Considering how the Halo franchise has gone thus far, I was completely expecting Halo 3 spin-off ODST to be yet more of the same, except maybe with a different main character than the Master Chef himself.
But… it’s not! It plays with the formula! Quite a lot! In good ways!
Halo 3: ODST
It starts with an opening text crawl. You know, one of those things that sets the scene really efficiently, giving a new or lapsed player an immediate summary of the context in which the story is about to operate? One of those things I reckoned that Halo 1 and Halo 2 and Halo 3 all really needed? Yep. It’s a simple thing, but one that this particular kind of grand space opera really benefits from (and why several of the more recent Star Wars spin-offs have tried to shy away from it, it I will never understand).
ODST seems to take place some time around Halo 2, when the Covenant forces accidentally invade Earth thinking they’ll find a Halo or something and not the human home world (whoops). There’s a cruiser hanging over a city and your squad of Shock Troopers gets Orbital Dropped in to do a Secret Mission, but naturally, things immediately go to shit and your team lands scattered across the city.
ODST is very exploration-heavy. While the other Halos are not shy of back-tracking, the city of New Mombasa is simply wide open (but for a few obvious load-bearing district gates) and you get to traverse it mostly as you see fit. There are open plazas, narrower streets, pedestrian overpasses and even buildings you can sneak into — this means there’s a much larger array of tactical options when approaching any group of enemies. Hell, if you’re not in the mood for a firefight, you can frequently avoid enemies entirely by finding emptier streets and circling round; and since it’s a big meandering city, well, any repetition feels so much less obvious than those suspiciously long corridors of the other games.
All of this requires an in-game map, which is where ODST feels like Halo 3 crashed into a half-baked modder’s experiment. The new interface for looking through your objectives is subtly at odds with the slick, pared-down HUD of the mainline game; like they had to invent a whole new heap of interaction paradigms and interface elements with the restrictions of a hobbyist building on top of a fairly rigid engine, rather than a professional game studio who can do whatever they want.
It goes even further than that, though. While Halo 2 flirted with letting you play as Keith David’s alien Arbiter for a few bits, ODST gives you regular outings as other squad members. “You” the player are a fully silent soldier only referred to as Rookie (unlike the not-silent-but-might-as-well-be-because-he-never-says-anything Master Chef), everyone else has a fun callsign and a load of hoo-rah military banter. As the rookie progresses through the ruined city trying to catch up to his team, each point where he finds a clue on the trail triggers a flashback to actually playing as the others around that point.
This makes for a refreshing change of pace, as the flashback sequences are more traditionally bombastic Halo fare. While the Rookie is skulking carefully through the night-time aftermath of the day’s attack, the flashbacks are in the sun-soaked midst of it with all the rampaging vehicles and jets roaring overhead that one would expect. And with a larger pool of main characters there is simply a higher volume of dialogue than the Master Chef and Cortana ever offered; as a result, the whole thing just feels so much more alive — which especially accentuates the contrast against your lonely night-crawling as the Rookie.
There are also audio logs! These are another strangely bolted-on system, as there’s nothing at all to draw you to them in the world. As you wander around the city, there are lots of little kiosks and advert screens and whatnot that at first look like fun set dressing, but walking up to any one of them may or may not give you a “Hold ACTION to get log!” prompt, which will in turn give you an audio log that is utterly unrelated to the thing you just activated.
They are all for a single side story, which follows the mayor (?)’s daughter’s actions during the attack. But they’re quite good fun! Despite being about panicked flight through the chaos of a literal alien invasion, they introduce many moments of levity in your eerie, lonely journey through the deserted city!
However, according to the internet there are thirty of them and I only found nine, so I’m now retroactively pissed that I got nowhere near the conclusion. Maybe I can spend my Master Chief Collection “Season Points” on a set of map markers? Ach, the game is very very short though, so I guess there will be plenty of opportunity to give it a more thorough run-through in future.
Which is something I might genuinely be inclined to do, because so far, ODST is the best Halo by a clear margin. I felt compelled to keep playing it by more than sheer obstinacy!
It’s kind of cute how after doggedly sticking to the same formula for years, ODST feels like somebody on the design team finally realised that may, just maybe, you can do a little bit more with the FPS formula and scrambled breathlessly to shove in a heap of new ideas. While that undoubtedly brings a few rough edges, the result is more interesting and more charismatic than Halo has ever been before.
Indeed, at this point I reckon those rough but charismatic edges are actually let down by the established Halo trappings, particularly the same fairly boring set of weapons and enemies. I tend to appreciate consistency, but by this point even I have to concede that that only works when your baseline is already good, whereas Halo‘s is merely… fine. (See counterpoint: the glorious standard weapon set of the Unreal franchise).
But yeah — definitely the best Halo, and it’s the one with no Master Chef in sight. Oops.