This article contains spoilers for old Halo games, obviously.
The cobwebs begin to clear, the rather hectic entry though the lower part of the atmosphere having rendered you dazed. You begin to regain focus: your damaged capsule is very much stuck on something, hanging high above the ground. You need to eject yourself to meet your team. A mini-game ensues, with you punching buttons to blast the door open and escape to the world below.
Those of you with short memories might be thinking I'm describing the beginning of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Try again. This is the Rookie's opening sequence from 2009's Halo 3: ODST, which has just been re-released on Xbox One as DLC for Halo: The Master Chief Collection. ODST was originally intended to be DLC itself, to plug the gap between Halo 3 and Halo Reach. But it evolved into something far more substantial than filler and is, in my opinion, the best game of the entire franchise.
Joseph Staten – lead writer on the game – envisioned a complete departure from the style of the series' previous instalments. A new cast of characters would replace the iconic Master Chief and other regulars who were indisposed courtesy of Halo 3's plot. ODST's story would revolve around a team of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers – Staten calls them "the mysterious soldiers with the untold tale" – and a familiar, singular world provided the playground for the player to explore. The game featured more contemporary weapons and tech, such as silenced magnums, no shields and a rather useful night-vision VISOR mode. From the basic controls to the feel of the gameplay, ODST is as recognisable as any other Halo release; but everything else makes it a very different game, and all the more enjoyable because of it.
The game begins halfway though the events of Halo 2, just as the Prophet of Regret obliterates the African city of New Mombasa by entering Slipspace above it. It's here you enter as the Rookie, marooned in a destroyed metropolis filled with enemies at every turn, trying to track down your team and follow the signals of possible rescue. Once you've escaped the pod the dark, Covenant-infested city becomes the unnerving setting for this detective noir, sending you on several quests to not only find your colleagues but also unravel the events that occurred while you were unconscious – guns, tools, helmets and various other things scattered around the place trigger flashbacks. Your search for hints of the recent past takes you through the darker territories of the burning New Mombasa, like a pulp fiction detective shrouding himself in the shadows.
The ODST cast is made up of marines that you've only previously heard of in other Halo games. Thankfully, they're fleshed into reality most excellently, with several voiced by Firefly actors. Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin and Nathan Fillion, who were regulars of the sci-fi series, appear in ODST as Mickey, Dutch and gunnery sergeant Edward Buck respectively. Add in Romeo, played by Nolan North of Uncharted's Nathan Drake fame (and so much more), and the cagy ONI agent Veronica Dare, played by Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer, and you've got some real science-fiction and gaming gravitas going on. The acting really did lift ODST above its peers of the time, and it's got the beating of many of today's new-gen games, too.
ODST doesn't simply explain its story through playable flashback sequences. It presents meaningful and well-designed levels, and set pieces, that highlight each character's strengths, weaknesses and history perfectly. The design of these stages plays an essential role in developing each character's personality, helping the player know them better. And the very making of the game is a product of these ingredients – actors, environments, enemies, guns, gameplay and story – coming together beautifully. The result is some of the best atmosphere you'll ever experience in the first-person shooter genre, atmosphere underpinned by a truly scintillating score.
Those of us that have played Destiny to death can probably tell which music cues are made by Marty O' Donnell before he and Bungie parted ways. His instantly recognisable Gregorian chants became a classical-rock crossover masterpiece for the original Halo trilogy, accompanied by evocative flair pieces like the quite amazing and moving "Unforgotten" from Halo 2. But the soundtrack to Halo 3: ODST is arguably an even better showcase of O'Donnell's work, alongside composing partner Michael Salvatori.
The game world of Halo 3: ODST is dictated by a lot of combining factors, but none glue it together more perfectly than its score and the sound engineering. There are the obvious dynamics of fights and flashback missions that echo the series' rockier, more rhythmic elements. But there's also this undercurrent of jazz and atmospheric sounds, subtle piano and solo saxophone sequences, connected by long, sweeping strings. These haunting strains accompany the feeling of loneliness you experience as the wandering Rookie, stealthily moving along unfamiliar streets with danger everywhere and limited resources.
The sounds of New Mombasa spill out everywhere, from the ringing telephones and the attention-grabbing machines the AI sets off to tell Sadie's Story, to the chirps of the health stations. The greatest achievement though, and one that really encapsulates that isolated feeling, is the sense of distance evident in the audio design. There's no rain in ODST, as the engine couldn't render it – but it's out there, beyond the city. You'll hear it, as you're walking around after dark. It snaps you into the moment, into the game, into the Rookie's shoes, and is a true triumph of the Halo series. ODST is one of only three FPS games to win in the Best Original Music award at the (formerly Spike) Video Game Awards, the others being BioShock and Destiny, with the latter composed by the same team.
The game owes a lot to some very clever lighting, too, and some rather claustrophobic manoeuvring. There's constant shifting between the dark and abandoned night and the busier daytime flashbacks and that very cool VISOR feature. Removing the high-tech aspects of Master Chief's armour makes you play this game in a different way to other Halos, creeping around flickering fires, pointing the way to lonely computer terminals. Its single location, just one environment, helps the player connect with the Rookie's situation – but the game, despite its darkness, never abandons hope. Beneath everything, there's an engaging and human story here – a relatable one, of obstacles that need combating, and of light overcoming the darkest of scenarios.
ODST's graphics were praised for getting more life out of Halo 3's dated engine, but on release its "add-on" sales pitch left people feeling the game was too short and incomplete. Now, with the Master Chief Collection, it really is an add-on, albeit probably the best single player add-on out there. If you need an excuse to go back to the remastered collection, the new 1080p/60fps version of Halo 3: ODST will open your eyes to the greater universe beyond the MJOLNIR armour and SPARTAN program, and might just become your favourite Halo game, too.
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