(originally published 6/6/15)
Almost 6 years after its initial release, Halo 3: ODST was re-released as free apology DLC to Master Chief Collection owners who purchased the buggy, dysfunctional, 65+ GB hard drive memory void. Naturally, given 343 Industries‘ track record of fan service, the re-release did not include ODST‘s popular Firefight mode. So fans must settle with reveling in ODST‘s thrilling campaign, or returning to the all-but-extinct MCC multiplayer community. Or just play a different game altogether. But I digress.
I saw this as an opportunity to revisit a game which I had strongly disliked, but seemed to be critically well-received. Back in 2009, I thought of ODST as a money-grab, and a failure as a Halo game and an independent video game in its own right. But having an excuse to replay it now, I wanted to see if my perception of it had changed with time.
In short: No, it didn’t.
While there are definitely worse games out there, there are a few key things which cause this ambitious departure from traditional series conventions to fall flat on its face.
ODST‘s biggest issue is its story. At every turn, the game fails to make you care about what’s happening, which makes the already forgettable action and gunfights even less engaging.
At its core, the story of ODST is a tale of an elite squadron of soldiers who are separated, and must reunite and escape New Mombasa before the Covenant gets to them. Now on paper, this could easily make for an interesting story. But as was evident in 2010’s Halo: Reach, Bungie has a difficult time with the squad dynamic in stories. While Noble Six’s squadmates were at least definable soldier archetypes, there is nothing noticeably special or unique about any of the characters in ODST.
Personally, I could not find one unique personality trait among any of the ODSTs. Least of which The Rookie, who in-between revealing flashbacks is who the player controls looking for clues through the streets of New Mombasa. The “silent protagonist” can work in some stories to help the viewer put themselves in the shoes of the main character. But within the context of a tightly-knit unit of soldiers who are looking out for one another, playing as someone who shows no emotion or care for what’s happening makes it difficult for the player to care as well.
The dialogue doesn’t help either, and can be insufferable at times. Every character speaks in that “marine talk” that was so popular in shooters last generation. For example, take this actual dialogue exchange between two of the characters in ODST, whose personalities are too similar to deserve attribution:
“Thanks for picking such a tall building. I’m really digging all these stairs.”
“Do you ever get tired of bitching?”
“You ever get tired of busting my balls?”
Everyone in your squad talks like an obnoxious super-marine, which even further dehumanizes these one-dimensional characters, and makes it impossible to care when bad things happen to them.
Another ineffective, albeit unique, element to ODST is the stealth/sleuth portions of the game which take place in New Mombasa with The Rookie. Bungie stressed that when designing the game, they wanted to make it apparent that ODSTs are considerably weaker than Master Chief, so things like dual-wielding would be taken away and players were given a finite health bar along with their stamina-shields. The thought of not being a powerful spartan and just a vulnerable footsoldier could have been an interesting new twist on the tired Halo formula. But again, it’s not executed well.
The game lets the player know that “stealth” is a viable option, and gives them a silenced pistol and SMG. But what ODST considers picking and choosing engagements and sneaking around simply boils down to running through a level while the Covenant shoots you in the back. It’s not fun, and it’s almost always impractical to avoid enemies instead of just shooting them outright.
During ODST‘s promotion, I specifically remember the words “mystery” and “sleuth” being used to describe what you do. Those words are incredibly inaccurate and misrepresent what comes down to running around a defined area, looking for a contextual action to trigger a campaign mission. Maybe if there were a series of clues you needed to follow before finding the mission trigger, the term “mystery” would be more apt. But following a waypoint and using your enhanced visor to spot an illuminated sniper rifle hung from a wire does not constitute a “detective” mechanic.
One more element of ODST that I see people praise is the atmosphere. I assume the atmosphere they’re talking about is in the sections in the New Mombasa streets. Critics compliment the ambiance of the desolate city, which calls to the isolation of The Rookie in this dark, dreary environment, filled with dangerous Covenant at every turn. To me, it seems like people think these New Mombasa sections are much more artistically complicated than they really are.
One area I will give credit to with regards to how the tone for these sections is created is the score. Marty O’Donnell does a great job of mixing the iconic sound of Halo with piano and jazz instrumentation to make the city feel empty and isolating. But music is not enough to create the tone that Bungie was going for.
Visually, New Mombasa is simply dark and frustrating. There are few distinct landmarks that separate one section of the small city from another. Also, it’s hard to even focus on the atmosphere when you’re just trying to find out how to navigate around a locked gate that’s blocking you from your next waypoint.
But the primary reason why the mood that’s trying to be established in these section fails to grasp the player’s attention is because so little of the game is spent in the dark New Mombasa. I think fans of this game have this notion that most of the game takes place in these street sections. But most of the action and story takes place during the vibrant, populated flashback missions, which makes the Rookie sections feel like more of a means to an end.
Ultimately, I think ODST is simply style with no substance. And shitty, ineffective style at that. Yes, a somber and vulnerable mood is trying to be established, but that doesn’t mean it works. Maybe it’s just my tastes, but I can’t understand how anyone can be that engrossed in a campaign with such a lacking ambiance and poorly written characters who have zero distinguishing traits.
If you bought The Master Chief Collection, you’re entitled to a free download of ODST, so if you’re looking for an excuse to play some Halo, go for it. But if you’re considering buying this separately and looking for a compelling story and gameplay that goes above the standard FPS formula, then you’ll have better luck elsewhere.