In the midst of the great 2010 release exodus, Halo 3: ODST is facing some stiff opposition on all sides. It's firing the first shot in the looming battle of the Fall FPS, and with the series' venerable protagonist absent from the proceedings, the odds are stacked against it. Master Chief may have finished the fight, but the brave men and women of ODST are hoping to win the war. Can these ragtag rookies even hope to fill the gargantuan combat boots left behind by their larger-than-life predecessor?
The tale of ODST unfolds during the events of Halo 2, with the Earth already knee deep in the Covenant's slipspace incursion. As a rookie of the esteemed Orbital Drop Ship Trooper unit, you are sent into Earth's atmosphere to infiltrate the lone Assault Carrier hovering over the planet's surface. All seems to go according to plan, until a mysterious change of orders sends you and your troops veering drastically off course. Stranded in the Brute-infested streets of New Mombasa, it's up to you to reunite with your comrades and discover, little by little, your true role in humanity's escalating conflict for survival.
With the super-sized Spartan out of the action, it seems hard to believe that a small group of grunts could keep up the pace. But ODST wisely diffuses the heroic exploits of one man into the plight of five, fallible personalities struggling to make the best out of an impossible situation. These hard-nosed Helljumpers clearly live and breathe as a team; and when together as a squad, their full colors show thanks to punchy writing and spirited quips from the game's star-studded cast. For the fans, ODST's unique perspective provides some curious revelations that expand the lore of the Halo universe. But even if you're not the biggest follower of the franchise, ODST's wartime tale has plenty of emotion and heart.
For its newly retooled single-player campaign, ODST takes on a different pace through the open world hub of New Mombasa. Solo or with a friend, you're free to roam around the streets in search of clues leading to the whereabouts of your scattered team.
Of the more important things you'll stumble across are the abandoned remains of your team strewn around the city, which trigger flashback missions pertaining to a particular individual. It's in these flashbacks that the game returns to the series' form with action-packed scenarios like sniper battles and Warthog joy rides. They're nothing new, but they feel fresh due to their emphasis on urban environments and squad-based set pieces. When you're not feeling like a lone soldier on the run, you feel like you're part of a greater struggle, and ODST's tightly directed campaign highlights both of those qualities during its six to eight hour length.
Running alongside the primary mission objectives are a number of hidden audio logs stored in data terminals around New Mombasa. When you string them together, you'll catch a glimpse of an animated graphic novel called "Sadie's Tale," which recounts the events of the Covenant invasion from the vantage point of a young girl. There's good incentive for ferreting out these cryptic transmissions; you get caches of ammo and equipment for every log you successfully uncover. But more than just the carrot at the end of the stick, the slowly unraveling details of Sadie's journey add a unique civilian perspective to the war that serves as a great companion piece to the Rookie's lonesome treks across the city.
On the multiplayer front, ODST offers up a single new mode: the co-op-focused firefight. Though it may be easy to dismiss as a mere imitation of Gears of War 2's horde mode, firefight's crafty use of series staples keeps things feeling distinctly Halo. As every wave progresses, random skulls activate that promote differing strategies for scoring and survival alike. Parsing out tactical approaches to respond to the incoming Covenant onslaught will keep you on your toes, and commandeering a vehicle at the right time can turn the tide on the even the toughest match. Firefight isn't the first mode of its kind, and it definitely won't be the last. But with its core focus on teamwork and strategy, it's perhaps the finest iteration of it to date. You'll definitely be hooked on trying to up your score with the best and brightest of your friends list. The only disappointment is the lack of Xbox Live Matchmaking.
As the cherry on top, ODST offers something that all players are sure to appreciate: the complete Halo 3 multiplayer experience on a second disc. Packed in with all the modes, DLC maps, and yes, even forge, it offers a great value for anyone late to the party. In all, ODST doesn't necessarily strive to be different in too many aspects, but in sticking with what works, its carefully formulated experience is high on quality and content alike.
Out on your own, you'll quickly discover that the Rookie's fleshy frame is nowhere near as invulnerable as a Spartan Mark VII. Your health doesn't regenerate, so bullets hurt a lot more. To this end, you're outfitted with a night-vision visor that compensates for the durability hit with an advantage in tactical reconnaissance. Friendly, neutral, and hostile targets are traced with color-colored silhouettes, making combat avoidable if enemies are telegraphed far in advance. You can weave around Covenant packs with detours through the city's labyrinthine alleys, and if you're ever in a pinch, the VISR imparts some useful on-screen info like waypoints leading to the next objective.
Needless to say, caution definitely plays a more imperative role in battle this time around. With the lack of dual wielding, you'll find yourself conserving ammo far more often, and without the utility of deployables, ducking for cover is far more crucial than ever before. Covenant AI retains the same brutal tenacity as before, so the Rambo tactics that worked with the Chief will meet with unfortunate results in ODST.
All of these tweaks add up to a prevailing sense of vulnerability that certainly ramps up the difficulty, but the resulting challenge never feels like an unjustifiable handicap. Instead, ODST is successful at establishing a steady beat of tension that motivates you to play with a little more discretion. Every shot you fire and slug you take carries a little bit more weight, and though you may never quite realize the same herculean moon jumps as before, you ultimately, and appropriately, feel human--a quality that plays to the intent of the entire experience.
New Mombasa's sullen streets convey a dark beauty that runs counter to the luminous panoramas of Halo 3. Whether accented by its moody nighttime cityscapes or its plaintive piano riffs, there's a palpable feeling of loneliness in the Rookie's desperate search for his companions. The tone definitely hits the heart of ODST's central themes, and leaves an indelible impression as you slowly get wrapped up in its war-torn world. On the other side of the spectrum, ODST paints around the series' signature sounds with tense war anthems accentuating the ebb and flow of each battle. For working with largely the same engine as Halo 3, ODST has a look and sound all its own.
On the voice-acting side, ODST's cast is brought to life by the performances of sci-fi superstars like Nathan Fillion and Tricia Helfer. Their stories may be brief, but the chemistry behind each delivered line makes them all memorable.
Halo 3: ODST may not re-invent the franchise, but it's a stylishly delivered splinter of the Haloverse that's worth experiencing. It has everything a fan could hope for, and even more for the devoted multiplayer enthusiast. If you're a serious Halo player, you won't want to miss this excellent package.
Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360.