In hindsight, announcing what was then "Halo 3: Recon" as a "value-oriented" expansion appears to have been a crucial first misstep for Microsoft and Bungie along the road to marketing what is now Halo 3: ODST. In time, the so-called expansion grew to include a complete campaign with 4-player support; Firefight, a separate co-op multiplayer mode; a comprehensive version of Halo 3 multiplayer; and access to the Halo: Reach beta when it becomes available at an unspecified date next year. ODST was ultimately set at the standard, full-game price of $60. That's when folks got skeptical.
So how's your money being spent?
Let's set the extras to the side for a moment and consider the value of ODST's campaign alone. We know the game was churned out in about 14 months with a relatively small team utilizing the aging Halo 3 Engine. Sounds like a classic expansion scenario, right? Yet the process went so smoothly that what was intended to be a two-to-three-hour side tale spun from Halo 2's plot grew into a full campaign that took me -- here comes that number we're so obsessed with -- approximately seven hours to plow through, start to finish, gunning full steam ahead on Heroic difficulty.
[Spoiler: After completion Mombasa Streets, the hub level, is unlocked as a playable mission, which you can return to in order to search for collectibles and unlockables you might have overlooked and fight more Covenant. I've spent an additional two hours or so on this map since completion and have yet to fully explore it.]
If you're timing it, ODST hangs in there with previous Halo games. Really, though, the measurement of time should cede to the amount of fun. Unfortunately, ODST struggles a bit -- dragging the player down with it -- as it attempts to break from the linear design model of its predecessors. The effort is commendable, but the actual execution is never as compelling as the proposed concept. Yet, I'm happy to have taken the test run, if only because it suggests that Bungie is willing to take design risks with Halo: Reach. There's value in risk.
ODST's reward, however, is a disjointed campaign that can jarringly switch gears from a sleepy, nighttime creep to bright, classic Halo action segments. The open-world hub level, Mombasa Streets, is a twisting maze of undistinguishable architecture always cast in darkness. The city is dead. The Covenant occupation has clamped down so hard on New Mombasa that it's become uninteresting, and the city is more obstacle than playground. There are some Easter eggs to discover, but you'll have to sort them out from the plugs for the next game. Adventuring down a dark alleyway, you might only discover the repeated graffiti tag: "Remember Reach."
The new patrol AI can present some thrilling confrontations, but it's easy to evade the alien authorities -- unless it's a scripted encounter. The night not only provides this new "cover mechanic" (in the form of ducking behind abandoned cars and other objects), but it's also the backdrop for the so-called "film noir" effect. The darkness, accented by glowing reds and a bit of static seen through the VISR, is alluring in its un-Halo-ness, but as I stuck around for after hours in Mombasa Streets, I found myself hoping for the sun to rise.
The narrative is told through a fragmented series of flashbacks: you, as the Rookie, find key objects in the hub world and then are transported to events earlier in the day playing as one of your separated squadmates. ODST presented such an intentionally confusing mystery -- playing out the scattered fates of my missing mates -- that, even as the story came to its predictable conclusion, I struggled to link together the segments that had led me there.
It's difficult to keep track of just whose boots you're filling in the various flashbacks, as the generic character types (call 'em: jocks at war) don't stand out as individuals; and without much of an introduction -- the establishing of an emotional connection -- I didn't feel earnestness or the love in the piecing together of a reunion with the troopers I should have considered my brothers ... or at least "my bros." They were as empty to me as the nameless fodder that fought and fell beside the Chief in previous games.
Aside from the main mystery, the side plots are hit or miss. There's at least one revelation that I found compelling as a plot-propelling device; and I suspect it will be welcomed by upholders of Halo lore. Still, there's a lot of cheese, including a random romance the likes of which has not been forced upon us since Meryl fell for that guy who crapped his pants in MGS4. As Gunnery Sergeant Butch so eloquently puts it, "Take my advice, rookie: If you ever fall for a woman, make sure she's got balls."
The optional meta-game, "Sadie's Story," is limited to a series of discoverable audiofiles (complete with art stills when played in the VISR's COMM menu). It's BioShock's gimmick, plot in collectible pieces, again. Sadie's Story is melodramatic, but the manga-style art adds distinction when you choose to watch it. Overall, it's a completionist's task and not an enjoyable treasure hunt.
These are the elements that are wrapped around the very gameplay that has made Halo a benchmark for console shooters. Sure, there are subtle and inexplicable differences between Spartan and Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, but you'll be playing Halo again -- on the ground; in a Warthog, a Ghost, a Scorpion tank; soaring in a Banshee. You'll have to do so, though, by regressing a bit. You're once again dependent on health packs (thankfully, supplies run high, eliminating backtracking), and you can't dual-wield -- but you can tote around a giant turret gun with great agility. At times, too, you're aided by plot-crucial, and therefore invincible NPCs. (Yes, equip them with rocket launchers.)
Did Bungie put its heart into ODST?
