Release: September 22
Is the Master Chief generic? Does he lack identity? That’s the implication of Halo 3: ODST, because he’s not here and you won’t care in the slightest. His replacement, the eponymous Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, has most of the same weapons, fights the same enemies and uses the same tactics. He doesn’t have a shield, except he does but it’s called Stamina. Bungie emphasises the difference between the ODST and the Master Chief, but there’s very little noticeable change in the nature of the game. This is Halo. It feels like Halo. Perhaps you’re a tiny bit weaker, and the hub structure is certainly new, but moving from area to area taking on Covenant squads is still the core of this experience.
Halo is all about these epic, flowing battles and ODST has some of the series’ most jaw-dropping. It may be the shortest Halo game – it takes a little over six hours to finish on Heroic difficulty – but that time is spent in one of the richest and, most surprisingly, varied campaigns so far. And don’t place too much emphasis on that six hour figure. Thanks to Microsoft’s restrictive review process, we were forced to play with an eye fixed on finishing the campaign quickly – running from place to place without exploration, and passing checkpoints without taking time to defeat every enemy in an area.
Bungie’s instincts for player behaviour are improving continually, and it makes this campaign’s difficulty curve perhaps the smoothest in the series. It would be an exaggeration to call ODST an easy game, but it’s noticeably free of the bottlenecks familiar to Halo veterans: there’s no Tsavo Highway this time around. From the game’s beginnings, where a Covenant ship making a subspace jump sends you crashing into a dark and deserted Mombasa, there’s a steady trail of breadcrumbs tempting the player onwards to business as usual. Mombasa itself is perhaps the game’s greatest departure: an enormous, grand vision of urban war that’s never been quite so central a part of Halo before.
Most of it’s closed off at first, of course – connecting to the AI that controls the city, the Superintendent, starts you off on the merry-go-round of waypoints that drive ODST’s big moments. You’re looking for traces of the other members of your squad, and when you find an artefact it triggers self-contained ‘flashback’ levels telling that soldier’s story. For lesser games this would merely be a narrative conceit: for ODST it’s the structure that allows an exploration of every major weapon variety and strategy in the Halo universe. Your colleagues are divided according to type and, while there’s hardly anything original in having a gruff chum who’s a ‘heavy weapons guy’, these are the foundations for set-pieces that both demand and exploit a particular breed of playing. It’s a simple tactic, but the panache with which it’s executed is thrilling: ODST could have been more accurately named The Halo Variations.
After the first two missions you’re free to roam Mombasa and track down the remaining artefacts in any order you choose, unravelling the story behind each team member’s disappearance, finding audio logs and piecing together what’s happened. The Halo universe has never been short of a thundering story, but here there’s a thread of mystery that adds a welcome undercurrent to the alien apocalypse, and the strands weave together into a neat window on a Chief-less world. It’s not Far Cry 2 – there are no bold leaps into the unknown future of that maligned beast, the FPS narrative – but there’s no doubt ODST offers the most engaging and least flabby chapter of Halo’s mythos.