OK my last blog went on a little too long so I guess I learned that unless I am being quick and snapshot like a single blog should be reserved for a single game.
Also, I stated in the last blog that Halo ODST was Halo's 'last outing'. And I now realise this could read wrong and fanboys will be waving their home made timeline spreadsheets in my face showing the sequence of events in complete chronological detail as well as the release dates for all games in the Halo series.
Yes, I know that the latest game is Halo Reach and there are no plans to make any more Halo games. By 'last' outing I do not mean the last one they will make. I mean the one before the current one. Like saying 'last night' where there will be another night ahead of us (we all hope). So hope that clarifies things. And no, I do not own Reach yet. Actually I only just got my hands on ODST, finally. And so this is my post about my thoughts on ODST and Halo in general.
Before I ventured into New Mombasa I had to rearm myself with the Halo story since it had been a while since my last play-through. I had played Halo on the PC so much in the past that I did not need to revisit it to remember the basics of the story. But often my recollection of events between Halo 2 and 3 gets compressed together and I mix up what happened when. So I grabbed my old Halo 2 disk and put it in the XBox 360 (god bless backward compatibility) and began to relive the adventure. After I played through Halo 2 and had refreshed myself enough, I put Halo 3 in and played through that too. As I did I picked up references to Reach that they had worked into Halo 2 and 3, so clearly by the time they got Halo 1 on the shelves they knew what they wanted to do and had a lot of the history set out. Halo 2 was released in 2004 as well so this is how long Reach has been on the drawing board as a story element at least.
I would love to recap the whole story of Halo but really, you should look up a wiki somewhere and read it or better yet get the games and play them.The story is too detailed and long to go over in a few words. Basically, lets just say that the Halos are scattered all over the galaxy, made by an ancient race of humans who evolved into space long before humans we know now came out of the caves. The Halos destroy all life in a wide area if they are activated, and they can all be activated at once from the Ark, somewhere outside the galaxy and there is a parasitic race called The Flood that Halo was designed to combat. Also humans are at war with another advanced alien conglomeration called The Covenant who worship the rings and a prophecy of 'the great journey' (guess what that is...)
So, Halo ODST takes place at the same time as Halo 2 when a Covenant fleet comes to Earth looking for something, not knowing where Earth was anyway, and are surprised to find us there. The Covenant carrier anchors over New Mombasa in Africa and hangs around for a while before bugging out by opening a jump portal above the city. In Halo 2 the city is engulfed in the energy wave and our hero, the Master Chief, follows the carrier through the jump to spank their arses some more.
In ODST you play the role of an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper who was sent into New Mombasa during the fleet fight at the beginning of Halo 2, though the original mission was to land on the carrier and take it out. Half way down though the intelligence spook attached to your unit changes the plan and starts to head for the city, overriding your drop pods and dragging you all with her. But before you hit the ground the carrier jumps and the energy wave washes over the pods too and scatters them around.
You play the rookie of the team, waking up at night, like 6 hours after the drop, with no contact with the unit. Your job is to find them in the city while dodging the Covenant forces still in the area, left behind by the carrier.
This is where the game differs from other Halo games and I am not sure yet if I like it or not. As I said in the RDR review, Halo is an on-the-rails shooter with a good story. You are nudged from one area to the next as the story progresses, given an objective and off you go. The paths are pretty linear, though you can try and flank the enemy with other routes around and such. Overall you are heading in the same direction. In ODST, however, you are dropped in an area of the city with most of the ways out locked down. You are alone and have to find your first clue to the squad's location. Then, suddenly as you find a piece that your squad left behind, you are thrust into the fight that happened there hours before, from the point of view of the squad leader. This is played out more like the traditional shooter games where you have one single objective and one general path. Then when events reach the ending that leaves the clue you found as the rookie, you switch back to night time again.
After the first clue is found you are given more intel that gives you hints where the squad might be and several areas in the city open for you to roam around with a few waypoints on your map to pick from. You can explore them in any order you like, and each one puts you in the shoes of one of the squad making their way into the city and finding other squad members. If you go through them in the order they are listed on your objective screen then you will get a coherent story out of them, where if you go through them in any order you will get the pieces all the same but have to make sense of them yourself.
And that is as far as I have gotten in the story at least. I found the last objective it listed for me and am playing through the part where the whole squad is back together, except for the poor hapless rookie, and are trying to get out of the city. But little is revealed about why they were diverted by the intel spook. That, I guess, is still to come.
So, how does it feel overall?
Well, as I said I am not sure if I like this method of storytelling as a game play feature. It feels a little like they had a story made up that was not very long and the running around from one waypoint to the next to be given it in pieces is a means of padding it out. But it does have its good points too. As a storytelling method in general, I do like it where the story unfolds from retrospective accounts bit by bit. I have even written a story series myself where I use this method, though this is on paper media rather than a game. So it is a bit of a conflict for me. I just felt that jogging from one part of the city to the other and back again, being ambushed in some places by Covenant forces, was starting to draw a little thin on my nerves by the third objective.
