Monday, April 4, 2016

Halo 3: ODST review


    Halo 3: ODST is one of my favorite types of video games. Specifically, it's a game which takes an already popular and successful video game like Halo 3 and then simply makes more content for it with a different story. These are known as "Mission Pack Sequels" and form the basis for a lot of really good games like the Elder Scrolls series or Assassins Creed. I'm not a great believer that you need to reinvent the wheel to make an entertaining video game and think some of the best are built on a preexisting solid foundation.

    Halo 3: ODST was a game which was strongly recommended to me by my fellow Halo fans, an entire community I was apart from until recently, which left me coming into this with very high expectations. It's believed by many to be one of the best Halo games. Honestly, I'm sorry to say I disagree as it's probably my least favorite of the franchise so far. This isn't to say it's a bad game but it's comparing some of the best shooters I've ever played to something which feels a good deal more tepid.

My biggest question is "Why am I not playing Nathan Fillon's character during this entire game?"
    The premise is a group of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, basically Marines who do Halo jumps (pun intended no doubt) from space, have been assigned a mission by the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) during the invasion of New Mombasa during the events of Halo 2. The mission goes pear-shaped from the very beginning with a voiceless character named the Rookie getting knocked out and waking up at night with no sign of his cohorts. The Rookie must track down his fellow soldiers and learn their stories one-by-one as we follow a series of flashbacks which detail the aborted mission.

    The cast for ODST is top-notch with Nathan Fillon playing Sergeant Buck, Tricia Helfer playing ONI agent Veronica Dare, and Adam Baldwin as one of the other ODST Troopers. Indeed, part of the game's problem is I had no interest in playing the personality-less Rookie versus playing Halo's version of Malcolm Reynolds. Switching between the characters during their missions also undermined my ability to get attached to them as the majority of their stories lack the kind of emotional gut-punches which make Modern Warfare's use of the trope so interesting.

The game is about shooting aliens with some AI-controlled buddies. Nothing more or less.
    The game is tonally awkward too. The Rookie sections are framed like a Noir detective mystery as you wander the deserted streets of New Mombasa, trying to piece together what happened to mournful saxophone music. This is a sharp contrast to the rest of the ODST soldiers who have big epic war sequences where they slaughter hundreds of Covenant troops to rousing military fair. There's supposed to be a romance between Buck and Veronica but it never rises beyond sitcom fair as we don't spend enough time with them to have that develop. Which is a shame because Fillon and Helfer have good chemistry.

    Gameplay is pretty good, being almost identical to Halo 3 with some minor changes like the fact you don't have shields but "Stamina" (which functions identically to shields) and being able to sprint. There's also the curious fact you can run with the repeating cannons which Master Chief is slowed down by the weight of despite the fact the Spartan-IIs have super-strength. Dual-wielding is impossible, though, but I don't really miss it since I felt it nerfed single weapons.

The parts wandering the dark streets at night to mournful saxophone music can be quite effective.
    The level-design is hit or miss with the best levels being new locations like a massive underground computer facility, a rooftop-to-rooftop firefight which ends in a stand-off against a dozen Banshees, an air battle across the city, and a stand-off at a ONI facility. Unfortunately, other levels like a wildlife preserve and the fights through New Mombasa's streets aren't terribly interesting. As a result, the game feels terribly uneven in places with really good spots occurring before really tepid ones.

    Enemy innovation is limited to the creation of the Engineers who basically float around and repair the shields of the Covenant before exploding if you get too close to them. Given they're adorable and make the game slightly more challenging, I feel no need to kill them and question how much they really benefit the gameplay. ODST also introduces a Horde mode mechanic to the series which I much prefer to Multiplayer.

Shooting Brutes never gets old.
    One element which is just confusing is there's a lengthy number of Terminals containing the story of a New Mombasa citizen trying to flee from a corrupt Police Chief during the invasion which has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. It's a very good story and very well-written, fleshing out New Mombasa and its people but is a failure from the standpoint of being a distraction from the main plot. The fact the plot of the game only becomes clear during the final few levels also makes it clear this game was designed with no clear vision other than, "shoot more Covenant."

    Indeed, if you take a step back, there's a lot of very strange narrative choices in the game and I don't just mean constantly switching perspectives in the game between characters who are mostly identical. There's no villain in the game despite a large number of the audible terminals being devoted to making the Police Chief of New Mombasa a complete monster. A character you never meet and who meets his fate offscreen.

I like Captain Dare but she disappears from the game for 2/3rds of the narrative.
    There's no clear objective in the game once you discover your team is alive since reuniting with them doesn't seem like a big deal once you realize they're all alive.  It's ironic that the initial mission of destroying the Covenant flagship, while derided by ONI, is at least a goal which has the potential to do meaningful damage to the enemy. There's a bit at the end about getting a Covenant race to defect but even this is undermined by the fact the war will canonically end about a week from now when the Master Chief returns from High Charity.

    It should be noted Halo: ODST doesn't come with Halo: The Master Chief Collection but is a DLC purchasable for about five dollars. This is more than my money's worth on the game even if I don't think of this as anywhere near my favorite Halo game.  The game is playable from the main game and incorporated as an expansion to Halo 3, though, which makes sense from multiple perspectives.

Sergeant Johnson needed to be in this game more.
    Ultimately, I think this is a game which is quite fun to play but has no idea what to do itself. At times it tries to be a mystery, at others a war epic, and other times still a tragedy. I never got to know any of the characters very well and I can't help but think the game would have been improved 200% if I was playing Nathan Fillon's character Buck the entire time. Which is perhaps the only time in history I'll admit to wanting to play a character named Buck. There's just not much here and it seems like a waste of the talent involved. The primary reason you should play this game is because you want to play more Halo, not because there's something compelling about the narrative.

7.5/10

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