Review: Halo 3: ODST

The Halo series is one of gaming’s biggest franchises to date. From videogames, books, comics, toys, to clothes — Halo was even almost turned into (and could very well still be) a Hollywood film. Halo 3: ODST is the latest Bungie-developed entry into the Haloverse, in what is being hailed as a new direction.

There’s no Master Chief and no SPARTAN IIs of any kind here. Instead, you’re playing as the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (ODSTs). They’re not just a regular group of humans, however. Before the SPARTANs were brought into the UNSC military, the ODSTs were the top dogs. They’re some of the military’s toughest group of soldiers, and they have to be, seeing as how they’re willing to make high-altitude drops encased in small metal pods time and time again.

Still, the ODST are not SPARTANs. They don’t have energy shields, MJOLNIR armor, or bioengineered enhancements to their bodies. So playing as the ODST feels different compared to past Halo games.

How different? Hit the break and you’ll find out all there is to know about the single-player campaign and the new Firefight multiplayer mode in Halo 3: ODST.

Halo 3: ODST (Xbox 360)
Developer: Bungie
Publisher: Microsoft
Releasing: September 22, 2009

MSRP: $59.99

Halo 3: ODST takes place during the events of Halo 2 and follows five ODST soldiers and a special ONI agent who have taken command of some Helljumpers for a secret mission. As these six are making a drop, along with a squadron of other Helljumpers, towards the Prophet of Regret’s battleship, the battleship initiates a slipspace jump right above the city of New Mombasa. The jump causes the ODST’s drop pods to go out of control and crash land in different parts of the city.

Six hours after the slipspace jump, the ODST known only as “The Rookie” finally regains consciousness and finds himself alone in the dark streets of New Mombasa. The Rookie’s pod crashed into the side of a building several stories above the ground, so he has a nice little view of the city and some of the Covenant dropships patrolling the area.

After popping the hatch, the Rookie jumps out of the pod and landing on the ground is your first reminder that you are no Master Chief. You lose some health upon landing and need to seek out first aid. Players can take some hits and their health bar will remain safe. The screen will turn red, indicating that you need to back off, find some cover and wait until the screen returns to normal. If you’ve taken too many hits, though, your health will start to drop off and a really annoying heart monitor alarm will beep until you’ve picked up some aid.

On Heroic settings, the game doesn’t feel that different from what you’re used to in a Halo game. Go in, shoot, take some cover, rinse and repeat. On Legendary, though, the game will frequently remind you that your old tactics just won’t cut it anymore. You have to think in advance about what you’re going to do. You’ll be jumping in and out of cover a lot, and more often than not, you’re going to have to avoid battles altogether.

After a couple of minutes walking the dark streets of New Mombasa, you’ll find a pay phone (why are there pay phones in the year 2552?) that will get you synced up with the city’s AI, the Superintendent. There are two kinds of AI in the Haloverse: dumb, and smart. Cortana from the other Halo games is smart AI and the Superintendent is dumb AI. The Superintendent’s job is to be the brain of New Mombasa. It controls all of the city’s important functions, picks up the city’s trash, helps citizens, etc. Now, with the Covenant invasion at hand, the Superintendent is using its resources to help the UNSC forces. After syncing up with the Superintendent, you’ll have a real-time map of New Mombasa.

By pressing Back, an overhead map of the entire city will come up. It will show the position of your allies, your objectives and enemies. The game isn’t paused when you’re looking at the map, so you will get shot at if an enemy sees you. There is no map or radar on your HUD, but there is a compass above your health bar that will show you which direction you should move towards for your objectives. The Superintendent will also help you out by changing billboard signs to show you which direction you should go in, and he’ll even give you a heads-up that you’re about to run into some enemies by saying things like “proceed with caution.” Pressing up or down on the D-pad will also temporarily bring up a NAV point marker on screen to help you find your way.

As an ODST, you can’t use Equipment items such as the Bubble Shield. In place of that, though, is a new feature called VISR (Visual Intelligence System Reconnaissance). The streets are nearly pitch black, so VISR will help you see things you couldn’t otherwise. VISR will also outline enemies in red and allies in green. The new system is basically a very fancy version of night-vision goggles, and using it in the daytime is a bit pointless, although I found myself using it every now and again during the day to try and find where enemies were hiding.

VISR and the map will help you figure out whether you should engage in a particular battle with the Rookie. There were a number of times on Legendary where I looked at what I would have to face and decided it would be better to go the long way around instead — when possible, anyway.

The combination of map and VISR will help you navigate New Mombasa as you search for beacons scattered across the city. The Rookie was passed out for six hours while the rest of his team was up and about taking on Covenant forces. When you find a beacon, such as a broken Gauss cannon emplacement, it will trigger a flashback and the player will take control of one of the other ODST squadmates. The first flashback is about Buck, the leader of these ODST soldiers. He’s hard, but also a smart-ass — kind of like actor Nathan Fillion, whom Buck is modeled after and voiced by. Playing as one of the other ODST soldiers is a sharp contrast compared to playing as the Rookie. The Rookie’s levels are designed to be dark and full of tension; they have a sense of loneliness and are more about exploration. Playing as Buck and the other ODST soldiers feels more like the other Halo games. The sky is bright, there’s a ton of action going on, you’re not alone and the levels are very linear. You’ll have other UNSC forces at your back and your other ODST buddies will aid you in the fight once you’ve gotten back together.

