Thursday, October 15, 2009

Halo 3: ODST (Xbox 360) Review

There's never been any question to the success and popularity of the Halo franchise and what it's done for the Xbox platform. The name "Halo" immediately draws instant attention and often record breaking sales. Case and point, the recently released Halo 3: ODST.

Originally, Halo 3: ODST started out as a stand-alone expansion set with a very short three hour Campaign and all the Halo 3 Multiplayer Map Packs thrown in with yet an additional three never-before-seen maps to add something new. The Campaign was set in the ruins of New Mombasa paralleling the events of Halo 2 where players took control of the Rookie, a new Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, as he tracked down the whereabouts of his scattered squad mates. During the course of development, the project actually grew in size and scope, expanding the Campaign's content by that of a few hours and introducing a new Co-Operative Multiplayer mode know as Firefight. By the time everything was said and done, Microsoft Game Studios began advertising Halo 3: ODST as a full retail product, and it's priced accordingly. So do all these features actually add up to a full retail game?

The Campaign begins with a squad of ODST's dropping towards the Prophet of Regret's carrier as it hovers over New Mombasa (Play the first 4 Chapters of Halo 2 to get up to speed on the story), their mission: infiltration. As they approach the carrier, however, it jumps into slipspace creating an EMP shock wave that devastates the city and knocks the ODSTs off course, crash landing all over the ruins of the city. 6 hours after impact, the Rookie regains consciousness, and players set out to explore what's left of the city while trying to find their squad mates.

As you begin your search, you're more or less guided where to go in the search for clues about your team, but once the first two clues are located, the Rookie can venture off in pretty much any direction he chooses. This provides the player with a somewhat open environment in New Mombasa, even allowing the Rookie to explore some random buildings and such along the way. Make no mistake, this is no Capital Wasteland, but it's a much more open environment than any we've seen before in a Halo-title. There are roaming Covenant patrols that the player can combat or try to sneak by, Phantoms fly past overhead, and the city's AI, the Superintendent, helps to guide the player towards hidden audio logs that tells the story of a young woman in the city at the beginning of its invasion. Once the Rookie does locate a clue relating to his squad, the game then transitions into a flashback sequence where the player takes control of a specific squad mate allowing the player to experience their fate first hand. Unlike the Rookie's nighttime explorations, the flashback sequences are linear in design and are much more traditional first person shooter fair.

During Halo 3: ODST, you always play as an ODST and never as a Spartan, which brings about some interesting gameplay changes. Firstly, you have no Shields but instead have Stamina. As you take damage, you're screen turns red and you begin breathing heavily. You'll need to find cover and wait for your Stamina to regenerate and if you don't, you'll soon start to take actual damage from enemy attacks resulting in a lose of health from your Health Bar. Health can only be replenished with Medkits scattered about the city, forcing you to play things a little more cautiously than you would as the Master Chief. Dual-wielding is also right out and not featured at all. I don't know the exact reason why, but I heared it's because you're not as strong as a Spartan, being a normal human being after all. Fair enough, but then how come as a simple human I can flip downed Vehicles, punch Grenades into Wraiths as I board them, move faster than a Spartan while carrying a turret, one hit kill Brute Chieftains by meleeing them from behind, and generally perform several other superhuman feats? I understand some things need to remain unaltered due to simple gameplay conventions, but I honestly don't see why dual-wielding was removed. I also understand that certain weapons, like the Spiker, were supposed to be large by regular human standards, but it doesn't look like they altered the weapon's display sizes at all. So while you are more fragile than a Spartan, your also not, if you take my meaning.

Weapon wise, the Battle Rifle, Plasma Rifle, and SMG are completely gone, but the Auto-Mag, Brute Plasma Rifle, and Silenced SMG are in. The Auto-Mag is essentially the return of the Pistol from Halo: Combat Evolved, scope and all, and this baby's great for precision head shots. The Brute Plasma Rifle functions the same as it did in Halo 2 and the Silenced SMG is the same as a regular SMG only, well, quieter. The amount of grenades you can carry has also been increased by one a piece.

Enemy wise, the Engineer finally makes its debut in a Halo shooter. Featured in the novels since the first book was published and showing up in Halo Wars, the Covenant Engineer follows the various occupying Brutes granting them an Overshield. The Engineer is also packed with explosives, and will detonate when killed, or when its Brute masters are defeated.

Speaking of the Brutes, I do need to bring up a major plot hole here. The Elites. Why are there no live Elites in New Mombasa? In Halo 2, the Great Schism and Covenant Civil War begins, but that's later in the game. I'm not sure how long it took for the Master Chief to kill Regret and for this Civil War to ultimately begin, so I'll extend the benefit of the doubt and buy the fact that the Brutes have already replaced the Elites 6 hours after drop when the Rookie wakes up. For the flashback sequences, however, it makes no sense what-so-ever that the Brutes are running the show. At this time frame, there wouldn't even have been any Brutes in Regret's expeditionary fleet as Brutes were an occupying force, not military, and the Elites didn't trust them. It's also quite preposterous that Brutes were part of the initial invasion as indicated in the Audio Logs you find. The real reason we're seeing Brutes this early, I'm sure, is because Bungie didn't want to take the time to create a new Elite AI, but honestly, we should have been fighting Elites in Halo 3: ODST.

