Having spent this whole year playing through the Master Chief Collection on Xbox One, I feel like I finally got to know Halo. I played all of the games co-op and am also playing Reach now, to round out the experience before Halo 5.
But there’s one game in the series that has been known for dividing fans, because it’s so different than the others: Halo 3: ODST. The “ODST” stands for Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, which are who you play as throughout the game. (No Master Chief here.)
I am definitely one of the fans of this game. I really enjoyed how unique this game feels compared to the rest of the Halo series, while still retaining the world, enemies, and overall conflict that we’re familiar with.
The biggest difference is the atmosphere. The game’s mood is very melancholy. A lot of it takes place at night, in an evacuated city on Earth called New Mombasa (in Kenya). You start out as the “Rookie,” who’s trying to find out what happened to his missing squadmates. It’s a lonely place to start the game — dark and deserted — which is why I love it so much.
Just load up the main menu of the game to hear the wistful music with piano, strings, and a mournful cello, accompanied by rainfall. While other Halo games feature music that feels big and heroic to me, this one has more intimate songs. They’re a little more emotional — not afraid to be somber or sad. For a series that has such amazing music, I have to say that ODST has some of the most beautiful tracks.
The gameplay also feels different. For one thing, the game is more open world. That means that after you kill enemies in an area, sometimes you stick around in the empty streets to find your way to your next objective; it adds to the realism and lonely feeling. You also have a VISR mode that highlights enemies and points of interest for you. You can check mission objectives and extra information as you go, and even set waypoints for yourself on the map. I did this frequently and checked my direction a lot.
Being in an open world means you can approach missions from multiple directions, and there are lots of spots from which to shoot down enemies. Once, my co-op partner and I took two different routes so we could flank the enemy. That same time, we realized that one of us could get straight to the objective without engaging the enemies at all.
But the game is hard. (Don’t even get me started on the last missions on the bridge and that final fight.) Because you don’t have Master Chief’s energy shield in this game, you lose health easily. As soon as you feel a hit or two, it’s pretty important to take cover and let your stamina regenerate so your overall health doesn’t take a major dent. I was constantly on the lookout for med packs.
One thing that’s cool, though, is that the gameplay feels very spirited. Maybe it’s because your health decreases so easily, or that enemies can attack from all directions, or that you have no linear path to follow… but I was constantly in motion. I loved being able to enter buildings to find balconies or windows I could snipe from, but even then, I would often end up a target and had to relocate. On the ground, I was always leaping and running to avoid enemy fire, which made it harder to aim but really exciting. In other Halo games, I guess I always feel like I’m approaching the action from a distance, headed straight towards it; in ODST, it kind of surprises you from everywhere.
Story-wise, the game is really engaging because you’re following a human soldier who’s lost his team. As you explore the city, you find clues — like in one spot, a squadmate’s sniper rifle — that initiate flashback missions. In each of these, you play as the squadmate character, learning what happened to them in the process.
Plus, this game introduces you to Buck, a character who’s making a comeback in Halo 5. Voiced by Nathan Fillion (and looking more like him than ever in Halo 5), Buck is a sarcastic, somewhat grumpy Marine who had something going with Captain Veronica Dare, another character in the game. Their bickering can be funny but is also pretty cheesy — just like a lot of Buck’s repeated combat lines when he’s reloading, for instance.
I guess I’m not a huge fan of the dialogue. The squad interactions sounded a little dorky to me much of the time. But overall, the story and characters are interesting because they feel so real and human. I actually enjoyed this more than some of the other Halo stories, in part because of the noir-like investigation that frames the flashbacks.
The one part of the “dialogue” I really liked were the logs you pick up around the city, detailing the difficulties of one of the city’s residents, a young woman, trying to leave the city. It gives you some backstory about how New Mombasa must have been during the evacuation. You listen to the woman speaking (to guards, for instance), with the chaotic sounds of city life in the background — cars honking, people chattering, shouts. All of these are found during the Rookie’s investigation of the city, so they add interest to the sections of the game where you’re wandering the streets in the rain, trying to find clues about your squadmates.
I don’t know that this is my favorite Halo game of the series so far, but it’s hard to compare it to the others because of its originality. I think it’s very worth playing — short and sweet and very atmospheric. The enemies and conflicts make it obvious that we’re in the Halo universe, but those are the only big familiarities. We’re not even in space or on some alien planet now; we’re on Earth. That’s why I would recommend this game to anybody who wants to play an exciting sci-fi shooter that’s very grounded in its human story.