Halo is perhaps the first gaming franchise I ever truly clicked with. I picked up Combat Evolved in around 2003 and I regularly cite its sequel as my favourite video game ever made. Whilst I never profess to being a ‘gamer’ — I care little for the ‘master race’ and competitive playing — even Halo 2’s turbulent production and ending does not deter my affection for it. Nothing rivals the jubilation of a nine year old getting his copy a day early, nor the genuine awe its narrative, gameplay and soundtrack brought to the table.
Nostalgia aside, I have replayed the Bungie titles a number of times. A welcoming familiarity surrounds them, like returning to a favourite book. Indeed, my affinity has always been towards the lore and expanded fiction: the novels and stories that enriched its more knuckle dragging, Nukem-inspired segments. This year I purchased an Xbox One, largely for its exclusive titles, and to revisit the games of my childhood. Whilst my interest in the franchise has certainly declined in recent years — I followed the first decade or so of the canon — it’s been a cathartic experience. The prospect of the remastered Master Chief Collection resonated with the nostalgia junky in me; not only to beat challenging moments of old favourites but also to see how well these games hold up. The most revealing title, however, proved to be the most overlooked of all. The 2009 expansion, Halo 3: ODST.
Released on the Xbox 360 seven years ago, this ‘spin-off’ of sorts garnered the robust —frankly excellent — gameplay and engine of Halo 3 and poised it towards new territory. Replacing the iconic, Master Chief with a silent Orbital Drop Shock Trooper; ODST flipped the given tempo tremendously. And it did so remarkably well.
The gameplay offers a departure from the one-man-army that has come to define the series. As an ODST, one is inherently more vulnerable and susceptible to damage. You’re no longer a shielded Spartan, nor are you seven-foot-tall, either. Brutes appear naturally more formidable, with even the once-laughable Grunts and Jackals posing a more serious threat. This changes the given dynamic, forcing the player to rethink any habitual trigger-happiness. This is, to some extent, all the more skilful. Whilst the sandbox elements see smaller Brute packs that those seen in Halo 3; the overall campaign hardly reduces the quantity of enemies. Ergo, the player, known only as ‘The Rookie’, are left to their own devices. AI characters, whilst scarce, help direct fire in that classic Halo sense — they’re useless in a firefight — meaning ‘The Rookie’ faces no less adversaries than his green counterpart. As a result, the single player gameplay becomes rather challenging. It’s slower and more systematic but deeply, if not more, satisfying. It has also aged remarkably well. The dichotomy between stealthy silenced weapons with bombastic vehicle segments manages to appease the principle elements of the game — whilst injecting a rare overture to the franchise.
The structure of ODST is equally refreshing. Halo is loosely recognised by its linearity. Levels flourish like chapters of a book, with only combat choices offering moments of structural diversion. ODST changes this: an open sandbox on the streets of New Mombassa links its levels together. ‘The Rookie’ finds clues to where his displaced squad have landed and flashback missions explain how that came to be. The player investigates the streets at their own pace, avoiding Covenant forces in due course, and piecing together the almost epistolary narrative. It works exceedingly well: with overtones of Film Noir and detective novellas coming into play. So much so, the level design effectively doubles back on itself: ‘The Rookie’ explores the very same landmarks his comrades fought alongside, in both the day-time flashback and this shadow laden sandbox.
This also leads onto a more pertinent feature of the game: its artistic direction. With whiffs of Blade Runner and Out of the Past, this futuristic noir feels incredibly matured. It is a world that, whilst inherently small, breaths with a natural livelyness. Halo, as franchise, is famously colourful. Albeit the beaches of the Cartographer, the grass of its eponymous second level or purples of covenant ships and weaponry. ODST sidesteps from all of this. Although those elements are still there — notably in flashback levels — the overarching design is much darker, burned out and resolute. The shadows and deserted towns are isolated and eerie. Even its metropolis backdrop with metallic metro stations and abandoned ATM machines ground it in a mundane reliability. It all serves to compliment its down-tempo gameplay wonderfully.
