Microsoft's Xbox 360 fall action headliner Halo 3: ODST arrives today with all the gravitas of a question mark. A Halo without the series' golden-visored, plasteel-clad paragon Master Chief? No gravity-defying leaps or Usain Bolt-caliber sprinting? No damage-sapping personal force-field? And Microsoft wants you to pay sixty bucks for…what again exactly?
Let's talk plot positioning. Halo 3: ODST technically counts as Halo 3-point-five, except that's not exactly right. Its story occurs before the operatic gunplay of Halo 3 (PCW Score: 85%), so it's really more like Halo 2-and-a-half. In Halo 2, the alien Covenant attack Earth and you engage the early parts of that game repulsing them. In retreat, one of their faster-than-light jump ships generates a disastrous shockwave above a fictional African city. In ODST, you play a "rookie" United Nations Space Command soldier trapped in the city after the calamity, scouring the wreckage for your missing squad-mates.
The idea for ODST began as an expansion pack for Halo 3, just a couple hours of first-person run-and-gunnery devoted to the unsung heroes of the series, the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, aka the guys blown to smithereens as you piloted Master Chief around the last three games like a Jedi bulldozer. Somewhere along the way ODST became something more, something ostensibly capacious enough to warrant hiking the price tag from bargain expansion territory to full-blown $60 standalone game.
ODST's takeaway sounds simple enough: Think Call of Duty lite (or as some have quipped, Halo of Duty) with a sci-fi slant and battles channeled via flashbacks. As you pick through the rubble for signs of your teammates, you'll find artifacts that trigger throwback sequences--you play through these as each respective team member, experiencing their "personal" stories firsthand.
Your ballistic pallet's limited to simpler weapons here, so pistols and submachine guns instead of high flying stuff like Halo 3's energy swords and gravity hammers. You'll take debilitating damage from single shots, and without medical assistance, you can even bleed out. You'll also have to scramble and skirmish between cover points instead of leaping over or charging around them. On the flipside, you've got a new tracking heads-up-display that pegs enemies with red outlines and notable items with yellow ones.
All told, it's intended as a grittier, more human Halo. That the voice acting's carried off by guys like Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk, and Adam Baldwin (also Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer) has led a few to make Firefly comparisons. The design team's admitted they're fans of Joss Whedon's critically acclaimed cowboy sci-fi TV series. Given the latter's roughneck pedigree, it seems an apt enough comparison.
ODST also ships with a dedicated multiplayer disc, though it's primarily loaded with old Halo 3 maps and only a smattering of new ODST ones. "Firelight," the game's single new mode adds cooperative multiplayer for up to four players. Like in Gears of War 2's "Horde" mode, you start off shooting fish in a barrel and wind up fending off their angrier, deadlier, steroid-popping betters.
Is it worth sixty bucks? The early critical reaction seems broadly positive, though there's also broadening consensus that a six-hour campaign and one new multiplayer mode don't justify the price tag. It probably comes down to whether you're Halo-do-or-die or merely Halo-for-the-heck-of-it.
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