Halo 3: ODST Review

By Mr Sark - Posted Sep 19, 2009

We have the review of the newest game in the 'Halo' franchise, called 'Halo 3: ODST.'

The Pros
  • Firefight mode makes a great addition
  • Atmospheric, fully co-op campaign
  • Heavy emphasis on tactics
  • New Halo 3 maps
The Cons
  • No game modes other than co-op
  • Some might balk at the cost

Is Halo 3: ODST an overpriced expansion or is it Bungie's “Call of Duty Killer,” as many gamers have presumed? It's neither. The excitement surrounding the release of ODST is characteristic of past Halo releases, but the confusion surrounding the package (and what exactly you're getting) is a franchise first. That’s partly due to the game’s evolution during development, and the variety of content in the box. One of the gents at Bungie mentioned to me that ODST was initially a much smaller affair.  But as the game progressed, the campaign became more than just a bunch of shootouts in New Mombasa; it became a story that stood on its own. Once the confusion subsides and gamers sit down with a controller, they’ll see that ODST is indisputably one of the year’s finest shooters.

This Is (Not a) Sparta(n)

ODST’s campaign opens right before a pivotal moment in some of the New Mombasa sections of Halo 2, which fans might remember ends in a devastating explosion.  You step into the boots of a rookie ODST (Orbital Drop Shock Trooper) and meet your crew as you prepare for your ill-timed drop into New Mombasa.  Led by Buck, voiced by Firefly's Nathan Fillion, your squad is dropped from orbit and before you can get boots on terra firma, New Mombasa gets rocked, and our squad is scattered. Six hours later, night has fallen.  You regain consciousness, stumble out of your drop pod, and begin trying to regroup with your mates.

Because ODST presents you with another character in the Halo universe, there are some big differences between a shock trooper and an armor-suited Spartan. You take more damage than in prior games, and your perspective has been lowered so everything looks bigger.  It is a subtle change, but when a Brute gets in your face, it’s far more intimidating than it was in Halo 3.

Halo 3: ODST

Right out of the gate you are carrying the standard ODST weapons, the pistol and the SMG.  The pistol is a speedy semi-auto with a scope.  It’s great for headshots and counter-sniping, but terrible for dropping enemy shields, you'll have a hard time putting this one down.  The SMG also has a scope and its high rate of fire does better against shields, but it can't score headshots.  It works miracles against the annoying flying Drones, but you'll drop the SMG in favor of other more lethal fare.

The structure of the Campaign is a bit different than most FPS fans are used to.  As The Rookie, you move through the wreckage of New Mombasa killing or evading (your choice) the Covenant patrols that roam the streets.

The city's maintenance AI, known as the Superintendent, seems to monitor your progress through the city and even provides some guidance by lighting up signs and streetlight when you are headed in the right direction.  He also slaps a waypoint down on your map in the general vicinity of 'clue objects'.  Interacting with these objects triggers a flashback in which you'll control of one of your missing squad members.  These missions take place over the six hours that The Rookie was unconscious and are pitched firefights that end with cutscenes explaining the appropriate clue object.  The idea is that The Rookie finds the objects and pieces together what happened, like a psychic crime scene investigator. As you advance, the Superintendent starts to unlock additional blocks of the city, and after a couple flashbacks you are presented with a list of items to look for.  Eventually the city opens up to be quite large.

As an added incentive, there are 30 audio logs scattered throughout the city that provide a subplot.  Find enough logs and you will not only be treated to a surprisingly engaging story, but the Superintendent will begin to open up garage-sized supply caches.  It's like Christmas morning every time you walk into one of these babies.

ODST’s enemies add to the intensity. Covenant patrols that roam the city are random and infinite. They aren't always in the same spot, and if you wait long enough, dropships will unload more bad guys, or another patrol will wander by.  It adds lots of tension to the night missions.You also encounter the Engineers -- known from Halo fiction and Halo Wars -- while you roam.  You'll have to sort out what makes them tick on your own, but you should know they provide all their nearby allies with overshields, as well as being heavily shielded themselves.  Note:  Don't be standing directly underneath them though when they fall.  When they fall they go boom.

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It’s Not Always Better with Friends

Although you can play ODST’s campaign with three friends (much like Halo 3), the atmosphere is very lonely and encourages a solo run for your first playthrough. Running around with your buddies will spoil much of that effect. I've played through Campaign on Heroic twice, both times solo. My first time through was very thorough and took me about 10 hours. My second run was a full-tilt boogie, as I ran straight past enemies when possible, and skipped log searches and supply caches.  This run took me just under 5 hours.  So when folks ask me how long ODST is, I don't have a good answer. It really depends on you. I like to savor the experience, but it won’t take you very long if you just want to blaze through to the credits. Ultimately, the campaign is shorter than Halo 3’s, but not by much, and I happily trade a length for a story that actually makes sense without having to read some Halo scholar's online synopsis.