The flashback sections are also pretty fun to play through. From driving a Scorpion tank in the city and defending a downed Pelican dropship from enemy air attacks with Missile Pod emplacements, to a longer level where you’re piloting a Banshee — each level felt different from the last, keeping it from getting repetitive.

There were plenty of times where I stopped dead in my tracks just to look around in the environment as I played these sections, too. I found myself staring at the sky and distant background and thinking in disbelief multiple times that this is the same engine as Halo 3. You’re going to find yourself doing this at least once to take in the amazing job that the Bungie team did with the visuals.

Another thing that’s surprisingly enjoyable is the dialogue between the main ODST characters. They’re actually interesting, and I love the tough guy/smart-ass attitude they all portrayed. Plus, it’s basically a small Firefly cast reunion with Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk and Adam Baldwin doing the voice work for three of the ODSTs (be on the lookout for Firefly references!). Playing these levels never got old. Having said that, the Rookie’s levels got really boring, really fast.

After finding a couple of beacons, the entire city opens up and you’re free to explore and find the next few beacons in any order. The Rookie’s sections (up until the last couple of acts, anyway) just get stale after a bit. You’re running through the streets, either fighting or sneaking your way past enemies, until you find a beacon. At first, I liked what Bungie was aiming for with these sections. You’re supposed to feel some dread and loneliness as you explore the dark streets. Even the music, some of best that I’ve heard in a Halo game yet, drives home the point of what you’re supposed to be feeling — some of the tracks are hauntingly beautiful saxophone- and piano-themed pieces. But once I realized that this was going to be the pacing for the next few beacons I had to find, I just wanted to push my way through as fast as I could so I could get to the meaty parts of the story and game.

The one thing that’s probably worth taking your time in the Rookie’s section is the selection of audio files scattered across the city. There are a total of 30 (29 in the city and one located somewhere else in the game) that follow a girl named Sadie as she’s trying to do her part to help against the Covenant in her own way. The files are located on machines that you can download and listen to as you play. You can also see a video (in the style of one of those animated comics) play along with the audio file by pressing the Back button. Sadie’s story is basically a radio play, like the story from I Love Bees. And speaking of which, Sadie’s story was worked on by people who worked on the I Love Bees story. It’s completely optional to find, but it’s worth your time exploring all of the streets — it will add at least an extra hour’s worth of story to the overall plot, as well as benefit you in other ways in the game.

The two new guns, the M6S Magnum and the M7S Submachine Gun, are pretty nice additions too, especially the new pistol. It packs a big punch and I found myself hanging on to that most of the time. They both have a high rate of fire and you can zoom in with both guns as you take your shots. They have a pretty high kickback, though, so you have to correct the guns a lot. With the new guns, some old guns are completely gone from ODST and Firefight. Don’t expect to see the M6G Pistol, the Submachine Gun, the Blue Plasma Rifle, the Battle Rifle or the Energy Sword. You can’t dual-wield weapons, either. You can carry up to three of the four grenade types at a time, as opposed to just two each like in Halo 3, but you can’t throw grenades as far. Also, grenades dropped on the ground will explode when triggered by another explosion, something that hasn’t been done since the original Halo.

There have been some changes to a few of the alien classes as well. Hunter pairs are now unique to each other. One looks and acts like the Hunters from Halo 3, while the other Hunter has gold-plated armor and shoots out an energy blast like the Hunters from Halo: Combat Evolved. Drones are a lot more plentiful this time around, too, and you will learn to hate these guys the most in ODST — especially the new red-armored Drones with energy shields. Other than that, all of the Covenant enemies from Halo 3 are here.

Another new addition to the Halo games made by Bungie is the Engineers. They’re a class of super-smart aliens that are technologically superior to any of the other alien forces. They won’t ever attack you, however. They’re mainly a support class that will float around the area, giving anyone near them overcharged energy shields. Killing the Brute handler or hitting the Engineer with a fully charged Plasma Pistol blast will usually take it out instantly. Your first encounter with the Engineers is also kind of sad, as you’ll see a Brute plant explosive devices on one. Every time one dies, it will explode in a fury of fire.

Speaking of not attacking, the AI in Halo 3: ODST doesn’t look to have been improved. Your allies are still incompetent morons who stand around most of the time. There’s a point in the game where you have to drive a Warthog as your AI partner uses the turret, and it’s a damn good thing your ODST partners can’t get killed. The enemy AI feels the same as before, too. They’re good to the point that it feels like they’re cheating, but there were a lot of times where I would be in front of a Brute, inches away, and he would do nothing but just stand there. It was also irritating to engage Brute packs and other enemies, just to see them stand in the same position after I pop back out from hiding.

