Halo 3 is one of the biggest games ever. It completely dominated online matchmaking the first couple of years that it was out. Only Call of Duty stood any chance in matching its numbers and thanks to the community tools available in Halo 3, Bungie had made it easy for players to keep coming back even if they began to fall out of the competitive multiplayer.
With all that focus on multiplayer, Bungie’s follow-up to one of their most popular games is curious. It was a single-player game that didn’t follow the Master Chief or any spartan for that matter. Halo 3: ODST follows a squad of ODST’s during the events of Halo 2. Sounds like it could be dead in the water but it might be one of my favorite Halo games to this day.
A simple premise
There isn’t much time to set up the characters too much before the start of the game. Romeo, Dutch, and Micky are all arguing about the mission’s true objective while the Rookie naps in the corner. Buck and Veronica enter the same room as everyone else with the whispers of their relationship woes echoing from the way they came and we can begin to get a sense of the ODSTs and their personalities.
Now don’t get me wrong these characters are usually nothing more than cardboard cutouts and on occasion soap opera participants but given the time and layout of the game that’s all you need. I know who everyone is and now I’m ready to go fight the Covenant threat.
Buck gets everyone in their pods and I finally take my place within the Rookie’s helmet and climbed inside the drop pod. The drop pods are the ODST’s entire schtick as they are Orbital Drop Shock Troopers who are trained to blast into a combat zone in these tiny pods and start fighting as soon as their feet touch the ground. It’s a little bit of a shame that this is the only moment we get to experience that vertigo freefall that ODSTs endure.
The ODSTs are knocked off course during their drop and get separated from one another. When Rookie finally wakes up, he finds that his pod landed in the side of the building and must fall the remaining three stories to the street below.
The setting is in New Mombasa around the same time that the Master Chief is following the Covenant ship to Delta Halo in Halo 2. It was incredibly smart of Bungie to use a setting and time that Halo players were already familiar with. Not as much needs to be explained overtly this way. I know that we are dropping in right when the big blast happens in Halo 2. Halo 3: ODST is essentially clean-up duty after the Chief went off to do bigger and better things. Through the course of the game, we learn the reason why ONI thought it was necessary to send additional troops into an area that has largely been abandoned and why the Covenant left a portion of their army. Everyone is working on finding a single former Covenant member. An engineer that had absorbed the City’s AI, the Superintendent.
The collaboration between human technology and the Covenant’s living computer (the engineer) would allow humanity to have significant insight into the Covenant’s weapon systems and plans which was why Veronia hijacked Buck’s squad. They needed that intelligence. It may not be the same as stopping the elimination of all life in the universe, but it certainly stands out as a worthy mission.
A different take on the Halo sandbox
ODST uses the same engine as Halo 3. It was originally supposed to be an expansion, but due to contract issues and the evolution of the project, it eventually became its own game.
The game chooses to utilize a storyline that isn’t made up of flashbacks to what the squadmates did when they first regained consciousness. ODST makes each level count by making them all have their own unique gameplay variation. The vehicle-focused level in Uplift Reserve, the tank level in Kazingo Boulevard, the sniper level in NMPD HQ, and the Banshee level in Kikowani Station. Of course, there are moments where you walk around and do other things, but by giving each level its own focus, squadmate, and even time of day, Bungie was able to make these levels feel more individualized and yet connected.
There are moments where you will leave the flashback and return to Rookie’s body to see the remains of the warthog that Dutch drove on a cliff or see the debris leftover from the destroyed space elevator. These are great world-building moments that ground the levels in the storyline much more coherently.
Returning to Rookie’s body is ODST’s biggest innovation as this is where the isolated soldier must navigate the darkened streets of New Mombasa in search of his squadmates. He looks for clues to uncover what happened to them, and each clue leads to a flashback level starring one of the other squadmates. Mombasa Streets are a semi-open world that player uses to connect the past events.
The tone of these sections is completely different from anything that has been in Halo before or since. Rookie’s wet footsteps can be heard during the quiet moments of wandering the city, with the only living beings in the city seeming to be the remnants of the Covenant forces. A slow saxophone and piano narrate the Rookie’s isolation. It all helps to give a sense of mystery, loneliness, and a tinge of sadness.
Bungie didn’t add much to the sandbox, though. The only new assets to the Halo toolbox are a silenced SMG, the M6C/SOCOM pistol, and night vision. The SMG and pistol are fun to use, and they always make me feel like a secret agent compared to the Chief’s normal arsenal. In fact, this pistol might be my favorite in the entire series next to Halo 5’s pistol. The SMG is definitely better than the standard SMG, but I usually only gravitated towards it in a pinch on higher difficulties.
