It's not every day that a new "Halo" game comes out. The phenomenal popularity of Microsoft's banner franchise is only matched by the unending hype leading up to each release. But "Halo 3: ODST" is definitely a step in a different direction for the series. Are the changes enough to turn "Halo" fans into "Gears" heads? I went ahead and played through the game to find out.
"Halo 3: ODST" places you in the shoes of an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, the "Halo"-universe equivalent of a Green Beret. They're basically bad ass soldiers that fall from space in tin cans and land behind enemy lines to cause some mischief. You're an unnamed Rookie in a squad of established ODSTs, and within moments of a mission kicking off, things go horribly wrong and you're separated from your squad. It's up to you to reunite the group and discover a greater objective than the one you set out to complete.
Bite-sized 'Halo' Excellence
While the game starts with you playing The Rookie, you'll actually end up playing as the different members of the ODST squad. Finding objects in the overworld city of New Mombasa will flash back to the events that put them there, changing your role accordingly. In one mission, for example, you'll play the driver of a warthog, trying to blast your way through a wildlife preserve. In another you're an engineer trying to blow a crucial bridge to prevent the Covenant from crossing. Each of these missions are about 30-40 minutes in length and offer widely different gameplay aspects. They're well-crafted and consistently fresh.
You Are Weak
Master Chief outguns an ODST on every day of the week. He's got a replenishing shield, he can dual wield and he's about 8 feet tall. ODSTs, on the other hands, are flimsier beings, and you'll have to use a bit more craftiness to survive. For example, running into an open field equals death. Because of this, the developers could be a little more creative with enemy placement. In "Halo 3" you were frequently surrounded by dozens of enemies at once. Here it's more managable, but you're still required to be tactical since you're more fragile. It's a nice change of pace, making the play more about thinking and less about blasting.
The main campaign, which took me about 6 hours to complete on Heroic Solo, is an entertaining romp, but the addition of Firefight mode really completes the package. Here you're placed in arenas with enemies consistently dropping in. You can build your score with kills, and headshots, melee attacks and triple kills result in bonus points. The mode is designed to be played in co-op, and requires a fair amount of teamwork if you have any chance of getting through the first wave. As the mode progresses the difficulty will ramp up even farther, with Skull gameplay modifiers being added. It's a fresh, non-adversarial take on "Halo 3" multiplayer and is a great option if you've only got 2 or 3 friends online.
The City of New Mombasa
It saddens me that the most amitious new feature in "ODST," the open-world city, doesn't really add much to the overall gameplay experience, and at times it even detracts from it. It feels more like a time sink as you journey through often-empty streets to find clues to get to much more interesting missions. The only really compelling aspect of the city are hidden audio logs which flesh out the "Halo" story, but considering the focus on the city, there really should've been more variety thrown in. As is, the individual squad member missions are like the primetime show, while wandering around the city feels like city through the commercials. It very easily could've been cut and replaced with cutscenes and I don't think the game would've suffered much for the loss.
Cut And Paste Level Design
I got the distinct impression that Bungie ran out of time or creativity towards the end of making "ODST." There's a very obvious drop-off in level design, starting with an underground mission that will be familiar to anyone that suffered through the dreaded Library mission in the original "Halo," complete with carbon-copy hallways that you'll traverse a handful of times before, wait for it, you have to go back through them again to escape. The last level, too, is sadly lacking, featuring a long stretch of highway, broken up by gates, each one the same as the last. There are about 5 of these gates you have to go through, and you'll begin to think you're in a poorly animated cartoon by the end of it.
The Question of Value
"Halo 3: ODST" is undeniably shorter than "Halo 3." If you played through the game with a partner, even on Heroic, you'd probably get through it in about 4 or 5 hours. Granted, the Firefight mode is fun, but I don't think it justifies the $60 price point. Now Microsoft will argue that you also get a disc with all the multiplayer content from "Halo 3," including the DLC maps, as well as 3 new ones, but if you're buying "ODST," you probably already own most of that content. So really you're almost paying for that content twice to increase the value of the game. I don't think it matters what I say, droves are still gonna rush out, and at $60 it's far from a rip-off, but it simply doesn't compare to the value of "Halo 3."
Despite the faults, "Halo 3: ODST" is more "Halo 3" with a fun new multiplayer mode, and it's pretty hard to complain about that. The majority of the missions are extremely well-crafted, and the storyline reveals some new and interesting angles to the universe. There are also some hints about "Halo: Reach" thrown in there if you're paying attention (on top of the "Reach," beta access, which the game will grant when it launches). For "Halo" fans, it's a no brainer. For everyone else, pick up "Halo 3" on the cheap first. If you're dying for more, "ODST" is a solid next step.