There is four-player co-op as well that I didn’t get a chance to see during my review time, but it will thankfully help out in scenarios like what I just described in the last paragraph. The co-op also doesn’t start off like in Halo 3. Instead, all four of the players are scattered across the city. You have to make your way towards the first beacon to regroup before you all can fight together. The host plays as one of the main ODST, while the other three are generic ODST soldiers.

On Heroic, the entire game took about six hours to beat, and a little over seven hours on Legendary. There are ten levels in all, one of which is the streets of New Mombasa that you visit multiple times throughout the course of the game. There’s no real point in playing the streets of New Mombasa again after you’ve beaten the game, other than to find all of the Audio files. The graphics, the story and the plot twist make this one of the more enjoyable Halo games since the first one, but the lame AI and the boring sections with the Rookie hurt the overall experience.

So that was a big wall of text, but this review isn’t over yet! We still need to take a look at Firefight!

Firefight is a four-player co-op multiplayer mode where you have to defend against wave after wave of Covenant forces. You can play Firefight by yourself, but that would be stupid, especially since the game won’t scale down for one player. Also, the most important thing that you should know about Firefight is that a match will only end when everyone has lost all of their lives. I played a match for a solid hour before finally losing. A few of the other guys from other outlets reviewing ODST managed to last two and a half hours before everyone finally died.

So yeah, wave after wave of Covenant. The first wave tends to be really easy, with just some Grunts and Jackals, but things quickly ramp up as stronger Covenant come to fight. The waves are always random, so you’re never sure whether you’ll be getting a dropship full of Grunts or a bunch of Jetpack Brutes with a couple of Wraiths lobbing giant balls of plasma at you from the distance. Plus, there are seven skulls that turn on at random, sometimes in pairs and sometimes all at once. The skulls give your enemies advantages, such as causing them to throw more grenades, take more hits, evade attacks better and so on. Plus, the AI actually gets really aggressive in Firefight and will charge at you with the sole purpose of eradicating you.

Everyone in Firefight shares a total of seven lives. However, it’s not always game over if all lives have been lost. There are three rounds consisting of five waves each. If there are no lives left and one person manages to survive a wave, all the players will be brought back to life. Completing a round will also earn you four extra lives. Plus, there’s a chance to win more lives in the Bonus Round that comes up after all three rounds have been completed. You have exactly a minute to defend against a horde of Grunts rushing you from every angle. It doesn’t sound tough, but don’t forget that all seven skulls get turned on during Bonus Round. If you earn enough points, you’ll win some extra lives, and you won’t be penalized if you die.

The point of Firefight is to get as high a score as possible. It’s really about getting the chance to have some bragging rights against your friends, and there are a ton of ways to get points. Each enemy has a different point value assigned to it, and how you kill it will also change how many points you’ll get. All the medals you can get in the regular multiplayer for Halo 3 are attainable here, including some new ones for Firefight. Combos such as killing a Hunter and earning an Unstoppable medal will see your points jump, too.

There are ten maps in total, and they’re all based on maps from the main game. Most are set outdoors, but I did see one set completely indoors, and there are a couple of ones set during the night, too. Every time a wave hits, it’s usually two Covenant dropships touching down to drop the enemy. Occasionally, the Covenant will flood through doors from various parts of the map, too.

It should be pretty obvious, but it does need to be said: teamwork is key! You need to be talking to your teammates constantly and watching each other’s backs at all times. The Covenant flood in from all over, and you really don’t want to be the only guy going up against two Brute Chieftans with hammers, do you? If no lives are left and someone dies, they can freely fly around the map and scout out what’s going on and relay the info to the rest of the team.

Overall, Firefight is a blast and one of the most refreshing experiences with a Halo game in a long time. Firefight is almost worth the purchase of Halo 3: ODST on its own. It encourages teamwork and it’s a feature that games need more of in this day and age.

All of the stuff described above is on the first disc that comes with Halo 3: ODST. On the second disc, you’ll be getting 24 maps, including all the original maps that came with Halo 3, the DLC maps from the Heroic and Legendary and Mythic map packs, Cold Storage and the three new maps only available on Halo 3: ODST, Citadel, Heretic and Longshore (see impressions on those three new maps here). You’ll also have 1,000 new Achievement points to hunt for, some of which are the last keys you need for the road to Recon. Good luck with that, though, as some of the Achievements are just nuts. Also of note is that Achievement statuses pop up on the HUD as you play through the single-player or Firefight. For example, stick a Brute and a message slides in from the right telling you that you have one of the five needed stickies to get the Achievement.

Six hours of new story, an optional side story, a new multiplayer mode, 24 maps and new Achievements all comprise Halo 3: ODST. Halo fans are going to like ODST no matter what and Firefight will ensure that Halo continues to dominate the top of the Xbox Live charts for a very long time. The overall package is great, but some of the nagging issues hurt the experience for me.

See you all on Live next week for some Firefight action!

Score: 8.0 — Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won’t astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)

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Hamza Aziz
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