Wake Me...When There's a Mission
Also touted for ODST is a whole new open-world style of gameplay. Ultimately, this is only partially as expected, but well implemented all the same. The Rookie, the main player character, spends a good deal of time wandering alone in the rainy darkness of New Mombasa. His ultimate goals are to find items his squad mates left behind at various battles. Locating each item triggers a flashback sequence where you play the team member involved at an earlier point in the day. Through a number of these segments, players alternate between the detective-noir city, and a fast paced story driven flashback scene. The flashbacks are more or less standard Halo levels, usually outdoors in the daylight featuring lots of vehicular action, UNSC marines fighting (and getting plowed down) in large numbers, all grateful to see you, and even a familiar friend. These levels can be all too short, but are a much needed dose of classic Halo to break up the more tense and dull occupied city areas. Don't expect full size missions though, they're intense, but brief and tend not to cover as much land as you've come to expect from a Halo mission. This can be a good thing, though, as it avoids the endless repetition some of Halo's longer chapters provide. Much of the rest of the game takes place in the "open world." It's not entirely open, but you're presented a map screen and your much needed image enhancement in your VISR which outlines most objects and features a color-coded IFF. This is essential for the indoor and night time segments. The map is a beautifully rendered 3D image of the city, though the 3D buildings can get in the way of placing waypoints all too often. Regardless, this is where gameplay is designed to build more tension. Alone, in the dark, no vehicles, no random marine squads, just you, and the endless respawn...err..Phantom dropship deployment areas at most intersections with a courtyard.
This is both the strength and the weakness of the game. As a strength, it's a vast departure from the linear adrenaline pumping action of the Halo series, and takes a serious vacation form the "30 seconds of fun" paradigm laid out by Bungie in previous titles. Much of your time is spent meandering about a darkened city more reminiscent of Blade Runner than Halo, lurching around corners, and trying to duck and hide from Covenant patrols. Sure, direct engagement is required sometimes, but is often best avoided, especially at locales where two Hunters patrol a narrow street. Taking on two hunters in a narrow street, alone, armed often with a pistol, SMG, plasma pistol, or brute shot would be a bad idea. This is where the map comes into play. Seeking alternate routes is essential in these scenarios, even if it's the long way around. Even if it takes you right into a maelstrom of Brutes and Jackal snipers (oh, yes, they're on the roofs!)
Where this works against the game, however, is with a sense of respawn areas for the enemies (dropships seem to always drop more Covenant after you take out a patrol and walk down the street,) a shortage of ammo, and very little story development these areas can become dull and monotonous. Not as monotonous as The Library of the first game mind you, at least there's some variation to the city environment, and no Flood (yes, I repeat, NO FLOOD...anywhere...ever...at last!) but you still get a sense of "thirty minutes of boredom" opposed to the "thirty seconds of fun" strategy. Personally, I don't mind this at all and welcome the change of pace from the formerly over-saturated action of the sometimes tasteless main Halo series. Some may find it dull, however. Thankfully the built-in side story of "Sadie's Story" helps round this out for the treasure hunters out there. While it can be difficult to find all the story points (usually specific ATM's, pay phones, etc.) it's a rewarding enough story and greatly extends the playtime of the game. Once you unlock the whole of New Mombasa, you can wander around freely, including inside many buildings. When you find one of the objects highlighted in your VISR, you may retrieve the story. You always get the story pieces chronologically and they play out as a hybrid of a graphic novel and radio drama. The graphic novel has too few images, but the few it has gives you a true sense of the imagery, while the exceptional voice acting from the sometimes infuriatingly belligerent Sadie and a top-notch support cast delivers a wonderful back-story with surprisingly lengthy story segments. My only gripe? When listening to and watching the novel, the game doesn't pause, meaning you find your listening session interrupted by sudden controller vibration and the growls of a Brute. It may be realistic, but since there's few places to truly hide for long from patrols, it can make it difficult to listen to your hard earned story.
While the mainstay of the first half of the game can be boring at times, even to the point of seeming sloppily disjointed, as you progress deeper into it you find a second half of the main story which, to me, feels like the turning point where Bungie decided to turn what was an expansion into a stand-alone game. There is a jarring breaking point where the somber pacing of back and forth retrieval and small flashback missions snaps into the present where events converge, and suddenly a full story driven Halo game starts up, if only for the last portion of the game.
One of the great losses of the Halo series has been the gradual removal of the Forerunner structures. The thing that made many of us sit up and take notice of the original Halo was the imagery. The otherworldly Halo superstructure littered with better-than picture perfect vistas and rolling hills, staring at the other end of the ring in the sky, and angular regal looking ancient structures more advanced than anything in the present, made for a unique perspective. Even the corridors of the alien structures made for a gaming world uniquely its own. In Halo 2 we pulled back to Earth for a while, only to be greeted with another Halo ring frustratingly overrun by Flood and not nearly as advanced looking as the first. Finally in Halo 3 we spent most of our time on Earth, to be treated to a small segment on the Ark, only to interrupt it with a Flood infested High Charity that lasted twice as long as the Ark, and finally an ultra brief stint on the rebuilt original Halo 04. We've been getting more and more Flood and less and less of what made the original great: The otherworldly Forerunner structures. ODST, by definition lacks the Forerunner all together. The complete absence of the Flood and focus on the tactical Covenant battles more than makes up for it, though. By the end, we're treated to a huge surprise. A long, Halo style hallway-crawl through rooms that would otherwise have clearly been designed as a Flood level, with a near-otherwordly Forerunner-esque tech center, complete with towering ceilings and cavernous ravines. It even features the classic repetition of "the same room 15 times in a row" which at this point in the game feels like a relief. It's brilliant on a second level: not only does it finally give us a truly long Halo type level, but it shows us the mounting similarities between Human and Forerunner tech. The design is slowly edging strongly toward that of Forerunner, and if we had been told that it indeed was Forerunner, we would hardly doubt it (minus the shiny pale gray walls.) If that weren't enough, the final segment has enough truly beautiful scripted background events to make it all worthwhile. To give an idea of scope, the game begins during the early events of Halo 2. As we drop to our first mission, we see Regret's ship jump out and take out half the city with it, and we know the Chief is above us somewhere in the "In Amber Clad" jumping after him. The game ends with events lining up for Halo 3 with the city being glassed and the dig site starting to be unearthed.
Finally, it wouldn't be a Halo game without some multiplayer action. Co-op is back and the open world design makes it better than ever. While the flashbacks are clearly single player oriented with a friend tagging along, the open city makes for some great co-op action. Choosing paths in advance on the map, converging on the battlefield, splitting up for some divide and conquer all make for tactical possibilities. The high moments of the co-op game were, to be sure, having one trooper in the street taking care of the Brutes and Grunts, while the other found an open door in a building to climb to the roof level and take out the Jackal sniper above the railings, and another scene with a heavily reinforced intersection courtyard. In that situation, one trooper remained behind the barriers laying suppressive fire and creating a distraction, while the other went the long way around several buildings only to meet up at the flank of the Covenant blockade. This kind of action was previously unavailable in Halo co-op and makes Sadie's story that much more interesting to retrieve. Also added is Firefight, sure to be the new definitive co-op multiplayer mode. It's effectively a "hill defense" game mode in which wave after wave of dropships yield ever greater numbers of Covenant to take out. Shared lives and lots of cover make for an interesting change from the Halo deathmatch standard. Additionally, all the multiplayer maps from Halo 3 and ODST are included on a second disc along with all the DLC map packs. For classic Halo multiplayer fans, this is a comprehensive collection to have. For those that aren't traditional Halo multiplayer fans, disc 2 has very little if any value.
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