The rest of the enemies are standard Covenant fair, but since you're not a Spartan, not only are they more deadly towards you, you also don't have a motion tracker to alert you of danger. Instead, you have your VISR mode, a unique visual enhancement that functions much like night vision but also outlines friendlies in green, enemies in red, weapons in blue, and Audio Logs in yellow. VISR mode works very well at helping you spot threats and navigate the dark city environments, but keep in mind that it can be blinding during the day, illuminating things too much.

In addition to tracking the Audio Logs you discover, which are in the form of a radio serial complete with still images, you also have a full Map of the city at your disposal, a first for a Halo shooter. The Map isn't perfect, but it allows you to examine the different areas, plot way points, and even better, it'll show enemies as red diamonds, and the map is in real time. It's often a great idea to use the map upon entering a new area to see if any enemies are displayed, since you'll be able to spot them here often before you would in VISR mode.

The Campaign, taking my sweet time exploring the city, whoring Achievements, and hunting for Audio Logs took me about 8 hours on Normal. That's not bad at all, but then again I was really taking my time and had I been moving at a steady, more objective-based pace, I probably would have beaten it in about 5 hours.

The other major new feature in Halo 3: ODST is the Firefight Co-Op mode, where up to 4 players team up to battle wave after wave of Covenant enemies. Similar in concept but different in execution from Gears of War 2's Horde mode. In Horde, you have 50 Waves of enemies to defeat, and after every 10 Waves they get more durable, accurate, and do greater damage. In Firefight, things are a little more... complex.

5 Waves make up a Round, and 3 Rounds make a Set. So what's the deal with Rounds and Sets? Skulls. Different Skulls activate depending on what Wave, Round, and Set your in, greatly increasing the challenge of each match. So if Famine activates, every weapon dropped only has half ammo in it, and you'll be running low on bullets real, real soon. Black Eye turns on, and your Stamina will no longer regenerate and you need to Melee an enemy to get Stamina back. Tough Luck turns on, and good luck tagging an enemy with a Grenade or splattering them with a Vehicle as they get real good at dodging. There are several other Skulls that will activate, and yes, multiple Skulls will be active at once.

You also have lives in Firefight. In Gears of War 2, if you're downed your teammates can revive you, and if you die, you wait until the next Wave to Respawn. Not in Firefight. Your team has a pool of 7 shared lives. Die, and you'll respawn minus one life for your whole team. Lone Rangers will be frowned upon, make no mistake. Do well in Rounds and you'll earn bonus lives for your pool, greatly increasing how long the game will last. And if you're team is good, you'll last a long, long time. Why? Because there are infinite Sets. Unlike Horde, Firefight doesn't have a Wave cap, there's no way to "win" the game. You simply keep going until you quit or die.

Halo 3: ODST comes packaged with 2 discs, and everything above is on Disc 1. Disc 2 contains the complete Halo 3 Multiplayer experience, ever Map and Map Pack ever released, as well as three additional Multiplayer Maps, Citadel, Heretic, and Longshore. Each of these Maps has a Skull to find, and provides some nice, new variety for Multiplayer mayhem. When you pop Disc 2 into your DVD drive, it shows up that you are playing Halo 3 and you'll be able to access all of your Screenshots and Saved Films, and anything you save here is Saved to the Halo 3 section of your HDD and not the Halo 3: ODST section.

The release of Halo 3: ODST also sees the release of the final three VidMaster Challenges, which when completed with the other four found in Halo 3 will allow players to unlock the coveted Recon armour for use in Halo 3's Multiplayer.

Without question, Halo 3: ODST did grow greatly in scope and size from what was originally announced. We have a short Campaign that provides us with an interesting new look at storytelling in the Halo universe, an exceptional Co-Op multiplayer mode that the franchise was just screaming for, and a few new Maps to play with in classic Multiplayer. So is it all worth the full cost of admission?

No, it's not.

Everything I've just reviewed, everything I've just discussed is at a high level of quality, there's no mistaking that, but Halo 3: ODST packs in all the solid content of a topnotch expansion set, not a retail game. The single player content is far too short, even if it is different, and if you've purchased the Halo 3 Map Packs already, you're getting very little new in terms of Multiplayer content. Sure, you get Firefight, and Firefight kicks, but it still doesn't justify full retail cost. At most, Halo 3: ODST is worth $10.00 less than retail, but you'd get an even better deal if you waited for it at $20.00 off.

That being said, Halo 3: ODST is a lot of fun and there's much fun to be had here, guaranteeing that it should be added to your gaming library eventually, just not right away. I've already seen the odd sale where it's $10.00 off, so if you look carefully or wait a while longer, you'll probably be able to find this expansion in retail game disguise at a proper, fair price. And you should, because Halo 3: ODST is worth experiencing.

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