As for the controls, they are pretty good even though I am not a fan of any FPS on a console if I can help it. Unfortunately with Halo, I cannot help it since you cannot get it on the PC since the original game. I have not encountered any major issues with the controls so I am happy there.
As far as weapons go, one my my issues with Halo has been some weapons clearly are pointless and do nothing at all, and I am not talking about the little plasma pistols and such. And with each new game they have tried to revamp a couple of weapons to make them more effective in some situations. One nice feature is the instant kill headshot for the more accuracy based weapons like the human pistol and the covenant carbine rifle introduced in Halo 2 where it was largely a pile of garbage next to other counterparts. And this little feature does tie in nicely with the ODST being a crack assault team with special silenced and scoped SMGs not that different than the burst firing scout rifle in Halo 2 but with full auto as standard now. The emphasis on the game as the rookie alone in the city is survival and evasion where possible, so stand off battles will become your choice of tactic if you are not in a rush, and ammo conservation will be a priority in the Heroic difficulty or higher as ammo drops are low. Being able to bust heads with one bullet will be a precious skill to learn and the Brutes with their powerful shield generators on their armour take a lot of punch to strip down.
However I was bitterly dissapointed with the shotgun, which should have been the close in urban street sweeper of choice with buckets of stopping power point blank. But it did very little to the lightest of targets unless I pressed it against their eye sockets and said a short prayer to the god of hot lead.
This leads me onto the AI, who seem a lot more intelligent, though I jumped in on Heroic difficulty anyway so I guess they might be pretty stupid on easy mode. Last night I was trying to get past to another objective and one of the only two routes had two big and nasty Hunters, complete with plasma lasers and rocket launchers. At a push I could kill one of them with my pretty poor selection of weapons and ammo, but would pay the price of being clubbed into the floor like a squishy nail by the second guy thanks to the toll of health damage inflicted at this point. The other direction was a square at the end of a narrow road with a few nooks to take cover in, and was filled with about 6 Brutes and a couple of sniper Jackals. And it was here where I had an epiphany.
I struggled for ages to pass this wall of enemies not being able to charge them without dying and having to pick them off one by one and use my weapons smartly. My main frustration was that if they charged me I could dictate the fight and get some kills easier, forcing them into the narrow road where I could mow them down and lob a few grenades where they had little space to evade my fire. But as I was trying to kill them in the square from the cover of the road they had manoeuvring room to dive away from grenades and the slower Covenant projectiles from their powerful plasma rifles that could inflict lots of damage on them if the volley hits home. Yes it was frustrating not being able to close to killing distance due to their numbers. But hey, that is war! They were defending the square and quite happy to let me come and assault their position. Smart!
ODST has a pretty good sound track, kind of soft and moody jazz like a film noir piece and kicks in when you are playing the night sequences and usually alone on the street surrounded by the scenes of spent battles and burning cars. The city is pretty atmospheric in this way, which the music helps to enhance. The Covenant activity is lower at night and most of the streets are empty and poorly lit, save for the burning fires and flashing lights from half broken police cars. There are abandoned army barricades everywhere, corpses littler areas riddled with bullet holes and ad-screens built into nearly every piece of open wall show nothing but static lines. Some tunnels are still locked down blocking your direct routes in most cases and forcing you to go round and overall you do feel very much alone and abandoned in a huge and empty hostile city. Covenant troop ships patrol over head and occasionally drop people in your way to secure some vital choke points.
One last thing they have added, and it fells a little out of place to me, is an Easter egg hunt where you download and collect short audio logs from data bases following the exploits of some shady character in the city as the Covenant attacks and she is trying to escape. You hear the sounds of battle in the background and the people she is talking to. And I have to ask myself.... how did these short audio clips make their way into a myriad of public phones, ticket machines and even medical dispensers to be collected at a later date? They don't really have much to do with the story of the game except to maybe deliver some idea of what it is like to have your world turned upside down by an invading alien force when your life already sucks enough. The fact they are audio only is following the philosophy of less is more, leaving a lot to the imagination like some kind of radio play. However, I feel already that this is too much and the set pieces of a burning and abandoned city street or a police station riddled with bullets and over-turned desks studded with spikes from a Brute grenade shows quite enough of what would happen to a bustling urban centre. If they wanted a little more they could have added in unarmed civilians fleeing the front lines or cowering in public buildings and grocery shops as you played as the ODST troops scattered around the city when the real fighting kicks off. Because less is not only more, but more is more too. And in this case, it would have made more sense on seeing it.
Despite the game play being handled different, this is a good instalment to the Halo series and the game balance is handled well with the AI and weapon play. The story has mystery that is unfolding and the set has atmosphere. So I do rate it as a buyable game if you like FPS on a console.