So it’s two and a half weeks now since I dropped into New Mombassa, and I’ve emerged into the dawn of the new day, campaign complete. I’ve also spent some time repelling endless waves of Covenant, and so I thought I’d share my thoughts on the ODST experience. Read on, but beware – spoilers may lie ahead…
A new challenge
The words that sum up ODST for me are “enjoyable”, “entertaining”, and “satisfying”. I enjoyed finishing the campaign on Heroic, wandering around the darkened streets of New Mombassa hunting for the audio clips of Sadie’s story, and fighting off hordes of Covenant in several rounds of Firefight. It’s a very good iteration of the Halo series, returning somewhat to its roots with no dual wielding, a powerful pistol, and health packs – and yet it stands its own ground, adding innovations like VISR mode, open world exploration, non-linear story-telling, and succeeding in adding a more human perspective to the Halo story.
That said, it’s not perfect by any means. For example, the campaign on Heroic could have been more challenging – though I have yet to see what Legendary is like. My initial caution after popping the hatch of the drop pod as the Rookie faded soon enough – though Hunters still make me pause. Brute Chieftains seem less of a threat than in Halo 3, but perhaps that’s an adjustment made for game balance reasons – the chieftains that I came up against as Master Chief would splatter an ODST without a moment’s thought, and a sniper rifle barrel wouldn’t have done anything to protect from one of their hammer blows.
I didn’t come across any encounters like the one against the Brute pack in the Crow’s Nest level in Halo 3, or the hangar room in Truth and Reconciliation in the original Halo with the gold Elites – encounters that are just hard enough, where you die many times trying to get past them, but not too hard that you get frustrated and give up. I think as an ODST I almost feel more of an unstoppable force than as Master Chief.
Now, maybe that’s because I’ve had to adapt my playing style, using cover more, watching my health and actively withdrawing from combat to find health packs – whose location I tend to make note of when entering a new area. As Master Chief I would tend to rush into combat more, and die more often as a result. So, from that point of view, Bungie have clearly done a good job in shaping my playing style to suit the changed combat experience, so that I enjoy the game more. However to me Heroic in ODST feels easier than Heroic in Halo 3. I may revise my opinion once I give Legendary a try though.
The length of the campaign has drawn some criticism, and it is certainly shorter than the previous Halo games. I didn’t find that a problem though to be honest, since there’s a good bit of replayability with completing the campaign on all difficulties, searching the city for the audio clips of Sadie’s story, and the Vidmaster achievements on the road to Recon. Plus there’s Firefight, but more on that later…
The campaign story
The campaign story is told well through the flashback sequences, and there is some attempt to make each of the characters in the squad stand out. This works best for Buck who has the face of, and is voiced by, Nathan Fillion – he seems to carry most of the storyline. But attempts to differentiate Romeo and Mickey as the sniper and heavy weapons specialists really just end up as flashback missions with different weapons having the focus – I didn’t feel much of a connection to those characters.
When we turn to Dare and her relationship with Buck, there is something missing – perhaps just a lack of chemistry between them. Their conversations give you some idea of Buck’s motivation for why he goes back into the city for her, but it doesn’t resonate for me – especially compared to Master Chief going back for Cortana. The part in Halo 3 when you finally reach Cortana in the depths of High Charity and keep your promise to her was for me the emotional high point of Halo 3.
Part of the problem is that Buck is allowed to show his emotions and let them drive his actions, while Dare follows her orders, keeps ONI’s secrets even from the person closest to her, and keeps her emotions in check because her mission has to take priority over her feelings for Buck. Because of this she comes across less sympathetic than Buck, who is much more likeable, and I found it hard to empathise with her. The kiss between them at the end is too abrupt of a change in behaviour from Dare, we have no real build up to it – though it clearly shows that she does have feelings for Buck and once the mission is complete she can let herself relax and express her true feelings for him.
But I think my problem is actually with Dare’s character model itself. I am a massive Battlestar Galactica fan, so Tricia Helfer’s face is one I’m very familiar with, along with her voice. The character model for Dare is good, but not to my eye a close enough representation of Tricia Helfer’s face – my mind won’t accept that combination of voice and face as Tricia Helfer, so whenever Dare is on screen she just looks wrong somehow. On top of that I think Nathan Fillion has better lines for Buck, but does deliver them better too. I don’t have the same problem with Buck’s character model since I’ve only seen Nathan Fillion in Serenity, and that was a while ago, but maybe avid Firefly fans have the same problem with him as I do with Dare. These are minor quibbles to be honest, but for me it breaks the suspension of disbelief necessary to be fully engaged with the story.
Where the story telling works really well however is Sadie’s story and the Superintendent. As you roam around New Mombassa as the Rookie, the Superintendent offers you unobtrusive assistance which you can happily ignore. He gives you hints about alternative routes you can take to avoid some direct encounters, but also guides you to the sound clips that make up Sadie’s story. Having completed the campaign, but not yet retrieved all the clips, I wonder what else will be revealed, but what I’ve heard so far makes me reconsider my initial impressions of the help the Superintendent gives you.
I wonder to what extent it’s actually the Engineers helping you, through the Superintendent, since he has been rebuilt by them. After all, the ultimate objective of the mission turns out to be to save the one Engineer that has all the information from the Superintendent, the same Engineer we learn through the audio clips for whom six other Engineers gave their lives to free their colleague from the explosive harness forced on each of them by the Brutes. By guiding the Rookie to the audio clips they help you understand that they are enslaved and are not the enemy, preparing you to trust Dare and to help rescue that Engineer, and not just because it’s an information asset.
The other thing that makes me think the Engineers are trying to help you is the glyphs scattered around the city that only become visible in VISR mode. These glyphs are found around the locations where you do the flashback scenarios, and the Superintendent caches, but also in the very dark sector of the city – and these lead you to the bodies of dead Elites. These glyphs are created by the Engineers, so it’s like they are commemorating the fallen dead of other members of the Covenant – perhaps those who treated them better than the Brutes are doing now? With the change in the power relationships in the Covenant, the rise of the Brutes and the fall from favour of the Elites, the Engineers may feel threatened, and are seeking what help they can.
In any case, Sadie’s story helps make the Halo story more real and immediate. It’s not a grand space opera spanning the galaxy, it’s about a young woman battling through a city in chaos as the Covenant invade, struggling to get to her father, and finding the enemies are sometimes human too. Her bravery, and those of the ODSTs, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, are perhaps the key emotional message from the story. It is about the concern for individuals, what we will do to help those closest to us, whether that is our family, our squad mates, or our lover who has rejected us. How the true heroes are the ones who do what is the right thing to do, regardless of how difficult that may seem.
Of course Halo 3: ODST is more than just the single-player campaign. I haven’t played any co-op campaign, but I have had several Firefight sessions, each of which have been great fun. While lack of matchmaking in this mode will reduce the opportunities to play it, having a bunch of friends together probably helps the teamwork, and you do need to communicate and work together to make progress. I prefer the Lost Platoon map so far, mainly because of the ability to use Choppers – infinite ammo and rolling death are great allies when you’re trying to fight off the endless waves of Covenant. The skulls help mix it up, forcing you to get up close and personal to get your health back when the Black Eye skull is on for example. And then there’s the bonus round – I never laughed so much than when I first experienced the Grunts raining down from the Phantom dropships, fodder for my willing cannon!
I haven’t played any of the new Halo 3 multiplayer maps yet, but I’m looking forward to checking them out. Having all the maps and a standalone copy of the Halo 3 multiplayer engine is handy. I’ll check them out soon, looking for skulls to complete my collection and make some more progress on the road to Recon.
From a technical perspective Bungie have delivered to their usual high quality in my opinion. The new VISR mode is more than just a gimmick, and works well. They have also created a city that has distinct landmarks and districts, and which is very atmospheric at night. The flashback missions give you different perspectives on the same places, and help you link the events to the places when you are exploring as the Rookie. As usual the music is excellent, really setting the mood well, and I’ve already added the soundtrack to my CD collection.
One technical gripe I have is with the Checkpoint and Saving system. As you reach checkpoints in the game your progress is saved, and if you die you come back to the last checkpoint. However, these checkpoints do not persist between gaming sessions unless you select the Save and Quit option from the pause menu. So that’s OK up to a point, but if you quit out to the dashboard without saving, or if you complete the campaign, then your checkpoints are not actually saved. This may be the same in Halo 3, but I never remember it being an issue. I wonder how hard it would be to have an option to automatically do a persistent save of your checkpoints if you want that – the data could be streamed in the background in the same way as game assets can be streamed from the disk or hard drive so it doesn’t interrupt your session perhaps. An enhancement for Halo: Reach maybe?
In terms of the sandbox as it is called – the weapons, vehicles, and how you interact with them and the world – it’s mostly the same as Halo 3, with the exception that there’s no dual wielding, and the health system is back again. I didn’t miss dual wielding at all – the action was more about the “pure” Halo experience of a gun, grenades, and melee. The new silenced pistol is implemented well, being reasonably well balanced. It is maybe slightly too powerful in terms of stopping power at range and clip size, compared with the carbine for example, but it’s certainly not the pistol from Halo: Combat Evolved. It’s perfect for taking out Grunts with headshots, and for finishing off larger foes.
The silenced and scoped SMG is good too – great for taking down the armour of a Brute and for dealing with swarms of Drones, but not really designed for longer range sniping. The assault rifle seemed to be boosted in power a little, being surprisingly effective, fitting nicely between the pistol and the SMG. The other weapons feel pretty much the same as in Halo 3, though due to lack of ammo you do find yourself working with whatever comes to hand and managing your resources more – I started using melee attacks more to conserve ammo.
Overall, Halo 3: ODST is a success. It’s fun to play, fairly challenging, atmospheric with an interesting storyline, and nicely complements the other Halo games. It feels like Bungie have tried to make it a bit more accessible compared to the more hardcore previous games, and they’ve used the non-linear storytelling approach to good effect. It has its flaws all right, but then which games – or any artistic endeavour for that matter – have none? As a first attempt at leveraging the investment Bungie have made in their game engine I think it works well, and this approach to making further games such as Halo: Reach will be interesting to follow. I do wonder though what else they have up their sleves, and I’m keen to see what their talented team can deliver from outside the Halo universe.