Halo 3: ODST is set in the year 2552, a time when the human race - in the form of the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) - is locked in a war with a theocratic alliance of alien races known as the Covenant. During the events of the 2004 Xbox game Halo 2, the Covenant discovers the location of Earth and launches an assault on the city of New Mombasa in Africa for reasons unknown. Though the UNSC manages to repel most of the fleet, a single Covenant ship hovers above the city and eventually retreats via a slipspace jump, creating a shockwave that destroys much of the city. You, playing as Master Chief, follow the carrier to a second Halo, and ODST focuses on the aftermath of the shockwave and what happened in the ravaged city which is still occupied by unknown numbers of Covenant patrols.
So with the scene-setting done and Master Chief off enjoying himself on Halo 2, you play most of ODST as a rookie, an anonymous member of the UNMC’s special forces unit known as the ODSTs (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, aka Helljumpers). ODSTs are usually deployed from low orbit via tiny, Single-Occupant, Exoatmospheric Insertion Vehicles (SOEIVs) that plunge from a carrier ship through the atmosphere and fire retro rockets near the ground to minimise the impact of the landing. Due to the shockwave caused by the Covenant ship’s slipspace jump the Rookie (yep, that’s you) is separated from his squad mates and searches the city to try and join back up with them. You find discarded items and equipment as you progress and you then take on the role of one of Rookie’s squad mates and play a mission which explains how the item (it could be a rifle, a helmet or some other piece of equipment) came to be where the Rookie found it. Isolated from his squad, the rookie would be screwed without his HUD (head up display) that makes the dingy city streets navigable and highlights both enemies and anything of any use.
The in-game map is also indispensable and you’ll be glad that you can place a checkpoint on it to navigate your way around the complex matrix of streets in New Mombasa. The combat is typically Halo-esque, with the Covenant Brutes, Grunts, Jackals, Drones and Hunters providing a personality-packed enemy. You’ll never get tired of shooting Grunts just to hear what they have to say about you, The bossy Brutes are still a frighteningly ferocious (and grumpy) enemy and the Jackals and Hunters seen to have gone to combat school. The ODSTs don’t have Master Chief’s Mjolnir armour with its rechargeable shields, so whilst taking damage drains your stamina, if you avoid fire for a while (ducking behind cover or RUNNING AWAY is a good way of doing this) it will recover. If you continuously take damage or take a hit from a heavy weapon your base health level will be depleted, and the only way to replenish that is by finding a medkit or one of the many Optican health kiosks that are placed throughout the city. As ever with a Halo game, enemy bodies don’t all magically disappear as they do in most games, and the designers kept the available ammo quite limited meaning you’ll often be hunting for a new weapons as well as a medkit. I think Bungie wanted to be sure you tried all the weapons as UNMC weapon stores can be discovered and unlocked but they’re few and far between.
ODST is quite an adventure with an interesting twist toward the end, but the combat gets a bit samey, and traversing from one side of the city to the other can be a ‘journey’ rather than the adrenaline-charged thrill ride I’d expected it to be – especially when you play on “Heroic” or “Legendary” difficulty, when it can become a real slog. ODST saves itself with some grand open levels, regular checkpoints and the feeling that Bungie really want you to see the end of the game – whilst enjoying yourself along the way. The story has several amusing moments and keeps things interesting until the end; the discovery of various audio files dotted around the city uncovers what is at first an annoying distraction but becomes a strangely compelling back story…
The only real problem with Halo 3 ODST is that it doesn’t really feel umm… different enough. Yes, when playing with 3 buddies in co-op you get that “space marine band-of-brothers against the nasty aliens” feeling, but the solo campaign feels a lot like playing the original Halo on ‘Legendary’ difficulty setting, there’s a lot of ducking, chucking grenades and running for cover, because it’s basically just Halo 3 with a more vulnerable character - apart from the HUD there are no new features or gimmicks to speak of. Maybe a cover mode would have suited the game – Gears of War has the mechanic down in third person format, and even the recent Quantum of Solace Bond game proved that they can work in a FPS. Also some of the animations look a little tired. The melee attacks should have been more physical and violent-looking (the animations are just Halo 3’s reused) and again, maybe Bungie could have looked at Gears 2’s inventive ways of beating an enemy to death for inspiration; if a 7ft cyborg pistol-whips or elbow-smashes an alien to death you kind-of believe it’s possible, but when an ordinary ODST does it, it just looks like Bungie re-used the same old animations. The same can be said for righting overturned vehicles; I mean, when Master Chief does it its one thing, but should an ordinary ODST trooper be able to flip a Warthog LRV back onto its wheels like he was flipping a coin?
