo 2 and 3, the game follows a small squad of elite Orbital Drop Shock Troopers as they fight the Covenant in the streets of New Mombasa. There is no Master Chief and thankfully, no Flood to be found.
Even without the Master Chief the game is pure Halo, meaning it is fun as hell ? but also more of the same. Despite playing as an ODST, it still feels like you're playing as our favorite Spartan with only a few small compromises. You have a rechargeable shield but it is very weak ? take more than a couple of shots and your health will be damaged. When that happens, you'll have to find one of the precious few health packs scattered across the large maps. You can't dual-wield but can use any Covenant weapon and drive (and jack) any vehicle. You also have no radar.
You can't jump quite as high or run quite as fast as the Chief, but the difference is so minor you probably won't notice the difference. You can even flip over Warthogs and Scorpion tanks, and rip turrets off their mounts and run around with them ? in fact, you can run faster
with a turret than you could in Halo 3. Apparently, ODST's pump up the ?roids more than Spartans.
This means the gameplay is virtually identical to previous Halo games. This is both good and bad; good because Halo has always been damn fun, but bad because there really isn't anything new gameplay-wise. The main reasons to play ODST are for the campaign story and the exciting new Firefight co-operative mode.
The campaign opens with arguably the most thrilling cutscene in the entire franchise. You play as a silent ODST rookie newly assigned to a veteran squad tasked to carry out a secret mission ? so secret even your squad sergeant Buck (played by Firefly
's Nathan Fillion) doesn't know what's going on. The game starts with you hopping into your one-man drop pod and firing straight down from your orbiting ship towards Earth. Unfortunately, a familiar Covenant cruiser hovering over New Mombasa makes a hyperspace jump just as you are about to land, with the shockwave scattering your squad's pods and destroying much of the city. You awake six hours later and must comb the eerily deserted streets of New Mombasa searching for clues to the whereabouts of your squad, all while fighting Covenant patrols.
You are completely alone in the middle of the night, giving you a chilling sense of isolation that at the same time is somehow relaxing ? no doubt helped by the moody jazz-inspired ambient music accompanying you. Not surprisingly, Martin O'Donnell hits another homerun with a brand new intimate, more personal soundtrack that is a refreshing contrast to the sweeping epic scores from the first three Halo games.
Also new is your special visor with a cool night vision mode that highlights enemies in red, friendlies in green, weapons in blue and interactive objects in yellow. Why ODST's get this cool state-of-the-art technology while Spartans have to make do with a cheap piece-of-crap Home Depot flashlight is beyond me, but I digress. Oh, and you also have a new silenced SMG and a silenced scoped pistol that is virtually identical to the beloved pistol from the original Halo. Yay! And although they sound cool, the silencers are really pointless since there are no stealth elements to the game.
During your search for clues, the city's Superintendent (an AI that runs the city services) provides subtle assistance to point you in the right direction. The Superintendent also helps you find collectible audio logs that unveil a side story that is in many ways more interesting than the main story.
When you find a clue, you play as another member of your squad in a different part of the city during the day. In addition to Fillion, the other squad members are voiced by fellow Firefly
alumni Adam Baldwin and Alan Tudyk, along with Battlestar Galactica
hottie Trisha Helfer. In fact, both Fillion and Helfer's faces were used for their characters, although Helfer's version is unfortunately less than flattering.
The squad levels comprise the meat of the game with intense battles and extensive vehicle missions. The maps are huge, so it is easy to see why the game couldn't be released as a mere expansion pack.
However, the levels are fairly short; in fact, you could finish the entire campaign in an afternoon if you rushed through it, even faster if you play co-operatively with up to three buddies. While thoroughly enjoyable, the campaign painfully shows its expansion pack roots by being the shortest in the franchise.
To extend replayability, the game includes the cool new four-player co-operative Firefight mode. Similar to the addictive Horde mode in Gears of War 2 and Call of Duty: World At War's Zombie mode, Firefight pits four players against waves of increasingly tougher AI enemies.
Each round consists of five waves, and each set consists of three rounds. At the end of each round a new skull is activated to add enemy AI modifiers that make them dodge attacks, throw more grenades, increase damage resistance and so on. At the end of each set there is a brief bonus round where all skulls are activated while you try to rack up points to earn bonus lives. You see, your team shares a pool of lives so you all have to work together; having a lone wolf running around getting killed all the time will rapidly deplete your pool and end your game prematurely.
Firefight is crazy fun but challenging, much more so than Horde. This is because ammo and health are at a precious premium; in fact, the very limited quantity of health packs are only refreshed at the end of each round so you have to ration them carefully. You can pick up any weapon dropped by enemies but don't be surprised to find yourself forced to bash your way out of trouble as you try to find something to fill your empty guns.
The rationing helps make Firefight so incredibly addicting and suck you in for many hours. You can't just run and gun with abandon; you have to work together tactically and strategically to survive, and it's damn fun. Firefight is the primary reason why you should buy ODST but beware that there is no matchmaking; you can only play with people on your Xbox Live Friends' List (or locally, of course).
There are ten Firefight maps with two maps in both a day and night-time version. Each map is a slightly modified version of the campaign maps, so you get a nagging sense of cost-cutting. There is also no adversarial multiplayer ? unless you pop in the second disk which is simply Halo 3 multiplayer with every downloadable map plus three exclusive new maps. You cannot play as an ODST character or use any of the new silenced weapons; it's the same Halo 3 multiplayer that's already sitting on your shelf.
And that highlights the big problem with the entire package ? value. OSDT is a full priced $60 game, which is a decent value if you don't already own Halo 3. However, since the game is targeted at established Halo fans, you've most likely already bought the downloadable maps, so you're paying twice for the same thing. What makes it worse for diehard fans is that you must
have ODST in order to unlock the coveted Recon armor for your Halo 3 multiplayer character.
This reeks of a greedy money-grab and is insulting to loyal fans, souring the entire experience. What Microsoft and Bungie should have done was release two versions, one with only ODST and Firefight at a discounted price of $30 to $40 (which better reflects the short campaign and lack of multiplayer) and another ?special edition? at regular price with the additional Halo 3 multiplayer disk. As it stands, you can't help but feel a little ripped off.
This is a real shame because the campaign and Firefight are thoroughly enjoyable. Leave it to the greedy sales and accounting suits to ruin it for the fans.