ODST‘s soundtrack takes this sentiment further. In a similar departure from awe and spectacle, Marty O’Donnells epic suites are replaced with a moodier, jazzier score. It flirts with the electronic moments — electric bass, distorted guitar and so forth — that seem reminiscent of Halo 2, but it really crafts something of its own. These more avant-garde moments abandon any ‘Hollywood’ tendency to perpetuate this dectective theme that runs throughout the whole game. It’s also a testament to Bungie’s excellent world building. In the same vein that the scale of design, music and gameplay that defined the Master Chief’s exploits; ODST carves its own empire within that very same world. From the largest set piece to the tiniest orchestral motif: it has an identity and heart.
As for its developing story, ODST is simple but effective. It follows a drop team as they are separated by a slip-space rupture in their opening launch. It slots in nicely with the middle section of Halo 2’s timeline; with the opening cut scene literally cross-cutting between a canonised event in the 2004 title. This sort of interconnectivity works well; the game needn’t establish a whole world or conflict but rather elaborate on the untold stories that surround it. The game incorporates recognisable vehicles, enemies and other semantic elements to great avail. We even see a familiar face in the closing Epilogue. But it purposely steps away from the mean, green protagonist and his more conventional traits, to form its own identity. It is this capacity to remain familiar whilst grossly different that makes ODST so mesmerising. It also introduces the Engineers, a long standing characters within the wider lore, with great charm. By revealing this lovable and complex species, it grants the relatively short campaign a much larger pay-off .
Whilst the main characters aren’t fully fleshed out: Buck gets a little bit too much attention in lieu of a downplayed protagonist, it works with the material it has. I would argue that Micky, Romeo and Dutch appear more interesting, if not funnier figures to explore, but its eight hour campaign can only do so much. (n.b for this reason it is recommended to play Legendary Solo; not only got the ‘full experience’ but also a healthier timespan). Their dialogue and quips reveal a humanity that is often amiss between the Master Chief and his counterparts; furthering the title’s ability to enrich an already standing universe.
The story’s continuity with its aforementioned design, gameplay and score is also worthy of note. The narrative has a certain piecemeal quality to it; but the missions themselves reiterate those darker, exhausted undertones within the genealogy of its pacing. The majority of levels are about survival, escape, evading capture or glassing. Where the Master Chief is very much an agent of change: he would kill a Prophet, steal the Index, rescue Cortana and save the world. In ODST, we are very much on the back-foot, struggling to regroup and survive. The majority of the game alludes to team members being killed; making this less about triumph and more about sacrifice. The flashbacks lend itself to this weighted feeling and bolster its noir-ish quality without feeling clumsy or tact on. The execution — the delivery of all these components of design and composition — is remarkably strong. Even the easter-egg hunt audio logs, that for many represent merely an Gamerscore Achievement, reveals the civilian tale as to why the Mombassa streets have been evacuated. There is a coherency in the very arteries of the game. It wants to tell a story and breathes with a spirit that is, at times, not even expected. It something all the more rare in titles today, least not those considered mere add-ons to much larger titles.
Above else, replaying Halo 3: ODST reminded me what I love about this franchise. Whilst I enjoyed 343’s foray into the series as a sleek, sci-fi shooter: it desperately lacks the creative fibre of the Bungie titles. It’s not my place nor desire to debate the merits of either studio, but ODST certainly serves to remind us how rich the Bungie-Halo universe had become by 2009. The expanded fiction complimented the games and the games did so vice versa. It had not become bloated nor confused about its direction. Given the turbulent production cycle for Halo 2 and 3; this is a testament to the studio’s innovation to prolong the franchise with such finesse. It is as if the fighting spirit of ‘The Rookie’ and his comrades extends well beyond the fictitious New Mombassa and into the development team themselves.
In its simplest form, Halo 3: ODST is an inditement of the world building prowess of Bungie in their prime. It also proves there are better stories aside from the standard, now exhausted, formula. Where Reach capitalised upon alternative characters in a feature-length title; it feels more crucial than ever to explore other avenues beyond Master Chief and his tiring tirade. I feel a Contact Harvest adaptation or ODST sequel would revitalise the series greater than the — frankly tedious — Promethean nonsense of recent titles. But perhaps the mature, experimental nature of ODST is a product of its time. Of a franchise both big and brave enough to take a risk. From a studio still hungry to prove themselves with a title that remains, to this day, a highpoint of the series.