Before you've even read a single word of this review, you've probably checked the score to the right and already think that I've gone completely nuts. After all, how can Bungie's golden child not get a top score once again? Let's get the fact that I'm not a Halo-fan that still, two years on, spend all my free time shooting stuff in Halo 3's solid multiplayer out of the way. I'm not. There, I said it.
Instead, I am a fan of Bungie and their impressive game design skills. Because of this my interest was peaked when they suddenly decided to announce a Halo-game that does not feature Master Chief as the main character. That takes guts.
Instead of the stoic Spartan that was the main character in the first three games we now find ourselves in the shoes of The Rookie, a new member of the so called Orbital Drop Shock Troppers. Together with his squad members - Buck, Dutch, Romeo, Mickey and their leader Dare - he's dropped into the city of New Mombasa, which is under siege by the fanatical aliens The Covenant.
The Rookie isn't the sole protagonist of the game, but he is certainly Bungie's invitation to the player to project his or her own personality into the game. Just like Gordon Freeman, from Valve's Half-Life games, he is mute and instead his story is told through the voices of his team mates. The Rookie's main function in Halo 3: ODST is as a focal point of the game's storyline, which branches out and deals with what happens to the various members of the troop after their drop into New Mombasa goes terribly wrong.
I won't spoil any more of the story, since it is one of the most important aspects of the game and something a lot of players have been looking forward to. In short, after everything goes wrong with the drop, The Rookie goes looking for his friends who have all gone missing. The hunt for them and the objects you find open up side missions that make up the real game and work as flashbacks from the rest of the troops, slowly giving you a clear picture what has been going on since you landed on the ground.
By spreading out the story between several different characters, the developers have also managed to create a much greater diversity when it comes to level design. That's really good news for a series that previously had a tendency to force us to run around in similar-looking environments for hours on end. Again without spoling too much, I must point to the mission where you control Dutch, where Bungie within seconds show how happy they are to no longer be bound by creating levels that have to strictly follow each other.
There have been a lot of hype surrounding the fact that you now get to play a normal human character and not the super soldier Master Chief, and the impact your much softer self in Halo 3: ODST has on the dramatic tension of the series. With that said, despite not being dressed up in a cybernetic armor and having super powers, there is not that big a difference when it comes to actual gameplay.
For example, Master Chief's reloading shields have been replaced with a stamina system. The stamina can be tracked by the screen turning increasingly red when you're damaged, with the character you're playing starting to pant and gasp the more damage you take. Just like the aformentioned shields the stamina is reloaded by taking cover, but if it is depleted before you get a chance to do that the damage starts to register on your health bar, which you need to replenish at various medical stations.
As a member of ODST you do have access to some special tools, where the most important one is the so called VISR. It allows you to use a kind of X-ray vision, where the world and your enemies are painted in bright lines so they can be spotted more easily. You don't really get a better use for it though, so at times it hard to see the system as anything except a fancy, upgraded flashlight.
Of course the weapons are special for the ODST troops as well and even though you can use all the old favorites from earlier games, you start out with a Magnum and a silenced machine gun. The Magnum is almost scary when it comes to how good it is for head shots, while the machine gun is a good replacement for Master Chief's similar weapon. It is not steady enough for any good sniping maneuvers, though.
The feel of the all the weapons are a lot better this time around, because Bungie has allowed their sound designers to give them a lot more attention than before. If you, like me, thought that some of the weapons in the old Halo-games felt a bit like shooting a Super Soaker at the rampaging horde of aliens, you'll be happy to know that they carry a lot more punch these days.
When it comes to the sound design it is the music which Bungie should get the most credit for, not only for the symphonic orchestra that plays during the calmer and sadder parts of the game, but for the diversity of the music in general. There are few action games out there that have a soundtrack this magnificent, a soundtrack which is a pleasure to listen to.
Another thing Bungie have always been good at is "borrowing" ideas from their competitors and where you previously had Construct you now get the game mode Firefight. If you've ever played Gears of War 2's Horde-mode you know exactly what I'm talking about, since the two game modes are more or less identical.
If you haven't tried Horde-mode, let's just say that Firefight is an arena based game mode where your goal is simply to survive while being under constant attack by a massive army of constantly respawning enemies. Bungie have always been good at creating solid multiplayer maps and that really shines through in Firefight - the map itself never becomes the challenge, instead the focus is on the large amount of enemies.
It's not as easy as it might sound, since Bungie has spiced up Firefight by forcing players to work together. You have a limited amount of lives, which can only be replenished if at least one member of the team survives long enough. During the course of Firefight the game keeps adding new rules, like giving the enemies a sudden love for grenades or close combat or giving them extra health. You and your team needs to work as an unit, since your combined scores are tallied at the end of each round. You can always see how many points each individual player added to the total, which makes it increasingly hard not to go after the point bonuses you can get for getting chained kills or destroying enemy veichles.
If you're not a fanatical Halo-fan, it might be hard to not notice how old Halo 3: ODST can look at times. The game uses the same engine as Halo 3 did two years ago, an engine that already felt a bit dated at the time, and it shows. The developers have tried to polish the thing with fancier lighting and light effects, but that doesn't change the fact that the environments can look squared and unsharp. When seen from afar, the enemies look like something from the early days of this console generation, and it is hard not to imagine how a Halo-game could look if it was built with a more modern graphical technology.
Should you spend your money on ODST? I'd say that is all up to you and your relationship to the previous games in the series, since this new chapter often feels like a polished fan service. Firefight is a fantastic addition and probably the biggest reason why ODST might get a wider reach than earlier games, but the rest of the package is more of the same, held together by a story that won't mean much to you if you're not really that into the Halo-universe.
I'm also asking myself if Halo 3: ODST shouldn't have been an actual downloadable expansion pack, especially if you look at how other developers - like Blizzard - have updated their games. There will certainly be players who think that ODST rocks the foundation of the Halo-saga by introducing new weapons and giving a new perspective on the story, but for the rest of you it might be hard to see that much of a difference between this game and Halo 3.
A Halo-game without Master Chief is still one of the most exciting new things about this game, if you ask me. Suddenly it's not that big of a deal that there's not that much of a difference in gameplay between The Rookie and Master Chief. Instead it is the story, the team, Firefight and the large amount of humour that makes Halo 3: ODST the best Halo-game that I, as a part-time fan of the series, have played so far. It is far from perfect, and I certainly hope that Bungie will update the technology for the next chapter, but if they decide to keep Master Chief out of the picture and allow the ODST troopers to once again become the heroes, I will certainly be fine with it.