Halo 3: ODST
Orbital Drop Shock Troopers. It rolls off the tongue like a peanut butter-superglue compote. There’s a knack to acronyms. They must be approached in a certain order. First you come up with the letters to spell the end result you’re looking for – like F.E.A.R., or U.N.C.L.E. – then, once satisfied that it has the right impact, you can start mulling on words that may fit the order, such as First Encounter Assault Recon, or United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.
In fact, the latter’s mortal enemies T.H.R.U.S.H. are a great example of how things can go entirely wrong. An itchy genital rash doesn’t exactly strike the right note for an international criminal conglomerate. U.N.C.L.E., in a move to strike back, narrowly avoided being called Covert Agent National Espionage Security Task Enforcement Network. Probably. We digress.
Whichever way you slice it, ODST as an acronym is neither clever nor dumb. It’s just a lot of big fat nothing to nobody until you have it spelled out to your limply nodding face.
It’s a funny thing – writing about highly anticipated games while being ultimately disappointed with the end product. Over the years working in this industry, you become keenly aware that there’s a whole raft of individuals who have put their hearts and souls into making it and who, largely speaking, have played no part in undermining the end result to the point where it emerges partially collapsed like a flan in a cupboard. You also become aware that there are further defining factors at play; primarily the relationship between developer and publisher, but also budget constraints and indeed the specific way in which a product will eventually be marketed.
Back in the day, Bungie announced an exciting expansion for Halo 3 in the form of Halo 3: Recon. Over time, someone somewhere made the decision that it would be of the most economic merit to spend a little more at the outset with the pay-off being that Recon nee ODST would come in its own shiny box along with the additional promise to players of involvement with the Halo: Reach beta.
Lucky you. Of course, if we were cynical – and cynics we damn well be – we might point out that enlisting a couple of million beta testers for the price of a bushel of Caledonian fog is not exactly a generous gesture, but has more in common with the time Homer gave Marge a bowling ball. It’s a selfish gift, and one on which you’ll have to spend cash to receive. Makers of PC MMOs demand nothing for the privilege of becoming a bottom-feeding bug-hunter. Xbox Live is the ideal delivery system for beta testing, so putting it on a full-price game disc to sell more copies feels to us just a tad exploititive. But maybe that’s just us.
The inclusion of more than half of the male cast of Firefly (Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk and Adam Baldwin) along with Battlestar Galactica’s Cylon seductress Tricia Helfer, certainly kicks things off at a level of quality that’s hard to follow. The voice acting is nothing short of superb throughout. In fact, this point in the review marks the jetty from which we’re about to set sail on a short tour of the joyous contentments that the game offered us throughout. Call it a buffer between here and the shitty-gritty.
The combat is classic Halo, and that can be no bad thing. We doubt wholly that anyone will be coming to this game in the guise of Halo greenhorn. So to whoever’s listening; whatever you’re expecting from the shooting you’ll be snacking on between the main courses, that’s exactly what you’re going to get. Good. Nourishing. Combat.
The enemy AI is still remarkably decent, not having aged a day since we last saw it in 2007. The main differences in fact, are the much-publicised variations of ability between an ODST – pronounced ‘ODST’ – and the Spartan beefcake you’re all used to. Although the list is long – diminished jumping ability, non-recovering health and so on – the actual upshot didn’t feel a whole lot different to us overall. And for that we were really rather glad because there’s simply no need to re-invent the wheel.
We hope you enjoyed your tour of the good bits. Please remember to take your personal belongings with you.
ODST is ugly. Poor visual effects on anything running in-engine were apparent from the moment we pelted uncontrollably from the skies to the moment the final credits rolled. At one point we even quit back to the menu to check that our 360 was indeed set up to run in HD. It was. We struggled to find a reason why every object was edged with an Esher-inspired staircase of pixels, each revealing of unsubtle attempts to upscale from a lo-fi point of origin. And even in spite of the brilliant vocal talent, the human character’s heads lacked the kind of detail we’ve come to expect in a triple-A current-gen title. The supposedly sexy Dare (Tricia Helfer) being a case in point; her angular physiognomy bearing an uncanny resemblance to dour acting curio Willem Dafoe.
But the game’s not just ugly, it’s also short. Its ‘Expansion’ heritage is there for all to see during the game’s meagre five-hour running time. It was at this final realisation that our suspicions were confirmed. Perhaps ODST wasn’t worth putting into its own box after all and would have been better as a piece of expensive, capacious, but worthwhile DLC.
The game’s story isn’t really a story at all. Each character’s experience of crash-landing into the middle of a human-covenant combat zone is linked to the next with the location of a beacon. Find the yellow widget in the open-world city part of the game and you’ll be magically transported via flashback to play through what happened to the character associated with the beacon. Despite efforts to weld it all together with strong friendships and even a romantic sub-plot involving Buck (Nathan Fillion) and Dafoe, the more you try to grasp at any substance, the more it crumbles pathetically in your hands.
If five hours is all there is, you’d at least expect that to be so packed with exhilarating action that it’s actually haemorrhaging adrenaline from every combat wound. But because of the aforementioned beacon quests and oft-empty mission hub, we found ourselves spending a considerable amount of that time instead dragging our weighty combat armour lethargically across a kilometre or so of shattered cityscape just to get to a location where something was actually happening. Strike off 30 minutes of dull trekking from the game’s already diminutive running time.
In terms of set pieces, there’s actually some pretty thrilling moments early on. But these weaken solemnly as they repeat themselves. We counted at least four lengthy firefights which repeated an identical pattern; get to buddy, defend area with buddy while one Phantom after the next litters the area with bad guys. Likewise, driving the Scorpion tank or assaulting the enemy in one of their own Ghosts smacks of a thrill that’s noticeably shrivelled since we last toiled at precisely the same objectives in Halo 3 proper.
ODST ‘powers’ for want of a better word are restricted to the use of a canny type of night vision. Forget Sam Fisher green screen, this instead outlines each enemy, making combat that much clearer. The problem really is not with this mechanic as a solution but more that it raises the question of why create the problem in the first place.
The lion’s share of the game is played in either complete darkness or street-level gloom, and without this ability, you simply wouldn’t have a hope. Manufacturing a problem that requires a fiddly solution is ultimately self-defeating and appears to be more of an early decision gone awry than a conscious philosophy of game design.
All of Halo 3’s better moments are repeated in a slightly different fashion. Pop them on your checklist and tick the night away; battle with Scarab, escort mission, primarily vehicular final level and so on. There’s just not enough new stuff here to justify the cover price. And Bungie’s inclusion of every piece of Halo 3 DLC to date is unlikely to sway it, since those that cherish Halo primarily for its multiplayer no doubt have all or most of it already.
One small jewel in ODST’s crown is its Firefight mode. We have to admit to having a blast with it. Four players plus an endless supply of enemies dropping in equals liquid fun. Someone at Bungie has been playing Gears Of War 2’s Horde mode relentlessly and although there are some subtle but welcome adjustments to the rules such as shared lives, this game mode, without a cover system, just isn’t quite as tactically inclined as its Epic Games counterpart and by that token, less compelling.