Sunday, September 18, 2011

Xbox 360 review: Halo 3: ODST

As the game opens, Dutch, Romeo, and Mickey are keeping a close eye on the battle ensuing both in orbit above and on the surface of planet Earth. Buck, their commanding officer, and Dare, an ONI operative, inform the squad members to get prepped for combat (the former stating so in a more gruff manner to try and get his Orbital Drop Shock Troopers focused on the mission at hand). Romeo seems the least moved by Buck's words, and knocks the Rookie upside the head with the butt of his sniper rifle to wake up the Rookie, the newest member of the squad, whom Dutch describes as 'the strong silent type'. As Dutch assures the Rookie that Romeo didn't mean him any real harm, the ODSTs take to their drop pods with the intent of landing on the Covenant supercarrier hovering over New Mombasa. As the pods plummet through Earth's atmosphere and towards the ship, Dare informs Buck that she has orders that are not concerned with the Covenant vessel. Before any further explanation can be conveyed, the supercarrier makes a slipspace jump, taking a large chunk of the mega-city below with it, and subsequently knocking another drop pod into the Rookie's, which sends him flying off course into the city streets below.

Following what is easily one of the biggest adrenaline-rushes of an introduction in any first-person shooter, the Rookie wakes up in his pod, which has landed a few feet above street level. He drops down and - with the assistance of the city's AI named Vergil - begins to meander his way through the city in search of his squadmates. This nighttime setting allows players to freely roam within the confines of the city in search of clues to what happened to Buck, Dutch, Mickey, Romeo, and Dare. As each new clue is discovered, the story will jump back a few hours to explain where each team member fell in New Mombasa, and how they regrouped with the rest of the squad. It is during these segments that players will control each ODST in a more traditional Halo vein. Once each mission is completed, the story will return to the Rookie, who will then have access to new areas within the 'overworld'.

Longtime Halo fans will find they will have to be more strategic in Halo 3: ODST than in past entries to the series. Ammunition for human weapons is often scarce, so players should familiarize themselves with Covenant weaponry if they are not prone to using them much in other Halo games. The default loadout presents players with a pistol and a silenced SMG. The former is not quite as powerful as the magnum from past Halo games, but will still get the job done with some carefully-placed headshots. The silenced SMG is meant to fill in for the SMG and the Battle Rifle, both of which are absent from ODST. Unfortunately, the short range combined with the more narrow line of fire and awful inaccuracy of this weapon makes it impractical for almost any situation, regardless of what difficulty setting players are tackling. Equipment from Halo 3 is still present, though it is only available to enemy Brutes, and has been limited to the flare, power drain, and bubble shield. The flare's brightness has been toned down, while the power drain will only affect vehicles, as ODSTs rely on health and not energy shields. Overshields are reserved for Brute chieftains, unless there is an Engineer nearby, in which case all Covenant species in the immediate area will be granted extra protection.

VISR mode is a new addition to ODST, which, when activated, allows players to see low-light environments and enemies more clearly. While VISR mode can be activated at any point during the campaign, players will find it most useful during their nighttime exploration of New Mombasa as the Rookie. In any of the daytime missions, VISR mode is too bright to the point where it is almost impossible for players to see anything. This presents little to no problem, though, considering how naturally well-lit the daytime environments are. Each ODST squad member is able to check up on their mission objectives, map, and collectable audio logs in the midst of a mission, in a style similar to Metroid Prime. This is not the same as pausing the game, however, as players will still be open to enemy fire while checking up on their objectives. As with VISR mode, players will likely reference objectives as the Rookie more often than as anyone else, as most of the game's missions are rather linear.

One of the biggest selling points of ODST prior to its release was the inclusion of Firefight mode, which sends waves of enemies at players so that they can rack up points. While players can host an online game with up to three friends, there is no matchmaking system supported for it. The default loadouts, which present players with the pistol and silenced SMG, can prove frustrating during the stronger waves late in each set, and this is only compounded by the fact that players are granted a single respawn location. There are, however, a nice variety of maps presented, each of which is a small section pulled from the various campaign levels. Most are more heavily focused on close-quarters skirmishes within multi-leveled structures, though a couple do bring vehicular combat into the mix.

The soundtrack is host to a number of tunes that fans of the Halo series will no doubt be intimately familiar with. But the melodic string and piano sounds as well as smooth jazz stylings give ODST's soundtrack an identity all its own. The same can be said for the graphics - true, ODST still runs on the same engine as Halo 3, and as such vehicles and weapon details will carry the same look they did in 2007. But the character models have been improved upon, with smoother facial features and more natural, relaxed motions. The lighting effects and environments are significantly more stylized, presenting a beautiful marriage of Halo 3's graphics engine will the depiction of New Mombasa from Halo 2. The cast does a phenomenal job with the voice acting. While Nathan Fillion is given center stage as Buck, Dutch, Mickey, and Romeo all prove an entertaining bunch. Their stories develop as well as anyone could hope for a six hour long campaign, and while things maintain a fairly serious tone throughout, there are also some good laughs to be had along the way.

Halo 3: ODST is a highly-experimental entry for the series. It's a breed all its own, aiming for a more strategic FPS experience without sacrificing the style that Halo has built over the years. The solo portions as the Rookie truly present a feel of isolation as players scour the streets in search of clues, while also being the only force to combat the Brutes, Jackals, and Grunts still roaming the abandoned city. Conversely, each intermittent mission as Buck, Dutch, Mickey, and Romeo returns to the familiar formula of Halo, even if these are presented as shorter and more linear. The throwbacks to players' dependency on health packs and the removal of dual-wielding certainly ring close to the original Halo, but the combination of this with the gameplay elements established in the sequels shows that Bungie understands they ought to keep some elements of familiarity, but are - at the same time - not afraid to trail a little ways off the beaten path.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

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