Halo is a unique IP in that it has bridged the gap between two generations of console gaming. The original Halo was primarily a single player game with a compelling narrative that drew players in and helped the game become a huge hit. Then XBox Live arrived, and with it, the beginning of the end of quality single player narrative FPS experiences on the platform. Halo 2 had a decent single player campaign (albeit with a maddening cliff-hanger ending) but its multiplayer component is what drove its success. Halo 3, the first Halo title on the XBox 360, was primarily a multiplayer game with a completely forgettable single player campaign (I’m speaking literally…I can’t even remember what happened in Halo 3).
So now we have Halo ODST, a kind of side-story thrown together in 14 months, using the Halo 3 engine. A game that never would’ve happened if the Peter Jackson Halo project and its accompanying games hadn’t imploded before getting off the ground.
So what does Halo ODST have to offer for those of us who still prefer narrative-driven, single player gaming? Not too much, really. The story revolves around The Rookie, an ODST (it stands for Oribital Drop Ship Trooper) grunt who gets separated from his squad during his first drop. The story takes place in New Mombasa (which, you’ll recall, is pretty much a smoking crater in Halo 3). The goal is basically just to re-unite with your squad. As The Rookie runs around the city, fighting Covenant and scrounging for health packs and ammo, he’ll find items that will cause him to, erm, psychically link to other squad members. I jest, but I don’t really know what the plot device is called here. You target an item…maybe a gun, or a busted turret, or a piece of scorched shielding, and you get transported into the body of one of the other squad members to play through his part of the story.
It’s an interesting way of telling a story…if there was a story to tell. But the plot is so shallow, and all the troopers you control so similar, that it all kind of fizzles. Essentially one member of the jump team, a woman named Dare (voiced by Trisha Helfer of Battlestar Gallactica fame) seems to be working for some black ops group or something. She changes the drop target at the last minute, causing all this chaos. Your squad leader, and Dare’s boy-toy, is Buck (voiced by Nathan Fillion of Firefly/Serenity, and more recently Castle). Buck is trying to find Dare, while the rest of the squad is trying to find each other. And Dare is trying to find something or someone else (avoiding spoilers here).
The actual gameplay is classic Halo stuff. You’re not Master Chief so you don’t have regenerating health or shields, but you do have “stamina” which is essentially a shield, and which regenerates. To restore your health you’ll have to find health packs. New Mombasa must have been a dangerous place even before the covenant since there’s an auto-hospital unit on just about every corner, from which you can get healed up.
So you run around the city, generally following a way point, until you find an item that lets you jump into another squad member’s body, and then you play through his story, then jump back to The Rookie, and repeat. The last 20% of the game or so is all Rookie stuff and just as the story finally starts to at least feel cohesive and directed..it’s over. For the most part you’ll be using weapons taken from the Covenant, and ammo is a constant issue forcing you to swap out a new weapon every few minutes. This is also why jumping into another squad member’s body feels so pointless. Sure, these guys each has a specialty (sniper rifle, heavy weapon, or whatever) but the ammo for their special weapon will quickly run out after which he’ll be scrounging the same Covenant weapons all the other characters wind up using.
Essentially there’s not a thing new here, including the engine, which is either starting to show its age or just always did a crappy job rendering faces (Master Chief never took his helmet off, after all). For the character of Buck they’ve digitally painted Fillion’s face onto the ploygons and it looks creepy as hell. Dare’s character is equally creepy though not a map of Helfer’s face. This is the ugliest you’ll ever see Ms. Helfer.
The voice work is good, and the team let Buck be Fillion — if you’re a fan of Nathan Fillion you’ll know what I mean. He even works a “Bam, said the lady!” into his voice work. Firefly fans might also recognize Alan Tudyk & Adam Baldwin (Wash & Jayne, respectively) voicing Mickey & Dutch.
So we have great voice talent…but they just don’t have a story to tell us, really. Such a shame.
The one bright spot in the campaign is the story of Sadie, a woman trying to get into New Mombasa while everyone else is trying to get out. We never meet Sadie face-to-face. Instead her story is told via “audio drops” that The Rookie gets from pay phones as he runs around New Mombasa. Sadie’s father created The Superintendent — the AI construct that controls New Mombasa. For reasons unclear to me, Sadie wants to get back to The Superintendent.
I’m sad to say, I didn’t find all the drops, so I don’t know how Sadie’s story ends. That’s the one incentive I have for going back to replay the game. If the main story had been as intriguing as this hidden audio tale, Halo ODST would’ve been a much stronger title. BTW, VentureBeat has a great article up on how this story came about — well worth a read.
Bottom line, if you’re like me and love strong narrative in your single player games…don’t buy Halo ODST. If you’re a Halo junkie then the game is probably worth renting (it isn’t very long) just so you can say you played it. It might even be worth a rental if you’re a huge Nathan Fillion fan.
At this point, maybe it’s time for Bungie to just make pure multiplayer games and drop the lackluster single-player stuff all together. There’s no way this campaign is worth $60, and Halo 3’s wasn’t, either. Better to skip it than do it half-assed, Bungie. How about doing the right thing for your fans and making Halo: Reach a $40 multiplayer-only title?