Saturday, June 13, 2009

What We Need From Halo: ODST

It’s no secret: things have been better between the Halo franchise and me. Some of you will be surprised to hear that they were ever good; but there were sunny days in 2001 when I would boot up my Xbox for a thoroughly enjoyable session with Halo: Combat Evolved. After its supernova success, the series started believing its own press, became consumed by megalomania, etc; while there are thousands of Bungie faithful who will disagree with me, I’ll simply say I haven’t been excited about Halo in a long, long time.

Nor was I excited when Halo: ODST (nee Halo: Recon) was announced. I didn’t buy their promises of a grittier, more tactical experience. I was, however, just a bit intrigued by what Bungie could do, now that it was unchained from Microsoft.

Gameplay footage from Halo: ODST was on display at E3. Stunningly, I was impressed. Here’s what Bungie needs to do to prevent a promising spinoff from becoming a same-shit sequel.

We’re not Master Chief anymore – and about goddamned time. The blasé ultra-heroism had more than outstayed its welcome. As a rookie shock trooper stranded and isolated in a hostile city, we need to very, very vulnerable – something I personally never felt in any of the Halo trilogy. If it’s successful, ODST will force a more considerate approach to firefights. Guns-blazing should get you ass-dead in this game; if not, it’s just Halo again.

Bungie is trying something new with the narrative, and good for them: the story of Halo: ODST will be told through flashback missions, each triggered by a piece of debris or some similar memento discovered by the rookie. What results is a discursive, non-linear way of unraveling what Bungie calls the “mystery” of New Mombasa – what this ‘mystery’ is has yet to be revealed, or even teased. But is the sequence of the flashbacks pre-determined? If so, the structure is a farce, and ultimately useless; if not, the stakes are significantly higher, and the payoff all the better for Bungie if they pull it off.

A change in mood, a change in tempo: Halo: ODST promises to play like a noir version of the terran navy, a scowling, gritty glimpse into a universe previously viewed at a blindingly high level of polish. If the trailer has anything to say, Bungie affects this through subtle changes: many cutscenes are told in the first-person, like the enthralling drop-pod sequence. The game in general seems more brusque and deadpan, and less Wagnerian than its predecessor.

Not that there’s really much at stake, though. Halo: ODST is more or less guaranteed to move at least a million units, and IGN shouldn’t give it any less than an 8.5. But for people like me – former fans, jaded by an uber-commercial franchise – Halo stands to be redeemed. For once, I’m rooting for the folks at Bungie. Don’t let us down, guys.