ODST also comes bundled with Halo 3’s 2-16 multiplayer mode contained on a separate disc. The 24 maps consist of the original eleven Halo 3 maps (Construct, Epitaph, Guardian, High Ground, Isolation, Last Resort, Narrows, Sandtrap, Snowbound, The Pit, Valhalla) and include the Heroic and Legendary map packs (Foundry, Rat's Nest, Standoff, Avalanche, Blackout and Ghost Town) as well as the Cold Storage map, the Mythic map pack (Assembly, Orbital, and Sandbox) and three new maps (Citadel, Heretic and Longshore). ODST’s multiplayer does not require the original Halo 3 to play.
Having played Halo 3 literally to death, for me ODST’s main multiplayer appeal is the new solo or co-operative multiplayer mode called Firefight. Firefight is a lot like Gears of War 2's Horde mode, where a team of up to four players take on increasingly difficult waves of randomly generated aliens and see how long they can survive. Firefight includes new medals and achievements as well as the ability to play co-operatively with up to three other players over Xbox LIVE or System Link. Initially the team shares a pool of 7 lives, to which more can be added after a successful round, and the game ends on the pool’s depletion and all player's deaths. Skulls have been incorporated into Firefight as a crafty way of increasing the difficulty and providing more variation. For newcomers these “Skulls” are modifiers that make the enemy additionally aggressive or elusive, or even add amusing quirks to the enemy AI. Some of the maps used in Firefight are unlocked as the player progresses through the single-player campaign (there are a total of ten, three of which are unlockable). Individual and team scores are tracked throughout the games and as with Halo 3 there are an amazing amount of stats available to every ODST player at Bungie.net where each and every registered Halo 3: ODST player can have their own file share in which to store screenshots and even movies from their games.
Back to the campaign, and I always think it helps to be able to relate to what you’re fighting for and I had a few problems caring what happened to New Mombasa - you don't really find out what the significance is until the end of the game. Maybe I’d have been more concerned about it if there were civilians wandering about, but wisely they’ve all buggered off and the streets are deserted, apart from Covenant patrols and the occasional Marine straggler. The kind of atmosphere and additional design and AI for civilians that I’d have liked requires massive amounts of development time, and ODST didn’t have it.
But the bottom line is this; even allowing for the previous existence of Bungie’s impressive game engine it’s hard to believe that this game was put together in little over a year, it was originally planned as a DLC mini-campaign lasting 2-3 hours, and although it feels a bit short, it's turned out to be considerably more substantial than that. I'm always sad when a Halo game comes to an end and I guess that's testament to the fact that I've enjoyed them and wanted more - whereas I'm definitely glad to see the back of some games. The extensive multiplayer options provide great value – as long as you’re into the multiplayer side of Halo and haven’t already bought all the maps of course. I should also mention how amazing and unparalleled the theater mode is – it allows you to replay and edit any mission, Firefight or Halo 3 multiplayer match and save it to your file share as a movie record, viewed from any player’s position or even from a free-moving fly cam - regardless of the length of the game. It’s truly remarkable. But as polished as ODST undoubtedly is, personally I’d have preferred a more original and uniquely human experience to set it aside from the cybernetically enhanced Master Chief’s adventures, and I’m not sure ODST provides that.