Monday, September 28, 2009

ODST Review

Last week I dropped into Halo 3: ODST and I've really been enjoying it. (My wife would probably say I've been enjoying it too much and shouldn't stay up past midnight playing games, even if it is a Friday night). I've been sad to see it receive mediocre-to-bad reviews in the media, so I figured I'd put my opinion out there. I hope this review will tip the scales for some of my friends who haven't picked up the game--I need more friends to play Firefight with.

I've broken down my review around key points and provide counter arguments to many of the negative reviews.

Most reviews need to get over themselves on this point, especially regarding the "Wasn't this a Halo 3 expansion?" crap. Both Microsoft and Bungie have been pretty clear that they decided to go beyond the scope of just an expansion.

Personally, I feel the price is just fine. It is right in line with all major polished games. Some people seem to think that Bungie "owes" them something -- as though because Bungie had previously built the Halo 3 engine they don't deserve as much money for a new game using it. As a software developer, I am more than happy to pay for good software and I'm keenly aware of the predicaments surrounding software often being under-valued.

But in any case, Bungie did update their engine for ODST, they added a new campaign, and they added a new multiplayer mode. And the stats available on go above and beyond what most games provide.

To me, getting the Halo 3 multiplayer maps is also a nice bonus. I hadn't bought any of them, so I feel like I got a good deal. But even without that, I'd still say ODST is worth the price (I still haven't put in the 2nd disc).

I very much enjoyed the campaign. It reminded me of the original Halo: Combat Evolved -- I felt like I was exploring a new world again. Some people have brought up the "Halo 1" comparison as if it were a bad thing or that Bungie had somehow regressed. I disagree, feeling that they've taken the best of both worlds.

I'm a huge fan of the story in the original Halo. But somehow Halo 2 and 3 left me feeling quite unsatisfied. The overarching story was compelling, but it was ruined for me in the little details, contrivances, and the occasional terrible lines.

The ODST storyline really strikes a chord with me. You are dropped into a new setting very unlike the other Halo games (and no rehashed Forerunner levels -- seeya library!). You are given somewhat more leeway in how you go about completing your objectives. There is great voice acting and dialog. But the piece de la resistance is the atmosphere they create: the lost rookie in an occupied city; a fragmented squad trying to do the best they can.

Speaking of the squad, the Firefly casting is superb. They pay some excellent homage to the series, yet also manage to bring a very Halo feel to the characters. I agree with some reviews that they could have done more to develop the characters so you care more about the squad. But compared to the very two-dimensional Master Chief, the ODSTs have a lot going for them.

The combat dialog provided by the cast is fun to listen to, and also gives Firefight some nice flavor. Additionally I found that their dialog can also be very helpful, saying things such as, "Down to my last mag!" when you're running low on ammo. Sometimes I lose track of my ammo while in the middle of a fight, and that little audio clip really helps me out.

The Hub
The tasteless critics seem to think that the open-world hub area was just a play on Bungie's part to extend the duration of the campaign without adding any real substance. I can't understand this opinion. There is a great atmosphere and sense of exploration. It's the perfect setting for the story they are telling. It's true that the hub is somewhat light on combat, and I have no problem with that for the sake of the story!

Discovering the clues to what happened to the squad was compelling to me. I liked the idea that the city's AI, the Superintendent, had been recording events happening all over the city.

I also liked the optional "Sadie's Story". As a gamer who leans toward completionist, I found the search for these story bytes to be a very enjoyable treasure hunt. Unlike Assassin's Creed there are a reasonable number of items to find, and the Superintendent will assist the observant seeker.

ODSTs vs. Master Chief
Too many reviews are getting hung up over the differences between the ODSTs and the Master Chief. I can agree with some of these points. For example, why can't the ODSTs use equipment (e.g. bubble shield) but they can tote around a turret without breaking a sweat? It's pretty arbitrary.

But having said that, I enjoy the differences. I must vehemently disagree with the distinguished senator Justin McElroy of the site of Joystiq. He asked, in essence, "Who looked at the awesomeness of the Master Chief and asked for less?" Well, sir, I did.

I tire of the Master Chief. He's too powerful, and that cheapens the character. He's a one man army. From Halo 2 and 3, it would seem that he (almost) single-handedly saved Earth and defeated the Covenant and Flood. He's the superman of Halo, sans kryptonite.

I like that the ODSTs are capable, elite units, but not invincible. I like the challenge it brings, especially in Firefight.

I love Firefight. I love cooperative gameplay, and this provides me some nice Halo multiplayer where I don't have to go up against 12-year-olds who are better than I. Having missed out on the Left 4 Dead and Gears 2 scenes, I'm ecstatic about the mode.

I was sad to see that only two of my friends have picked up ODST. I played Firefight by myself until I finally got a 2-player game going on Saturday. That game was awesome. Working together we were able to survive for quite a while -- and got the associated Firefight achievement to boot.

If you like Halo, you'll probably like ODST. If the original Halo was compelling enough to get you out to buy an XBox just to play it (as several guys I know did), then why are you quibbling over $60? Get it. It's worth it.

The campaign story is excellent. Put away your expectations of what a Halo story is "supposed" to be. Enjoy the audio magic of Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, and Alan Tudyk. And most of all, play Firefight with me!