Halo 3 ODST

FBT plays Halo Opposing Force

After really enjoying Halo 3 (having been disappointed by Halo CE and H2), I’m cautiously optimistic about Halo ODST – especially because when I saw it in the Master Chief Collection, I misread it as Halo 3’s “Original Digital Sound Track” and nearly skipped it. Idiot.

Turns out ODST means "Orbital Drop Shock Troopers", which are the Spec Ops division. Not sure what makes them special, we can’t jump as high, survive the same level of damage or dual-weld, and we don’t have a Cortana. We’re not Master Chief, we’re his clean up crew. Set during Halo 2’s New Mombasa event, a team of ODST is dropped into the city during the Covenant’s attack to recover an unknown asset. When newest member, Rookie, is separated during the drop, they must navigate the hostile city while looking for signs of the squad and complete the mission.

At first, I assumed ODST was going to be a standard shooter where, conveniently separated from the team, we solo our way to the squad with our commander barking missions over the radio and earn their respect by saving them from a big boss, the end. Instead, Rookie free-roams the city, uncovering clues that reveal our fellow soldier’s actions during the attack, which we play via a flashback. So instead, ODST feels at first like Counter Strike Deleted Scenes, a bunch of mismatched, orphaned levels cut from Halo 2 and 3 with Rookie as a narrative bridge. An unconnected tank mission, an air strike, a rescue mission… and so on.

But, ODST creeps up on you – you get invested; the Rookie was knocked unconscious during his drop and is six hours behind the others, so we don’t know the fate of the squad, and the Rookie’s levels are at night and the city is deserted, save for the Covenant patrols; the Rookie seems to be the last human in New Mombasa, giving it an eerie feel as we wander around, finding evidence of the battles and events the team got caught up in. It’s like we’re the last to leave the party.

And it would have been a great party; three of the squad are played by Firefly alumni - Adam Baldwin, Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion, and our CO is Mass Effect’s EDI (Tricia Helfer). They all have great dialogue, especially Fillion and Helfer’s characters, who share a romantic past – their story in the city is actually the main narrative, and it’s an interesting twist that for the most part Rookie is a subplot, little more than an NPC.

As they get caught up in skirmishes and witness Halo 2 events, much like Shephard seeing Freeman’s journey in Opposing Force, ODST becomes a solid, compact experience instead of the epic events Master Chief is embroiled in. The dialogue, characters and plotting pulls it all together; no universe-eating parasites or religious zealots - it’s just a bunch of blue-collar workers trying to get through a bad day.

It’s also a great setting; the invasion of earth always felt a bit underserved in Halo 2, and the city is nicely done too; burned-out cars, papers flying, and fires give it that post-war feel, and you’re always uneasy walking it at night, listening for sounds and watching for movement. There is a side game where you can access various electrical outlets to overhear the story of a young girl trying to escape the city, and its hugely distracting because she’s near gunfire and explosions that I kept thinking were happening around the corner – but listening to them reveals weapon caches and routes. It’s a nice touch, but does trigger a few panics…

While the flashbacks are standard linear missions, the Rookie has the open city to navigate, with locations on a map that will lead them to a clue. You’re free to choose, and can make use of streets, buildings, walkways and multiple routes to find your way. Its great when you see a patrol and have to decide whether to wait for them to pass, navigate around, open fire or move to a good position to ambush them, depending on your weaponry. Of course, the 2-weapon rule is in force, but here it adds a nice feeling of desperation, conserving ammo and keeping an eye out for other weapons and opportunities.

Ironically, the best thing is there’s little significant change from the original trilogy. There’s some improvements and tweaks, but largely this just feels like Halo 3 – and that works in its favour. Having played as MC battling across the stars against the Covenant and the Flood, it’s great to flip into a more intimate and personalised small story – the familiar style and gameplay means I feel comfortable as one of the grunts MC usually leaves behind.

Originally ODST was intended as a short campaign, but later expanded into a full game – and it shows. It takes a while to get going, but eventually it all comes together and gets pretty tasty as the squad comes together and tries to figure out how the hell they’ll get out of the city – and once they do that, Fillion orders them to return and finish the mission/save his ex. Yeah, I’d go back for EDI too. Meanwhile, the Rookie just valiantly trudges on…

Halo ODST is the most fun I’ve had in the series so far; it’s a grunt story, a down and dirty survive the day not save the universe. And the open city is a real leap forward for the Halo series, which was starting to feel a bit stale and outdated in its largely linear approach. The flipping between Rookie and each ODST is a solid way to keep the experience fresh too. For saying this is a quickie spin-off designed to keep the franchise going after the trilogy, it’s easily the best of the lot so far, at least in terms of sheer FPS experience. It takes a little while to get going, but once its off, it’s all go and all good. And the soundtrack is great too...