Update 18/06/2013 — New post coming today, but like a moron I forgot to email myself the stuff so that I could finish and upload it at work so it’ll have to wait till the evening.
If you asked me a question via the Ask Hentzau box in, oh, the last month or so, I just found out that Gmail had been helpfully rerouting them to my Spam folder. I will hopefully get around to tackling the backlog soon.
This is terrible.
You know, I don’t really have that much of an attachment to the Master Chief as a character. He’s an almost perfectly bland action-hero super-soldier who is far more interesting because of what he is than who he is. The only remotely interesting thing about the Chief as a person is his interaction with Cortana. As the face of the Halo series he does his job, and little more — which is why it’s actually kind of amazing to me how quickly the whole Halo concept comes crashing down when you remove the Master Chief from the equation.
Admittedly the offensive blandness of ODST cannot be entirely attributed to his absence. I suspect ODST would still be a bad game even if the Master Chief was front and centre as he has been for the previous three Halo titles. But at least it would be coherently bad. It would be the sort of badness you could analyse in a laboratory, and after pinning its dissected body open on the lab bench you could point to one or several aspects of it and say “Yes, this is where the badness comes from.” As it is ODST is, first and foremost, a confusing game. Confusing, muddled, and insubstantial, because it represents an awful attempt by the Halo series to incorporate gameplay elements from the other two console juggernauts of the period — Gears of War and Call of Duty — and they do not mesh well with the Halo mechanics and world at all.
Instead of the Master Chief, then, you’re thrust into the armoured combat boots of the titular Orbital Drop Shock Trooper squad sent into the Covenant-occupied city of New Mombasa on a covert mission that they haven’t been briefed on. The plot reason for this is because it’s just that classified, but the real reason is because if the game explained what was going on the player would say “This is fucking stupid” right at the beginning rather than getting all the way to the end before realising that there was no real plot to speak of. The player character is ostensibly the faceless, nameless and voiceless “Rookie”, but your perspective jumps from squad member to squad member a la Call of Duty in a series of flashbacks that serve to render the plot even more unintelligable. Indeed, in most cases I wasn’t even sure there was a plot; the game was just shuffling me around so that I could grind through a slightly different gameplay encounter. There’s never any sense that you’re going anywhere, that you’re achieving anything. You’re just locked in an endless series of fights against the Covenant, and then when they’re all dead you’re whisked away to another character and another battle.
As far as narrative goes ODST comes across as a collection of unconnected maps for Halo 3 that have been bundled together and sold as a full game. I’m not sure the complete and utter lack of a focal character is the cause of this malaise or simply a symptom of it, but I do know that the game is much weaker for not having any story or overarching theme beyond “meet up with your squad”. The combat is another thing entirely; it’s the same polished experience you can find in Halo 3, and that’s precisely the problem with it. ODST is the first game in the series that doesn’t have a Spartan super-soldier as the main character, and so I was very puzzled to discover that virtually no accommodation had been made for the fact that you’re now controlling the fleshy, vulnerable meatsacks that are regular human beings. Yes, the ODSTs are elite shock troops, but that doesn’t explain why they can, for example, rip 200lb chain guns off their mountings to hose down the enemy with 20mm cannon shells. In Halo 3 this is explicitly stated to be something only the Master Chief is strong enough to do, and yet here you’ve got John C. Chump from Chumpville, Tennessee hefting it like it’s a bag of moderately heavy shopping. They’re also startlingly resilient, even more so than a Spartan; those wimps have to rely on regenerating shields, but ODSTs? ODSTs can just walk off being hit by high-tech Covenant plasma weaponry. Getting thwacked in the face by a fuel rod round simply winds them a bit, and they have to wait for a couple of seconds for the ubiquitous flashing red screen to go away. One wonders why the UNSC went to the vast expense of developing the Spartans and their MJOLNIR armour when these bog-standard human troopers can do everything the Master Chief can for a fraction of the cost.
This might be a rather personal complaint, of course. Part of the appeal of the Halo series for me is that it’s always been very good at contextualising its gameplay abilities with in-universe fluff. I appreciate that it goes that extra mile to explain why you’re so goddamn powerful compared to everyone else you come across instead of just expecting you to accept your mysterious ability to soak up enough lead to roof a dozen churches without comment. ODST sabotages that, though. It could have been an interesting look at the Halo universe from the perspective of somebody who wasn’t superhumanly tough, who couldn’t take on a pair of Hunters in a straight-up fight and win effortlessly. Fighting one Brute should have been a challenge; fighting a half-dozen of them — as the game expects you to do several times — should have been nigh-on impossible. It would have been interesting to have to rely more on stealth and surprise than on your innate durability in a firefight. Instead Bungie have chosen to circumvent their own fiction by making the ODSTs carbon copies of the Master Chief with some slightly different HUD graphics. It’s a real shame.
The final nail in this drop pod-shaped coffin is the Rookie “hub” area. Because it’s set on Earth ODST can’t bring in any of the stunning alien megastructures that are the signature of the Halo series, but I still think it’s impressive just how boring they managed to make the central city environment. It doesn’t help that it’s constantly night-time and so you’re looking at it through the ghostly haze of your night vision, and the worst part is that they make you criss-cross this level several times in order to activate the next flashback mission segment; I very quickly got tired of having to retrace my steps for the umpteenth time through this drab, monotonous city, knowing that the game would have helpfully deposited new enemies in my path via dropship to replace the ones I’d killed on the way in.
The flashback missions themselves are at least somewhat imaginative in the way they’re put together, but that constantly switching perspective and the lack of an overarching narrative really kills any sense of urgency or purpose the game might have otherwise had. Instead you’re struck by the constant impression that ODST is a game that is simply going through the motions; that it was made simply to give Bungie something to do — and to make Microsoft some more money — while other, bigger projects made their tortuous way through the development pipeline. I said ODST was Halo’s attempt to incorporate the worst attributes of the other console blockbusters, and it’s this more than anything else which dismays me about ODST: its conscious rejection of quality in favour of a limited scope and a substandard game with a quick turnaround time, which is a development approach straight from the handbook written by CoD. Don’t play it unless you want to end up being sorely disappointed.