Wednesday, September 9, 2009

What ODST already gets right - and what it already gets wrong

Yes, yes, okay. All right. The man who spent the majority of this blog’s life blasting the Halo franchise preordered Halo: ODST yesterday. The road to this point was paved with trailers and first-impression articles, slicked with gin and tears. After a cathartic play-through of Halo 3 – not a great game, but a very good game, robust and dignified – I reconciled my affection (circa 2001) with Halo: Combat Evolved with who I am today. It was a beautiful armistice, doves and all.

Bungie has pressed the point that ODST is a new Halo experience, separate in gameplay, narrative and tone from Halo. From what I can see, it certainly looks better – enough to make me commit $50 to it, anyway. But different? I’m unconvinced.

Here’s what Halo: ODST is already doing right:

You aren’t the Master Chief.
Halo 3’s coda was a good way to retire the Master Chief – presumed dead on Earth, dearly missed, and floating in space with Cortana, his, ahem, digital love.
ODST straps you in the boots of the titular Orbital Drop Shock Trooper. Despite high-tech optics and plenty of firepower, ODSTs are significantly more fragile than Master Chief. They can’t take big falls, nor can they singlehandedly take on Covenant armies.
While you play “The Rookie” in ODST, flashbacks dump you in the helmet of your squadmates, voiced by cult heroes like Tricia Hefler, Nathan FIllion and Adam Baldwin. The dialogue showcased in trailers was surprisingly convincing – punchy, edged and decidedly un-campy.

There isn’t a Halo.
ODST takes place in New Mombassa, a futuristic East African metropolis overrun with Covenant soldiers. Instead of the lush terrain of Halo’s ring-planets – loudly rendered in all 64 Crayola colors – New Mombassa is dark, dirty and moody. When I heard lead designers were ditching Halo’s extroverted color scheme for a “gritty” aesthetic, I groaned, envisioning the grimy linear interiors of Gears of War, where everything seems to be covered in a layer of diesel exhaust. ODST is more Hammett than Gears, though, moody and dark without being Gothic or post-industrial. In fact, the city’s opsessive-compulsive custodial AI, The Superintendent, is quite determined to keep the windows smudge free. “Keep it clean. Respect public property,” he’ll tell you after you ambush a Covenant patrol.

There are multiple paths.
Much has been made about ODST’s storytelling – that it takes the linear model favored by the Halo games and flushes it out the airlock. When The Rookie comes to after a combat drop went awry, six hours has passed since the insertion. The player moves through New Mombassa, finding clues as to what happened to his squadmates. Each clue triggers a flashback mission, and through these flashback missions, you discover…something. Suppose we’ll see.
My question: can clues be discovered in any order? If not, how is this any different than Halo? In my opinion, ODST’s success hinges on Bungie’s ability to pull this off.

It’s a full game!
While Bungie said a while back that the scope of ODST had expanded significantly, they let slip a precise length last week at PAX: 8-10 hours. That’s roughly the length of Arkham Asylum, folks. I’m much more comfortable spending $60, now.

Here’s where they’re making me nervous:

You kind of are the Master Chief.
Okay, so you take fall damage, and you die faster – big deal. You still fight like the Master Chief, tossing grenades, unloading a clip and moving in for the melee kill. The ODST’s vulnerability should force players to change their tactics – striking from the shadows, rigging ambushes to ensure that fights are won before they start. From what I can see, Bungie made the ODST a weaker Master Chief. This will still be satisfying to the vast majority of Halo gamers (myself included), but I hate to see them miss out on such an obvious opportunity. I mean, please – don’t tell me I’m a normal, vulnerable human being and then let me murder a homicidal gorilla with the butt of my peashooter.
Where’s the new stuff?
Okay, so we get a silenced/scoped submachine gun and a silenced/scoped pistol. The pistol is really a restoration to the handgun we got in Halo: Combat Evolved (and wanted ever since). What else do we get? I’d like to see some trip mines, automated turrets or decoy projectors – utilities to help me fight strategically. Also, a few new vehicles to freshen up a stagnant (and boring) motor pool would be nice.

The non-linear storytelling may not pan out.
How non-linear is any open-world game, really? I’m nervous that New Mombassa will be a dungeon crawl instead of a dreary city full of possibilities and discoveries. Bungie recently announced that an optional subplot will detail the life of a resident woman a few days before the attack. Touches like that can really define an atmosphere, but I need fundamental gameplay shift to make me happy here.

Come on, Bungie. Don’t let me down.

(Also, check out this sweetass video).