I'll admit right here and now that the Halo franchise is one of my favorite franchises in gaming. I was hooked from day one when the original was released, as I spent an entire weekend playing it in co-op with my college roommate. Now we've arrived at our fifth Halo title, and the fourth shooter in the series with Halo 3: ODST, and while Master Chief's story may have come to an end there's still plenty of lore left in the Halo universe. But like many, I was a bit skeptical as to whether or not a change in characters and formula would work.
ODST takes place between Halo 2 and Halo 3. The Covenant have just discovered Earth and are looking for something deep within the planet. As the ODSTs are dropped into action a Covenant cruiser suddenly makes a slip space jump right in the middle of the mega city of New Mombasa. The five ODSTs in our story are scattered throughout the city as a result, and you as the nameless Rookie must piece it all back together. You'll work through a darkened and wrecked city in the middle of the night finding clues to your squad's whereabouts. With every piece collected, you'll trigger a new flashback and a small scenario is played out. Bungie has touted the game as more opened ended, and to some degree its true. You can walk around the city exploring areas and unlocking audio clues about how the city of New Mombasa fell. That being said, you are limited to where you can go by locked gates and shields, supplied by the City's AI known as the Superintendent.
Speaking of those audio clues, the audio logs are extremely well done, and have a hint of I Love Bees flavor to it. The ODSTs are voiced by an all-star geek squad of actors from Firefly and Battlestar Galactica, which is definitely a nice touch. And finally the music in the game is probably the best that Martin O'Donnel has created to date. There's some truly atmospheric stuff here that just shines.
While there's not a whole lot of "new" in ODST, there is a whole lot of polish. Graphically it's the best looking Halo game to date, with some truly gorgeous effects and back drops. There's the visor system, in place of the old radar system, which aids in discerning enemies, items, and cover by supplying colored outlines of these objects. You also have access to a full screen map and waypoint system you control. The biggest change to ODST is a return to something that Halo 1 had - a health system. In a day in age when the "take cover to regenerate health" is the norm, it feels very refreshing to go back to the health system. Why? It's tension. The tension it creates when your health is beeping, begging to find a med station, it adds so much to the game. It causes you to make a decision. Do I attempt to take out that small squad of Covenant? Or do I backtrack and find health? It gives you a consequence.
The enemies for the most part are familiar, though you won't see any Elites due to the current setting. Brutes lead the squads of Jackels and Grunts, and fighting the Hunters is an even more stressful situation as an ODST. Playing on Heroic yielded some pretty impressive situations with the AI, which appears to have been beefed up a bit. There were times when I would gun down half of a squad, only to watch the rest retreat and regroup with another before attacking us again. Without the shield system for yourself, you'll find yourself crouching behind boxes and cover more often. You'll play games of hit and run with the enemy, and you'll use grenades more often. Speaking of grenades, ODSTs are capable of carrying 12 in total, 3 of each kind. The new weapons are a silenced pistol and a silenced SMG.
The co-op mode allows up to four players online, two players locally with split screen, as well as local and online mixed. It's identical to Halo 3's system, so there's no ability to use match making for campaign or FireFight unfortunately. There's a few changes on the gameplay side of co-op though. The biggest thing I noticed is players are no longer tethered to each other, we were able to get quite a distance away from the other player without having them be warped to our position. Each player does take the role of an ODST, but the cut scenes still only show as if there's one. Overall if you've played Halo in co-op before, you should know what to expect - and that's a damn good time.
FireFight is the other big co-op addition to the game, which is Bungie's take on the Horde modes. Up to four players are tasked with surviving waves of enemies in successive rounds. Every five levels you'll get another skull added to make things more difficult, and you'll begin to see harder enemies being dropped. The team shares a pool of lives, with extra lives gained after surviving every group. I really think there's enough here that makes this mode stand out from the other horde and survival modes. The biggest thing is that a lot of enemies are spawned by drop ships that can fire on you, this means as enemies are spawning you need to take cover. There's this constant ebb and flow of the rounds as you fight back the waves. You'll need to time your health runs carefully, and cover each other effectively or you'll die a quick death as soon as you start to reach the later rounds. The earlier rounds are actually solo-able, something the game does let you do. All the maps for FireFight are based sections from the single player game. There's ten in total, with two of them being night versions of the same map.
So all of that is Disc 1 of Halo 3: ODST. On the second disc you'll find the Halo 3 multiplayer game as well as all the premium map packs AND three new maps. Much was made about the length of the game, but you're looking at about 7 or 8 hours on Heroic difficulty when going through by yourself, a bit less in co-op. There's co-op specific achievements for FireFight, and plenty of campaign achievements to earn as well. When all is said and done ODST doesn't do anything particularly ground breaking or new, it has some tweaks and changes to existing formulas, but what you get here is a small iteration of the Halo franchise. That's not to say it's a bad thing, in fact, I'd say it's probably what a lot of Halo fans want.