Halo 3: ODST (Xbox 360)
Sometime between now and Sept. 25, 2007, the Halo nation moved on. It mothballed its Spartan Lasers and took up Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare's M16A4. Halo 3: ODST is an effort to lure a legion of online gamers back to the fold.
The ploy won't work. Because where Call of Duty 4 and Halo 3 are hyper-competitive -- perfect videogame venues for displaying twitch prowess -- this follow-up is all about teamwork.
Sure, the game comes with a single-player campaign and an extra disc that gives players access to all of Halo 3's multiplayer content (including all of those map packs). But, truly, Halo 3: ODST is a delivery method for "Firefight," a four-player co-op mode that echoes the innovative "Horde" battles in Gears of War 2.
That makes Halo 3: ODST much more interesting to me than the vanilla Halo 3 multiplayer -- which, despite killer matchmaking based on player performance, can feel fairly punishing. Problem is that Halo 3: ODST is extremely late to the party with Firefight. Gears of War 2, Left 4 Dead and even Call of Duty: World at War have given us similar ways to slay with friends. Firefight's biggest advantage is that it is the new kid on the block. For a month or so, at least, there will be plenty of people wanting to jump into a match.
Firefight feels different than most other co-op survival games because it plays like Halo. The fuel rod gun looks impossible to lift, and nearly blocks all peripheral vision on the right. Loaded with TMNT-green cartridges, it hurls instant death wherever it is pointed. Such a gun would be considered overkill in most games. But in Halo 3: ODST it feels mandatory, because on certain maps, vehicles drop into the fray. Enemies come rumbling in deadly Brute Choppers -- massive motorbikes that rain fire with heavy fore guns -- or bombard your position from the heavily armored Wraith Tank.
Here is where the Halo universe's game of rock, paper, scissors trumps the rest. Gears of War may have dared to dream the Lancer Assault Rifle -- a weapon with a chainsaw mounted where the bayonet should be. But still, nobody brings the firepower like Bungie. And, finally, players aren't forced to aim this weaponry at friends.
Players share a pool of lives -- encouraging weak links to play more conservatively. When respawns are exhausted, the last men standing can bring their teammates back into the game by surviving the wave. The familiar voice of the Halo announcer dubs the player "hero" in his booming, slightly smarmy way. Few videogame rewards feel this good. To keep the rounds feeling fresh, a handful of "skull" effects slam players in the visor. Some buff enemies, dressing them in armor that deflects bullets or making them more prone to hurl grenades. Others weaken the player, forcing them to connect melee attacks to recharge their stamina.
And there's the benefit of being tardy -- Bungie has been able to observe and iterate on cooperative survival gameplay. Halo 3: ODST's Firefight does a fine job of meeting, if not exceeding, what has come before it.
Sadly, Bungie hasn't learned a heck of a lot when it comes to telling a single-player story. Well, it has learned one thing. Halo 3: ODST's campaign is mercifully short. The single-player story is easily consumable in a day. There's no disorienting slog through Flood flesh here. Sequences confined to futuristic hallways are kept to a minimum (though the maze of turn-backs and corridors in the Data Hive does overstay its welcome). And there's an admirable bit of experimentation happening.
Halo 3: ODST doesn't follow the superhuman Master Chief on a linear, one-man mission, but rather tracks the fates of a handful of soldiers. The plot is told in flashback from the perspective of a downed Rookie looking to hook up with his squad in the abandoned city of New Mombasa. The Rookie's wordless moments happen at night -- as he wanders empty city streets. The score by Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori works the best in these solitary moments -- when delicate piano finds respite from the bombast and guitar solos that blare during big fights.
Not much else in the Rookie's storyline works very well. That's because New Mombasa is a boring town. Walled into sectors by annoying blast doors, and totally homogenous throughout, it's hard to imagine that the place was ever inhabited by human beings. Only the occasional abandoned "Blade Runner" sedan and clich?d spray of anti-authoritarian graffiti gives us visual proof that New Mombasa was once lived in. Even the Covenant aren't totally sold on the place. They're not really occupying the place, but are rather delivered by drop ship to slow the Rookie's progress. Really, the only real signs of life come by way of collectible recordings -- another worn-out gaming trope -- that the Rookie discovers and listens to as he explores the nooks and crannies of New Mombasa.
The newbie's ultimate goal remains reuniting with his buddies, and the way this shapes Halo 3: ODST's narrative is the best thing about the game. All around the city the Rookie discovers traces of his compatriots. Each finding triggers a flashback that allows the player to retrace a squad member's steps. But actor Nathan Fillion is largely wasted as Buck -- there's little room for character development between missions. We know that Buck is steadfast, quick with a quip and in love with Dare (voiced by Tricia Helfer from "Battlestar Galactica"). And that's the extent of the humanity we get in Halo 3: ODST's plot.
Bungie did inject a massive (and wrong-headed) bit of mortality into Halo 3: ODST though. The Rookie, Buck, Dutch, Romeo and Mickey aren't gifted with the strength and power of Master Chief. So though they wear similar armor, their health doesn't regenerate. No, these schlubs are slaves to the health pack -- just like dozens of other videogame heroes that came before them. That's one way to make us look forward to Master Chief's triumphant return.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher.