Previous entries in the Halo saga have been let down somewhat by unrefined moments in the campaign. The Library in Combat Evolved, many of the Arbiter levels in Halo 2, and Cortana in Halo 3 all flirted either with being frustrating and dull (the latter), or just dull (the former). Alongside some of the most extravagant set pieces in FPS history these were all the more glaring and received a fair amount of criticism from fans and critics alike.
Surprising then that it took a Master Chief-free spin-off to draw the finest from Bungie. ODST is a refined Greatest Hits of Halo, woven together by a tight, almost-riveting narrative with enough subtle gameplay tweaks to make it feel distinct from the series, but never drastically.
An adrenaline charged cinematic introduces the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers. Highly trained soldiers who no doubt laugh at the primitive design of the Pelican, their arrival to the battlefield is as spectacular as it is thunderous. Soaring down from the very same orbiting space stations seen during the introduction of Halo 2, the first few minutes are all things familiar with witty dialogue abound and the Havok engine producing the same colourful brand of alien spacecraft hovering above a scarred earth.
The campaign takes place parallel to the events of Halo 2, moments after Master Chief leaves earth in time to escape the near-destruction of New Mombassa. But the iconic super-soldier is nowhere to be seen, instead replaced by The Rookie. It’s a bold move on Bungie’s part, especially as Rookie suffers from the same vocal incapacity as Gordon Freeman. But the game benefits from the change of character. As The Rookie initiates his drop all things bad happen and a collision with another pod leaves him suspended above the city streets, unconscious for six hours, removed from his team.
The Rookie differs from the Chief in a few restrained ways; relying on health packs and taking damage faster, as well as being incapable of duel wielding weapons, fighting without radar, and he’d do well to avoid attempts to leap over Brutes. None of those features are missed though, and the addition of two new weapons (a silenced SMG and pistol similar to the infamous weapon from Combat Evolved) more than make up for the losses.
And to say the player takes the reigns of The Rookie isn’t strictly true. The new storytelling mechanic shifts ODST away from the linearity of the former games, towards a slightly open-world dynamic. It’s not open world in the same sense Grand Theft Auto is, but after the first two missions you’re free to explore New Mombassa at your own speed, choosing to play through the remaining missions at will or simply discover the city.
Missions start when The Rookie finds one of the vaguely hidden clues to his scattered teams whereabouts, which are dotted about the eerily desolate streets of the city. These sections punctuate the traditional levels and they’re an entirely new inclusion to the Halo formula. They’re lonely and often uneventful, pockets of Covenant can be found but for the most part, New Mombassa is a dark, jarringly silent landscape. It’s reasonably large in scale as well.
The visor is another new feature, illuminating the shadowy city streets in a green-outline, and weapons or clues in blue or yellow respectively. If Bungie had incorporated it into the entire game it would become grating quickly, but its presence in the inter-level sections is appreciated.
Clues trigger missions and each is played out from the perspective of one of the Rookies teammates. It’s one of the games strongest points; the variety in character and voice work is fantastic (you’d expect nothing less). More importantly however, it allows Bungie the opportunity to create some of the most memorable levels in a Halo game, and some stunning set pieces, without subscribing to a strictly linear narrative and the pitfalls that typically heralds.
Dutch’s Warthog ride through the outskirts of a nature reserve and Mickey’s bridge-detonating sequences are two highlights, but there’s not a single dull moment during the six hour campaign (that’s heroic difficulty, nine or ten on legendary) and Bungie are quick to acknowledge that after the lonely sessions in New Mombassa, these missions are best played out with company so you’ll rarely be forced to play alone, with other ODST’s or marines frequently joining you. Levels are of a shorter nature too, refined and precise – never elongated.
ODST is a cut above previous Halo campaigns, but resident composer Marty O’Donnell has outdone even his previous high standards in the sound department. With the notorious Halo battle theme fighting alongside with the Chief, the composer is free to start anew and the drifting score that accompanies The Rookie during the isolated New Mombassa sections is particularly stunning. And that goes for the sound design throughout, the series has always had great sound work, but ODST raises the bar to near unreachable heights.
The Havok engine has received a few tweaks as well, though it’s safe to assume if you didn’t enjoy Halo 3’s aesthetics, you’ll feel equally the same about ODST. But the series’ has always excelled at art design, rather than photorealism, and this is again, the franchise at its best.
Without a brand new multiplayer function to sit alongside the campaign, Bungie have come under fire from the value-for-money brigade. But the new Firefight mode is of far more worth than a throwaway extension to the already stellar multiplayer component. A co-operative game mode played either locally with two players, or online with four (or alone), it’s similar to Gears of War’s Horde mode with increasingly challenging waves of Covenant forces arriving by dropship. It’s incredibly fun, best played with another three players and provides hours of replay value.
Contrary to the campaign and Firefight, the three new multiplayer maps are discouraging. Despite a clear departure from the familiar for Longshore, a remake of Midship (which for all intents and purposes has already been done with Assembly) and the uninspiring Citadel round out the weakest of the four map packs. Being the final offering that is unarguably disappointing, but the disc comes complete with all the previous maps (including Cold Storage) from the Halo 3 multiplayer, so there’s plenty of variety included.
The argument over value only holds true if you prize quantity over quality, and any self-respecting gamer won’t. This is the best Halo since Combat Evolved. With all the series renowned humour, fantastic enemy AI, and exemplary sound design intact, a 9 was inevitable, but I’ll be stunned if a better single player FPS finds its way onto console this year.