There are no particular moments that have replayed again and again in my memory, but there aren't memories of moments that dragged either (save for a single, bad auto-save position I worked myself into). I've been calling ODST "Combat Distilled," meaning most of the experience has been condensed into really snappy bouts of action. And while these moments fall short of epic, in that they lack crescendoing lead-ups, they don't suffer from the grueling repetition that has plagued preceding Halo games.
[Spoiler: After you've completed the flashback missions, which you can play in any order after the first few, the game transforms into a typical, crawling Halo "level," seamlessly changing situations and environments throughout one final jaunt.]
Perhaps ODST's campaign is not intended to be ranked against the Master Chief's trilogy, but then perhaps Microsoft and Bungie should have taken more care to pass along some of the development discount to the consumer. ODST will be released as a full-priced game, as the previous Halo games were, but does not achieve the highs of any one of those adventures in its day.
Clearly, though, Bungie is one of the top tier development studios in operation, and ODST has a foundational advantage -- proven gameplay -- to best lesser shooters. If you've enjoyed previous Halo campaigns, you'll make it to the end of ODST with little mental resistance. I'd pay 30 bucks for the campaign mode alone.
So, $30 to go!
Bringing the extras back into play, if the Firefight co-op mode was released as a separate Xbox Live Arcade game, I'd drop 800 -- a ten spot -- on it. With ten maps generating waves of non-stop Halo-brand combat, Firefight would easily be worth $15 ... if Bungie incorporated online matchmaking. Unfortunately, as is the case with campaign co-op, the multiplayer option is limited to 2-player split-screen or with up to three Xbox Live friends. Both modes are descendants of Halo 3's campaign networking, which was limited by the same restrictions.
Says community lead Brian Jarrad, "My advice is to build up a group of active players by meeting people on Bungie.net, or by meeting them via the Halo 3 matchmaking (which is still included on the second disc)."
Speaking of "Halo 3 matchmaking," ODST is padded with the content-complete version of Halo 3's bottomless multiplayer. Its value depends largely on whether or not you own Halo 3 and any of the DLC map packs. Even if you've already purchased all the content to date, the ODST bundle ships with three new maps; the second collection of Mythic Maps: Citadel, Heretic, and Longshore. (Bungie claims it has no plans to release these new maps as DLC -- for obvious reasons.) Halo 3 multiplayer represents a tremendous value, but you may already own it. Let's settle on $10 and move on.
We're up to $50 worth of game, and I'm starting to sound like a shill on QVC. Let's put the wallets away and look at the underlying skepticism in the question: Is Halo 3: ODST worth $60? Put another way: Did Bungie put its heart into ODST?
As the story goes, the idea for ODST was hatched by some Bungie old timers looking to contribute something extra to the franchise after Peter Jackson's Halo Chronicles fell apart. Since Halo: Reach pre-production was already in progress, ODST had to be a side project nestled between two major Halo releases; those being Halo 3 and Reach. While small in scope, ODST doesn't bear the markings of a rush job or incompetence. It's not the blueprint for a desperate cash grab. There may have been a few "rookies" on staff -- it shows in the rough patches -- but the team succeeded in blending ODST into the existing Halo universe. Still, ODST's campaign is expressly an expansion. Just look at the fore-title: "Halo 3: ODST."
ODST is better summed up as a two-disc, variety pack, though -- it's more than just a side campaign built from recycled parts (not to discount the many new assets that make up ODST's environments, which are subtly enhanced by updates to the game engine). But as a variety pack, ODST lacks that one surprise hit à la The Orange Box's Portal -- and no, Reach beta, a play-testing opportunity down the road, doesn't count in my book; regardless of how mind-blowing it might be.
Bungie could have seasoned the platter with a few more tastes -- put the Halo 3 campaign back on the disc with multiplayer or tuck in a download code for Halo: Combat Evolved, for example -- but rather than let Bungie pile it on, I'd prefer to pick and choose. With Games on Demand in service, Xbox Live can sell and deliver large files digitally, why not let us download the parts of ODST we want; the parts we don't have? Don't answer that. It is what it is.
Of course, I shouldn't forget to mention that ODST benefits by supporting the unmatched community element that has grown up around Halo 3. In particular, ODST's campaign and Firefight mode are compatible with the Saved Films tools and also the Bungie Pro Video service. If you're a Bungie.net head, ODST offers fresh subject matter for admittedly niche, but no doubt imaginative creations. Even if your art is simply in the war, you'll delight in stacking up the medals on your profile page.
So, did Bungie put its heart into ODST? There's a pulse, definitely. Should we knock 'em because development was easier than expected and birthed a bigger game? Of course not. Yeah, but do we pay $60 for it? Are we still asking that? It's Halo. You're gonna buy it.
Editor's note: This review is based on the retail version of the game played to completion over the course of two days in a hotel conference room. The event was sponsored by Microsoft; no other accommodations were provided.