As the title should make clear, Halo 3: ODST isn’t Halo 4. As much detective fiction as action film, the game takes place in the Earth city of New Mombassa, which was attacked by the alien Covenant in Halo 2. Rather than playing the strong, silent Master Chief, players now control a variety of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (ODSTs), including one voiced by and modeled after actor Nathan Fillion. The focal character is the Rookie, who wanders dark, empty streets as he pieces together a shallow mystery.
As the Rookie gathers clues, he triggers flashbacks in which you’ll engage in various action tropes: a sniper mission, some vehicle missions, and so forth. The effect is tantamount to developer Bungie saying “Let’s do something different, but not too different.” The flashbacks are too familiar and too brief; there’s little chance to really dig into the action and develop your own approach. Meanwhile, the Rookie’s city sequences are often dull. New Mombassa is nearly a ghost town. It might be impressive, if there were more than a few Covenant squads lurking about.
Appropriately for the series, multiplayer is more interesting. The new mode is “Firefight,” which jumps off from Horde mode in Gears Of War 2. Up to four players face continual waves of enemies, with a rotating series of modifiers making survival more difficult. (Covenant shields may reflect your fire, for example, or enemy toughness may be doubled.) The lack of public matchmaking options is puzzling; you can only play Firefight with people on your friend list, or players roped into an Xbox Live Party. Excluding random XBL dopes from your game is always desirable, but why no public option? This isn’t healthcare reform.
As an experiment, ODST is laudable. It steps away from the series’ established formula, and has a few good ideas: Including a separate disc featuring the Halo 3 multiplayer game, all previously available maps, and three new ones, is a good idea. The moody, though not always appropriate, score is another. Revamping the pistol so it’s accurate enough to snipe enemies hundreds of yards away is not. But the gameplay ideas don’t match up to the narrative playfulness. ODST was originally conceived as a minor side project, and it never feels like anything else.