First things first. While ODST is arguably the best, most cohesive story line in the Halo series, it's price point is without a doubt the most obnoxious part of the package. When Bungie first announced ODST at Tokyo Game Show after questionably shelving it's announcement at E3, Halo 3: Recon, as it was known then, was expected to be a 3-4 hour expansion pack. At the time everyone questioned the format be it, DLC or retail disc release, but no one questioned price. There's no reason why Microsoft wouldn't stick a full retail price on it's flagship title, even if it was only an expansion. Well it's out now and it does indeed ask for 3 Jackson's. How does one find value in a, roughly, 6-8 hour campaign, endless Firefight CO-OP mode, and the entire Halo 3 Multiplayer Package on a 2nd disc? It's entirely subjective. If you're a hardcore competitive Halo 3 multiplayer fan more than likely your hard drive and wallet space reflect that and you've played the previously released 20 or so maps to death. How to see any value in the rest of the package from that point of view is difficult. However as someone who only dabbles in competitive multiplayer occasionally but loves campaign and Co-op modes tremendously this a bargain and a half. Handing off the original Halo 3 disc to my girlfriend allows us both to play Halo 3 multiplayer, if she can get away from Modern Warfare, not likely but hey it's an option right. Ok with that out of the way let's get to it.
As I mentioned before this is definitely Bungie's most cohesive storyline yet. Completely disconnecting itself from the Master Chief as well as the Aribiter's story line allows the gameplay mechanics to change and only for the better. Most importantly this completely removes the need to reference the Flood. You read that correctly, NO FLOOD. Unfortunately, the Flood was the most interesting aspect of the Halo Universe but hands down the most frustrating in terms of gameplay. Let's just leave it at that.
You start off as a Rookie who's drop pod is sent off course after taking an EMP blast from the slipspace created by the Covenant's ship. Remember in Halo 2 when the Master Chief completely wrecked shop on Regret's ship? Yeah this takes place right before that. Technically this should be called Halo 2: ODST, but we'll let Microsoft PR sort that one out. Your pod lands in the streets of New Mombasa and you awaken six hours later to a completely destroyed, darkened, moody, almost noir atmosphere. You come to your senses and discover the Superintendent AI which helps guide you through the city in search of clues. You find multiple beacons scattered about the area which ultimately lead to four distinct playable flashbacks that culminate six hours later flawlessly transitioning into one cohesive linear story. What happened to the city is also explored as a backstory through audio files, reminiscent of Bioshock's audio tapes or via the VISR in an almost graphic novel-esque style. It's a departure from the norm but the results are to be applauded.
The voice acting is delivered by Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, and Alan Tudyk of Firefly and Serenity fame as well as Tricia Helfer of Battlestar Galactica. Delivering the usual cheeseball space marine one liners and well written dialogue lead to a few gut laughs and lend to the experience without taking itself too seriously. You won't find yourself getting too attached to the characters by the end of it. Remember just because it's cohesive doesn't mean it's great.
Bungie took some risks in gameplay where subtle changes led to drastic results and it definitely paid off. Wanting to create tension the dev team decided to take away the shields and make the player rely on the old school style of acquiring health packs. Luckily this isn't as disastrous as it sounds. You still have a shield, it's just renamed "Stamina". Your underlying health bar is replenished by picking up conveniently placed "opticans" or visiting optican dispensers. If you use cover effectively and can avoid the shit storm of bullets that come with territory you'll rarely find yourself needing to replenish. Where Master Chief is Chuck Norris, you are his fingernail, every bit as efficient just not Chuck Norris proper. Another method of creating tension were the slight tweaks they made to the AI. The Covenant and more specifically, the Hunters, will now follow you into buildings and will not give up until you become room decor. This is even more pronounced in Firefight Mode but that's another review altogether.
As the Rookie your mechanics are more exploring the open world with an occasional firefight lending to the calmer, moodier noir aspect. Marty Mcdonnel, Bungie's audio director, does a fan-fucking-tastic job of differentiating ODST's score from Halo 3's. The mood of the Rookie segments feel almost David Banner-ish. You know in the The Incredible Hulk TV series' end credits where he's hitching himself a ride and the music is creepy yet melodic, yeah that's exactly what I picture every time I hear it. The flashbacks play more like the usual Halo repertoire with the trail from point A to point B connecting with plenty of dead in between.
Removing Master Chief from the picture also removes the ability to dual wield weapons and carry equipment such as bubble shields. There are benefits to playing as a UNSC soldier though and the most prominent, in my opinion, are the two new weapons. The silenced SMG and silenced Handgun. Not only do they sound amazing, they are incredibly powerful and no longer become the "ah shit" weapons but the "Mothafucka Hell Yeah" weapons. Headshots are a breeze to accomplish with the handgun. The new VISR mode is also a plus however, alot like Batman Arkham Asylum and my complusive tendencies to not leave any inch of space undiscovered, I found myself almost always leaving the VISR on and not really basking in the mood of New Mombasa's streets. Another gripe I have is that the open world part of the game screams to be played in stealth yet Halo's conventions have always been to have every single enemy know your exact location the second you breathe down the back of any Covenant patrolling the streets, even if they are a block away they all go crazy for Cocoa Puffs.
Bungie took some risks and experimented with open world elements that ultimately worked out for the best. One can argue that the price is a bit steep, and judging by my friends list I don't see myself enjoying Firefight mode anytime soon at least not in co-op, but when I do I'll be sure to write it up here. As it stands, the roughly 8 hour experience I got from the campaign along with all the map packs I've been meaning to catch up on in competitive multiplayer mode are more than enough to justify the purchase. Personally this is how I wish the original Halo 3 played out. The pacing is on par with the best of them and no more tree-like creatures talking gibberish. Some mysteries are best kept out of direct sight. I can't wait to see what Bungie does with Halo: Reach. Hopefully they learn from ODST and continue along the same design choices. Speaking of Reach, as Bungie promised at this years E3 the beta for Reach's Multiplayer, or reminder at least is also included with ODST which will make the rounds in 2010. Nice little stocking stuffer. Firefight Mode, here I come.