Halo 2’s E3 demo from 2003 was the stuff of legends, something that had the fans salivating for the next instalment of Bungie’s break-through franchise. The sight of the Pelican dropship swooping down onto an Earth city under attack by the Covenant took people’s breaths away, and gave them a tantalizing glimpse of our home planet in the Chief’s universe. Ultimately, the final version of Halo 2 featured a New Mombasa that couldn’t deliver on the high hopes set by the demonstration, and left Halo enthusiasts wanting.
Six years later, we finally get our chance to explore the city of New Mombasa as an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, or ODST. These special forces troops are dropped from orbiting ships in one-man pods, and are the only human soldiers in the Halo games that can stand up to SPARTANs in terms of bad-assery. The basic premise of the game is that your squad is dropped into New Mombasa, ostensibly to assault a Covenant ship that’s parked above the city, but things go horribly awry. The ship enters light speed inside Earth’s atmosphere causing a massive explosion and scattering your squad to the winds. You mostly play as the Rookie, a new-comer to the ODST squad, six hours after the drop. You search the hub city of Mombasa for clues as to what happened to your squad and your mission.
When you find the clues, you inhabit the body of your squad-mates and play through a part of their story, tying together what happened while you were unconscious. The story from start to finish is extremely polished, and is the best Halo campaign delivered to date. The voice acting, featuring such luminary talents as Nathan Fillion, Tricia Helfer and Nolan North helps to really tie the narrative together and adds a sense of personality that the Halo series has lacked.
The city of Mombasa itself is very impressive, and is one of the largest Halo settings to date. When you play as the Rookie, you have the whole run of the city and you can travel seamlessly from one corner to the other. There are a couple spots where the game needs to load the next area, but they’re nothing more than a couple second hiccup.
Even though ODST is built upon the existing Halo 3 engine, great strides were taken by the game’s artists to ensure that the two-year old technology wasn’t starting to show its age. While the game does falter in the graphics area in some respects, the faces of your squad being the most noticeable deficiency, the lighting effects more than make up for any faults the engine has. The skyboxes are particularly impressive, so much so to the point where you’ll want to take a moment and just look.
Because the game is constructed on top of Halo 3’s foundation, there are a lot of similarities in the game-play, even if Bungie has tried to make the experience of being an ODST different from that of playing a SPARTAN. The most noticeable variation is that you no longer have a regenerating shield; instead you have Stamina and Base Health. The Health is monitored in your integrated helmet display as a yellow bar underneath your directional compass. Your Stamina is displayed as a reddening of the screen when you take fire; the more damage your take, the redder the screen gets until is washes out all color and your Health begins to deplete. Fortunately, health dispensing kiosks are spread all throughout the city, and they’re sprinkled fairly liberally across the map in supply points as well.
With health readily available around every corner, and your Stamina being fairly robust even on the highest difficulty, you can charge into every battle as if you were still playing as the Master Chief. For playing as a supposedly “frailer” character, you have the same feeling of invincibility as you did in Halo 3. The only thing that you’re not able to do as a Drop Trooper is dual-wield weapons, but you can carry around large turrets and beat down Brutes with abandon.
New to Halo 3: ODST are a few pieces of equipment, two of which are upgraded variants of a couple standard Halo armaments. The new weapons are sound-suppressed versions of the Halo 2 pistol and the submachine-gun. Both weapons feature a linked scope, so you can zoom in up to two times with the SMG, and up to four times with the pistol. The SMG itself is kind of useless; most of the enemies in the game are resistant to its fire, and the ammo drains fairly quickly. Conversely, the pistol is the most useful weapon available to you: it’s a fast firing head-shot machine, and a careful gunman can wipe out a squad of Brutes with only a few carefully places shots, provided their shields are down first.
Besides the new firearms, ODSTs are also issued a built in night vision display which illuminates darkened areas and highlights enemies in red and friendlies in green. The Rookie segments of the game make liberal use of this vision mode, and you’ll be flicking it on a few times in the flash-back scenes as well. This more than makes up for the lack of a motion-tracker in your display, and is extremely useful for finding items hidden in the city.
The campaign will run you about seven hours on Heroic, a fairly short jaunt for big budget titles these days. To pad out the game, Bungie included a side-story of sorts in the hub city, which is collected through various data terminals. Gathering the audio-logs unlocks supply depots around the city, but since you’ll probably finish the game before you find all 30, this makes the perk rather a moot point. Unless you enjoy the gruelling torture that is Halo on Legendary, expect to play this campaign only once or twice unless you’re really into achievements.
Where ODST gets its legs, however, is the excellent Firefight mode included with the disc. Firefight is similar in gameplay to Horde mode from Gears of War 2 or Nazi Zombies from World at War. You and up to three friends take on increasingly difficult waves of Covenant troops, with Halo’s difficulty multiplying skulls coming into play every once and a while. The skulls do different things such as make enemies dodge grenades more effectively, or have weapons drop with half ammo. The game can get fast and furious, and Halo’s excellent mechanics ensure that you’ll have a blast playing Firefight for hours on end. There is no matchmaking included with Firefight, but you’ll want to play the game with three competent friends rather than endure the inanity of the bottom rung of society that is X-Box LIVE.
As a bonus, the complete Halo 3 multi-player experience is bundled on a second disc in the ODST package, and it features all the maps released up until this point with three new maps included. Unless you’re not that into spending MS points on maps, chances are you’ll already have these but the three new maps make it worth-while for the Halo MP enthusiast.
Of course, I couldn’t do an ODST review without touching on the price point for the game. Much has been made of the title and whether it’s worth the sixty dollar tag or not. Originally, ODST was announced as a twenty to forty dollar expansion pack, something fairly small in scale. Of course, bumping the tag up to the full price range had people wondering whether Microsoft was pushing for a big Fall Halo release to pad their bottom line. While I’m sure that there is some of that going on behind closed doors, the fact remains that I’ve paid sixty dollars for other games and gotten a whole lot less. Between the excellent campaign, Firefight, and Halo 3’s much-lauded multi-player, not to mention a sneak peak at Halo: REACH, ODST is worth the price of admission.
So there you have it, folks, ODST dissected and laid bare for your examination. Now that I’ve given you the break down, I’ve got a few questions for you: have you tried ODST yet, and what do you think of it? Do you think that the price is fair, or is it too much? How awesome is Nathan Fillion? So Awesome. Go!
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