The night vision gives a really pleasant outline system around enemies and other points of interest in conjunction with making things brighter. It actually provides the game with its own unique aesthetic and only adds to the overall feel of the game. I only wish that the Mombasa Streets levels were more varied and difficult. All of them can be charged through in only a few minutes if you follow the waypoints. Brutes, hunters, and grunts won’t offer much resistance to you on your way to the next clue either. Right here is where the largest problem with ODST stems, it doesn’t capitalize on its identity enough.
ODST’s problem with commitment
While ODST does a great job in creating a tonal shift from the core Halo games, it doesn’t utilize the ODSTs enough in its gameplay. For example, ODSTs are significantly weaker than spartans, so melee attacks aren’t as effective, your jump isn’t as high, and you lob grenades instead of pelting them. These are decent changes, but the ODSTs can still take down dozens of Covenant singe handily, hijack enemy vehicles, and flip warthogs.
I understand that some of these are designed to preserve more of the fun elements of the series, but I think it would have been a much more interesting experiment if we were able to play a Halo at a large disadvantage. Imagine if we needed to plan out our attacks on a single squad much more carefully, or we risked being knocked out with a single brute fist?
What if the Mombasa streets with the Rookie were the hardest levels since all allies are missing and Rookie had limited resources? An emphasis on stealth and reconnaissance could have gone a long way in making ODST have a much more interesting identity.
However, as it is, the game plays it safe and only makes you feel like a weaker spartan II. Actually, the spartan IIIs play very similarly to the ODSTs. That doesn’t seem quite right. After the first few encounters, I quickly forgot that I wasn’t a super solder because I played pretty much the same as I have played in other Halo games, but it started out so promising.
One of the first scenes in the game is when Rookie is exploring a building looking for his first clue as to what happened to everyone. Dead marines and COvenant forces are spread throughout the building. You can tell a fierce battle occurred here. You are walking through the corpses of friends and foes with a flickering light going off down the hall and fluorescent blood covering the walls.
It feels like a horror game for a second. The fear of being a vulnerable soldier who isn’t made of modifications and the latest armor technology. This moment I hold above all others as what Halo 3: ODST could have been if it had more time. The Covenant should be a terrifying premise to anyone who can’t dual-wield SMGs.
If ODST had more development time and was willing to lean in on the ODST angle, it not only could have made what is already the easiest Halo game much more difficult, but it could have made it longer. ODST is the shortest game in the series. Make the Mombasa streets more like a maze with difficult enemy encounters, and these missions could have been a lot more memorable.
Yet, the game still has heart
Despite my gripes, ODST is still a really great game. The only reason I can be so critical of it is that it’s because this is the last time the franchise is so experimental in the FPS genre, and it feels like it could have been so much more. There is one thing that ODST does better than most others in the series, though. It has heart.
I’m not talking about that forced romantic drama between Buck and Veronica. I’m talking about the individual ODSTs and their banter with one another. I’m talking about the fear that seeps into their conversations as they discuss what to do next or if they just want to get out of the city. The Master Chief doesn’t consider these things. In fact, they aren’t options to consider. He was taught to fight and only fight unless told otherwise. The ODSTs have a sense of self-preservation and comradery that we don’t typically get from the core entries in the series.
Finally, there are the audio logs that the Superintendent sends to the Rookie as he explores the city. Sirens will be blaring, or a phone booth will be shooting coins in an attempt to get the attention of the player so they can learn about Sadie, a young woman who was the daughter of the man who designed the city’s AI. These audio logs are some of the best voice-acting performances I have heard from this franchise.
They give so much insight into life in New Mombasa and how people reacted to the Covenant threat in real-time that it all just makes me want more games that take place in this intimate sector of the war. Less epic Chief saves the universe stories and more isolated soldiers doing their best to protect regular people.
From the jazzy soundtrack and darker setting of the abandoned city of New Mombasa to the sense of grief and isolation that the game pervades, Halo 3: ODST manages to set itself apart from other entries while sitting within a very familiar space all at the same time. It didn’t revolutionize anything for the franchise, but it offered a glimpse into a different side that the games could focus on. I just hope that Microsoft and 343i don’t forsake the lessons that were learned during this experimental period.
Halo 3: ODST is one of the shortest and easiest Halo games, and yet it has just the right amount of saxophone and charm for me to boot it up on a particularly lonely weeknight and wander the streets of New Mombasa. Only the pitter-patter of my heavy booted feet tells me that I’m not just a ghost within the world.