Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dropping Into a Different Halo – Sort Of

The success of Halo 3: ODST has been heralded with a dull ring of inevitability – it’s Halo, of course it’s going to fare well with reviewers. True, Bungie could probably release Halo 3 10 times to consistent acclaim, but ODST is a curious diversion for Microsoft’s prize pony. It lacks the franchise’s signature space marine, Master Chief; there isn’t a Halo to be seen; its designers purport it to have a nonlinear design and a film-noir feel.

Let me repeat that: nonlinear design. Noir feel. Halo.

The idea of an arthouse Halo game is beyond oxymoronic – it’s absurd. The universe has no color to speak of, and what little recommends it is cobbled together from other, better sci-fi stories. When designers started sounding off about the different direction they took with this expansion-pack-cum­-standalone-game, I craned my neck in curiosity – after all, if you have advance tickets to a bus crash, get there early and get a good view.

Halo 3: ODST is a return to form for a franchise bloated with bombast and Wagnerian excess. Its distilled gameplay, skillful storytelling and high level of polish hearken back to 2001, when Halo: Combat Evolved arrived with the modest goal of making the Xbox a must-buy system.

This isn’t a fans-only affair, or a self-indulgent diversion. This is an easy recommendation for anyone who enjoys a good, no-frills action game.

ODST slams you in the boots of the Rookie, a novice commando filling a gap in an elite Orbital Drop Shock Trooper squad. While nameless and voiceless, his squadmates – Buck, the leader; Dutch, the big-guns oaf; Mickey, the pilot; Romeo, the sniper; Dare, the spy – have enough to say. And thanks to the talent of Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, Alan Tudyk and Tricia Helfer, they say it well.

You’re dropped from the belly of a troop carrier, an embattled Earth awaiting you below. As ODST takes place between Halo 2 and Halo 3, you know how this is going to go – a Covenant ship enters slipspace above your city-of-destination, producing a massive shockwave that knocks you off course. When you come to six hours later, it’s night, it’s raining, and you’re isolated in a city crawling with Covenant patrols.

As pre-release press has strained to point out, you aren’t the Master Chief. You can’t jump as high (though you kind of can). Your melee strikes do half the damage. Your “stamina” is no shield, and when it’s depleted, any damage you sustain will remain until treated with a health pack. Sulking in the shadows with the blip of a heart monitor reminding you of your injuries definitely adds a flavor of tension previously unknown to the franchise.

ODST is startlingly subtle and subdued. Halo 3 propelled you from climax to climax, the music swelling and Wagnerian; ODST isolates you in the rainy streets of New Mombasa, with a haunting string track or plaintive saxophone to keep you company. Somehow, somehow, the Rookie levels achieve the noir feel without affect, camp or pretension. I can’t believe they pulled it off. It’s by far the franchise’s most memorable setting, and indicates a lurking refinement that Bungie devs cunningly concealed in Halos 2 – 3.

However, it falls short of genius. After a few hours prowling the streets, I started growling: why are all the doors locked, especially when Bungie seems all too content to transplant the same vaguely-office interior into every single building in the city. Seriously – of your average, run-of-the-mill Mombasa buildings, there’s one interior. Where are the shops? The apartment buildings? You can’t tell me the future lacks malls. While Bungie made New Mombasa haunting, atmospheric, etc, it more resembles a painting than a real, lived-in city. No human detritus, no real sense of life at all – just evidence of a meticulous urban planner, once resident but long since disappeared…almost like a Halo!

Instead of plowing from mission to mission a la Halo 3, ODST ‘s story is told through a series of flashbacks, triggered by artifacts scattered throughout New Mombasa. As the Rookie, you walk alone from beacon to beacon, engaging the flashbacks in whatever order you see fit. Those missions are traditional Halo fare, served with enough boom and bluster to satiate diehard fans. But when the ride is over, you’re back in the boots of the Rookie, cut-off from allies and constantly threatened by Covenant support. More than once, I actually dreaded the prospect of facing New Mombasa alone, at night, and in the rain.

But whatever – anyone who cares about atmosphere is a sissy, right? Let’s talk about the combat. If you liked killing Covvies in Halo, you’ll love it in ODST. As I said above, the health system is an interesting and extremely effective throwback to days where hiding behind a crate for a few seconds won’t save your ass. Bunny-hopping is still a integral part of effective fighting, which kind of belies the whole new-gritty-feel thing. But hey, this is Halo, isn’t it? You jump, you shoot, you grenade and you melee, because that’s how you did it in Combat Evolved; and frankly, it’s held up pretty damn well since 2001.

Two new weapons make the impact of four: The silenced SMG and the new pistol are deadly, and by far my favorite weapons in the franchise. The silencing is entirely cosmetic, but it sounds cool, and the added zoom lets you drop bad guys from a distance. I picked them up whenever I came across them, regardless of what was already in my hands.

Many are buying ODST because of Firefight, a new multiplayer mode pitting up to four players against successive waves of Covenant. When critics say the co-op killfest sells the game, they aren’t kidding. Coordinating tactics with your teammates is essential to success, especially in the later waves when they train the heavy weapons on you. Sure, it blatantly steals Gears of War 2’s Horde mode, but who cares? I prefer Halo’s athletic brand of shooter to Epic’s heavy-metal, swinging-balls action. Firefight speaks to people who don’t exactly relish getting teabagged by pre-pubescent Halo-jocks – people like me.

ODST isn’t a great game – but neither was Halo 3. The franchise has always been distinguished by a thorough, almost dogged competence, always reliable for a good time but never coming close to real greatness. Perhaps ODST comes closer than any of its predecessors, but it’s still Halo – still Microsoft’s bread and butter, still a $60 product to sell to millions of eager fans looking for more of the same – and until the franchise outgrows that, greatness will elude it.