Steve Jobs' announcement at the 1999 MacWorld Conference introduced Bungie's Halo universe to the world and what was then a much different kind of sci-fi game. Now, ten years later and Halo is not only a multi-million dollar property of Microsoft, and one that reaches across various media, but is also a benchmark for the first-person shooter genre inspiring the catch-phrase, “Halo-killer.”
Though Master Chief's story ended with the third entry in the series' numbered titles, new characters and familiar gameplay keep Bungie's fiction alive in the form of a stand-alone expansion. However, it's no secret that Halo 3: ODST wasn't always scheduled to be a sold as a full-price title—and try as it might, it's hard to not view ODST as little more than one big marketing scheme wrapped into a two-disc package. With high expectations set by a heavy-hitting franchise, it's a shame the game unravels into a bit of a letdown; one that can't be saved despite there being a few highlights showing off Bungie's skillful production abilities.
While it's hard to fault a smaller development team with a shorter production cycle for trying a new approach to a franchise with a committed fan base, playing out a game riddled with fillers and missed opportunities is sadly disheartening. ODST acts as an interesting diversion from the more linear setup presented in the original trilogy, but a lacking open-world hub system makes evident the attempt to push the game from a reduced-fare side story into a full-fledged offering.
As you assume the role of the Rookie, ODST begins to take the shape of every shooter that has tried to emulate Halo's popularity. A faceless, voiceless and otherwise nameless character lacks much of the heroism or backstory that made Master Chief such a compelling character. While this formula works well to allow the story of your squad's failed insertion to unfold through their actions, it only contributes to the dullness of New Mombosa: a place where you spend chunks of time canvassing its streets searching out your squad with a character you don't really care about, in a setting littered with recycled car models and nothing much to do.
These interludes try to bring choice into the old Halo linearity as you search for clues to the whereabouts of your missing buddies. However, decisions boiling down to which routes are the shortest and offer the least resistance as you meander stagnant pathways with pockets of Covenant baddies patrolling the abandoned districts.
It takes the scenarios of your separated comrades, which you play out after inspecting key items in the Streets, to bring life back into the game. With tasks that vary from extracting yourself from atop towering skyscrapers to meeting up with teammates while plowing down enemies in a Scorpion tank, many of the levels feel derivative of those from the trilogy, but their action is still exciting with challenging AI and superb pacing; the surroundings feel much more alive and dynamic compared to the Rookie sections; and background set-pieces are incredibly detailed.
Marty O'Donnell and a strong cast continue to add to the redeeming qualities of the game with moody, jazz-inspired ambiance (a must-buy soundtrack) and emotional dialog. At points, the music may either be out of place or cut out entirely, but the change from choral chants to piano driven melodies remains a beautiful accompaniment to the lacking mystery elements.
Unfortunately, along the lines of the popular adage, the sum of all ODST's positive aspects don't make its whole experience. Even with entertaining transitions from the Rookie's perspective to his buddies' plights, a short campaign held together by drawn out bouts of scavenging New Mombosa—and occasionally coming across hidden messages that unlock garages housing a Mongoose or two—doesn't make for the typical engaging Halo gameplay. Also, while specific missions do well in allowing for each of the squad's specialists to exploit their skills (Romeo the sniper has large, open areas to shoot; Dutch and Mickey get to blow things up with their Spartan Laser and rocket launchers; etc.) you never get the sense you're playing as different people with specific training.
When it comes to diverse gameplay compared to past Halo games, there isn't much; eventually, you'll still have to rely on whatever you can find on the battlefield to succeed in missions once you run out of ammo. The new suppressed and more powerful SMG and pistol may be great additions, and the lack of regenerating shields may make run-and-gun tactics an unreliable option, but nothing feels especially different than when we played as Master Chief of the Arbiter.
A lacking campaign aside, what Halo experience would be complete without Multiplayer? This is truly where Bungie shines through, not only in past games, but ODST as well. While the series' new survival option is anything but a novel design concept, Firefight offers a challenge for four friends willing to play for hours on end, adding to the out-of-context cooperative campaign. We stress friends because there is no open lobby from which to jump into Firefight games while online, but when it comes down to it, these are challenges where you want people you know you can rely on. Each of the maps require varied strategies and hardly ever offer safe zones to retreat to. By sharing lives, ammo and the onslaught of increasingly more powerful groups of Covenant enemies with various augmented attributes, Firefight offers a fresh take on Halo multiplayer.
The same can't be said for the included Halo 3 multiplayer disc. Though ODST comes packaged with the final Halo 3 maps (along with all of the previously released content), their inclusion, too, feels like a feint attempt to justify the 60 dollar sticker price. Ultimately, if there's one kind of player buying ODST, it's the Halo faithful; and although it may be unfair to assume so, it's more than likely such a person has already shelled out a couple hundred Microsoft Points to stay current in their playlists. The maps themselves continue the strong showing of Bungie's competitive prowess with thought out arenas catering to fan wants, but why they couldn't simply be released as DLC is baffling.
Finally, a hassle-free invitation to the 2010 Halo: Reach beta completes the swath of attempts to distract you from the fact you're playing an over-priced expansion. Though, for many, this alone might be a justification for a lukewarm game.
True, ODST marks a bit of an experimental departure for the established and wildly popular Halo franchise, but it's too hard to wash the word “marketable” from the mouth after playing through the campaign in its stretched out entirety. New weapons and new characters: marketable. Three exclusive maps: marketable. New co-op multiplayer: marketable. Halo: Reach invite: marketable. While there is a lot to be proud of scattered throughout the double-disc set, a hub system that drags the main game's action to a halt and some unnecessary inclusions detract from an entire package with an unjustified MSRP.