Also, don't be fooled by hyperbole regarding the game's open-worldness and how much exploration is possible.  The night city is large, but it begins to all look the same, and the audio logs aren't hidden as much as they’re just scattered around the large play area.   Both the logs and clue objects aren’t too tough to find. I mean, they make noise and glow bright yellow in your nightvision VISR mode.  Don't get me wrong, there are some things that are tricky to find, but nothing as tough as the skulls of past Halo games.  Personally, I would've preferred a more challenging search of the city, but Bungie wants you to get into those flashbacks without any trouble.

I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the music and sound design.  While it is all new, the flashbacks are scored with familiar sounding action pieces, but The Rookie's scenes feature a very solitary sounding piano and saxophone score.  The sound design is also amazing.  The rain falling, the sound of a burning car, the distant wail of an Engineer, the sound is noticeably impressive. Try loading ODST's second disk, and start up your own game on the new Halo 3 map Citadel. Then just listen. During a matchmade game you will never hear how sweet this space sounds.  Marty O'Donnell, Bungie's master of all things auditory, and the rest of his crew deserve a slow clap.

Halo 3: ODST

Inside Firefight, or “Gruntheart”

Firefight is the mode in ODST where you'll likely burn the most amount of time. You've seen it before. Some call it Horde, some call it Survival, I call it Robotron. Pota(y)to, pota(h)to. You and up to three friends fight never-ending waves of Covenant forces.  You share seven lives to start and ammo and health are only replenished by advancing. Teamwork is vital. Complete five waves, and you complete a round and you turn on a new skull. Each skull's effects make things difficult. Complete three rounds, and you'll have made it through a set.  At the end of a set you get a bonus round, which is really worth seeing.  All skull effects are active -- including no respawns -- and you face dozens and dozens of Grunts.  Imagine Braveheart with Grunts.  Kill a bunch, score the necessary points and you get extra lives and ammo.

There are essentially ten maps to play Firefight on.  Most of them are unlocked by playing through the campaign.  Two of the maps are night variants, but since Engineers are nocturnal, and Jackal snipers are morning folk, the two day/night maps play out very differently.  Lost Platoon, a wide-open map that supports vehicles, is among the best so far, although the inclusion of enemy vehicles makes things a bit spicier.  Your fun in a Warthog can end abruptly via Wraith.

Much ado has been made about Firefight’s lack of a matchmaking system.  Instead of random pairings or finding a fourth player for your group of three, you need to play with people off of your friends or recent players lists.  Public matches would be a nice feature, but it’s not a major loss.  If you're going for a high score, or even the Firefight achievements, you'll probably not want to try it with a random group, and if you just want to shoot Covenant you don't need strangers.

All in all, a survival mode lends itself to the Halo series very well.  The weapon variety, the impressive enemy AI, and the spot-on controls make for a very enjoyable experience.  And best of all?  There’s no level cap.  Go as long as you can or want.  Just be ready to commit some time; one particularly high scoring game I played went on for nearly two hours.

The Other Disc

There’s a misconception that ODST has competitive multiplayer. It doesn’t. ODST is packaged as a two-disc game, with the second disc containing a stand-alone version of Halo 3's full multiplayer experience, which replaces Halo 3 (unless you’re dying to play campaign again).  Plus, you get three new maps -- Citadel, Heretic, and Longshore -- which are all solid and offer a good variety of size and gametype possibilities. Achievement junkies know that points tied to these three new maps have been unattainable until now. If you unlock the Vidmaster-marked achievements, as well as the Vidmaster achievements on the ODST disk, you will be able to head over to Bungie.net and turn on the hallowed Recon armor for yourself. 

Halo 3: ODST

Break It Down

Is Halo 3: ODST worth the price of admission?  Yes. Many will be surprised at its scope.  If you sprint through the campaign, dabble in Firefight, and hang the second disc from your rearview so it'll make rainbows, then you might feel cheated. But if you play ODST as it was designed, it’s worth every cent.  The Halo: Reach beta key only sweetens the deal. Halo 3: ODST provides a great package. You get a co-op ready Campaign, solid storytelling, a fantastic survival mode in Firefight, and the full Halo 3 multiplayer suite.  Although the lack of Firefight matchmaking is a downer, it’s a minor annoyance.  Yes, the ploy of tying achievements to upcoming content is irritating, and making new maps exclusively available in sequels sucks, but beyond all the marketing, I can't deny that ODST is simply an excellent game.