Medium Game Review: Halo 3 ODST

I finished the story mode in Halo 3 ODST last night so I now feel pretty safe telling you that this is a good game, and though markedly different from the other Halo games, possibly the most interesting. 

Rather than placing you in the boots of Master Chief, Halo ODST has you take on the role of Rookie, a rather generically named soldier who is an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, basically a space paratrooper. The game starts with you dropping to Earth to fight the Covenant invasion, crash landing,  getting a concussion, and waking up 8 hours after all your squad mates have theoretically started their mission. Right off the bat you know this is going to play out somewhat differently than the others Halo games in that at the start of Halo 3 Master Chief basically shrugs off reentering the Earth’s atmosphere sans special equipment.

As the Rookie you find yourself alone, abandoned, and up against the standard cadre of Halo aliens you’ve seen before, except that suddenly they seem much more threatening. Through your search for clues as to the whereabouts of your squadron, much of the gameplay takes place via flashbacks that basically show the events of the day while you were busy being passed out. There is a nice thematic divide between these section with the flashback gameplay through the eyes of the veteran soldiers set during the day and filled with lots of explosions and vehicle combat, compared to the Rookie’s experience wandering the relatively desolate streets at night by himself. The use of music in the night time scenes is particularly well done; the music in Halo games have always been a nice touch but I feel like the designers have usually let it serve more functional than thematic purposes (because there is still dramatic music playing, that means there must be one enemy still hiding behind a rock we have to kill.)

My friend Twon referenced some mixed reviews when asking if he should buy Halo ODST, and I’m guessing that those might be due to how the gameplay shakes out a little differently than other Halo titles. You’re much less durable than Master chief, you can’t dual wield guns, and you never get to use an energy sword. Instead of shields that recharge there is a peculiar stamina system and you actually have health, so its back to old school FPS hunt for the health packs. Some people might not like the night vision/targeting display visual mode, but once you get the hang of it I found it helpful. Feeling much more vulnerable than in previous Halo games does take some getting used to, and might be something other people don’t want to get used to. I’ll admit that a couple hours into the campaign you encounter a pair of hunters, and I simply avoided them. That’s right, instead of laying waste to entire races of alien creatures Master Chief style, I ran away!  So ODST plays somewhat differently than previous Halo games, but it is still very, very Halo: you’ll fight grunts and brutes, you’ll drive warthogs, and you’ll have a the standard arsenal of assault rifles and rocket launchers at your disposal. 

I think the story is perhaps Halo ODST’s strongest feature, which was somewhat a surprise to me as I bought it mainly for a new multiplayer experience. The search for your comrades is interesting and seeing the flashbacks of what happened to them was interesting in a way most FPS stories simply don’t deliver on. The other characters are all variations on the generic soldier archetype but I still found them more compelling than the Arbiter/Cortana/Gravemind/who exactly am I supposed to care about in the other Halo games? Voice acting by the several Firefly actors was kind of neat, though I find it somewhat distracting when game designers also model a character’s visuals off the exact appearance of the voice actors. ODST even manages to deliver a kind of interesting mystery that is actually resolved before the games ends (!)  

My one gripe with ODST is that the main character, Rookie, plays the stupid video game role of silent protagonist. Later in the game where characters attempt to engage in one-sided conversation with you it feels particularly awkward, but it just seems an odd choice given that you play half the game as the veteran soldiers who each has their own personality and offers commentary throughout their exploits. I’m sure there was some rationale for this, perhaps that it lets you put yourself into the role of the rookie and decide if you are are terrified to be abandoned or courageous in the face of adversity etc., but I’m sick of cut scenes where someone says “oh you’re the strong silent type”, “you don’t say much” and so on, it just feels clumsy. Designers: if you’re going to take this route please don’t smile and wink at it with weird one way conversations; I simply don’t believe that other characters are going to open up to me and tell what is going on with them when my character won’t said hello. 

Even though I keep screwing up the acronym and calling it Halo ODSTK or Halo SDK, this is a fun interesting game. The choice to tell a story on a different scale (spoiler: you don’t save the galaxy) was used well to tell an entertaining story set in the Halo universe and I’d recommend this to anyone thinking of checking it out. Special bonus to be aware of if you don’t own any other Halo games: ODST includes a disk that gives you access to all the existing Halo multiplayer stuff, so now you can do that as well!