Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release date: Available now
In classical music there’s a form known as “variations on a theme.” The composer starts out with a simple melody, and through clever manipulations of tempo and rhythm, he transforms that melody into something new and interesting, often several times in a single composition. Developer Bungie has done pretty much the same with their series of Halo games. The first three are the theme. The first variation was Halo Wars, in which they changed the focus from a “Rambo”-style shooter to real-time strategy. Variation 2 is Halo 3: ODST, which returns the series to the FPS genre, but drastically alters the way its story is told.
In ODST, after decades of successfully keeping the murderous alien race known as the Covenant away from Earth, the enemy has finally arrived and is laying siege to the city of New Mombasa. In a desperate attempt to turn the tide of battle, United Nations Space Command (UNSC) decides to send squads of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (ODSTs) down to infiltrate and destroy a Covenant carrier hovering over the city. But as the Marines’ drop pods are descending to Earth, the carrier opens a hyperspace window that disrupts the pods, scattering the troopers all over the city. Now their mission is changed: they must try to regroup and find another way to achieve their objective.
There are five principal characters in ODST, and you play all of them at one point or another throughout the 10 to 12 hours of the single-player campaign. You start out as The Rookie, a green but capable recruit on his first combat mission. Gunnery sergeant Buck seems to have had a personal relationship with Veronica Dale, the squad’s commanding officer. Romeo has a knack for saying the wrong things at the wrong times. Mickey is the voice of reason. And then there’s Dutch, who just likes to kill things. During the course of the game, The Rookie travels from area to area in the darkened streets of New Mombasa. In each area he finds clues leading to the whereabouts of his squadmates. These clues trigger the beginning of each new mission, in which you switch from The Rookie to the soldier tied to the found artifact.
For the second time in the series, Bungie has created a Halo game without its signature character, Master Chief. As typical ODSTs, you don’t have the health regeneration abilities that the Chief has, so you have to search for good, old-fashioned health packs when your physical condition worsens. Fortunately, health pack stations are placed liberally throughout the city, and you can even find a few powerups on the ground in certain situations. You also have a special visor attached to your helmet that, when activated, identifies targets ahead as friend or foe. Using the visor is almost mandatory when playing as The Rookie, since all of his missions (up until the last several in the game) are set in almost total darkness; you wonder why, with all of this high technology, some UNSC egghead didn’t think to add night vision capabilities to the visor. Multiplayer is limited to Firefight, a four-player co-op mode in which you and your squad battle wave after wave of increasingly tougher Covenant enemies. The game also ships with a second disk that contains all of the previously released Halo 3 maps, but chances are that, if you own Halo 3, you won’t be popping in that extra disk.
On the plus side of ODST, you have a story structure that at least tries to break up the normal shooter monotony of “find it, kill it, repeat” by shifting focus from one character to the others. There are several vehicle-based missions tossed in for good measure, although several of the vehicles, most notably the Warthog, are frustratingly difficult to control (something that hasn’t changed throughout the series). The checkpoint saving system, the bane of shooter fans everywhere, is implemented once again, but the checkpoints are placed pretty much as often as I would’ve quick-saved, so very rarely do you have to backtrack too far after you die. And ODST has perhaps the most recognizable voice cast this side of a Command and Conquer game, with “Firefly” alumni Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin and Alan Tudyk joined by former “Battlestar Galactica” Cylon Trisha Helfer. But their voices fail to save the cutscenes, which feature surprisingly poor graphics quality. Wandering around the darkness in New Mombasa, even with the visor enabled, can be boring and frustrating; I failed to find an untold amount of items while stumbling through the pitch blackness of buildings and streets. There’s a nice variety of weapons to find, including a very satisfying flamethrower that appears in the latter stages of the campaign, and the rare but very effective fuel rod gun, which is useful at the end of several of the end-level set piece battles. But there are no boss fights; the final scene is nothing more than a preview of the Firefight MP mode, making the ending not as gripping as it could’ve been. And it doesn’t help that Dutch’s name is spelled “Duch” in the squad’s character indicators in a significant chunk of the game.
You have to respect Bungie for trying to diversify the Halo franchise. They had to know that anything with the Halo name attached would be a guaranteed money-maker, so they didn’t have to try new things such as the multiple-character focus or attempt to fill in more of the series’ backstory. But shifting the story perspective from character to character is ultimately nothing more than using four different kinds of paper to wrap the same package, and after two adventures without Master Chief, players might begin to tire of looking back and clamor for a look ahead.