Friday, 16 October 2009

Halo 3: ODST review - No Chief, no soul

Offering a different take on the war between Humans and The Covenant, I felt that Halo 3: ODST squandered its opportunity to tell a deep and rewarding tale away from the shackles of Master Chief. Using flashbacks as I crept around the ruined streets of New Mombasa felt like a sound concept, but the over familiar mission-style and poor delivery of the story sucked the life out of this Halo game.


My appreciation of the Halo games and their universe has always radically swung between adoration and complete apathy. I wrote not too long ago about what makes the world of Halo so transfixing for its huge number of its fans - me included. What I've come to realise is that I'm fascinated by the fiction of the Halo universe but less so than the actual games. But Halo 3: ODST offered a little twist to the previous releases by taking a hub-world approach to its level design and a narrative that moved back and forth through time.


Unfortunately ODST still felt constricted by the familiar mechanics all the Halo games had stuck to previously. This was nowhere more apparent than in the first half of the game with its brief flashback missions that were never meaty enough to get into. The hub-world should have been where I found the most meaning from this game. Skulking around New Mombasa and seeing the effects of the devastating Covenant attack is an opportunity to show the darker side of the Halo story. But where I expected tragedy and death to be on display, I only found boredom and loneliness. I really understand and appreciate the style ODST went for but these solo sections became incredibly tedious and the frequent Covenant encounters did little to add any other feeling than annoyance.


What was also an effort was getting used to playing as a mere Orbital Shock Drop Trooper, without any of the regenerating shields, superhuman strength and dual wielding abilities of the Master Chief. The tension of being a vulnerable human soldier fighting against the odds was effectively conveyed, but instead of being a positive experience I was frustrated by what the game wasn't letting me be. I felt neutered and constricted by not being a Spartan and the situations the game put me in felt more contrived than the authentic night crawl through a bombed out city Halo ODST wanted to be.


That same sentiment carried over into the story to begin with. The fragmented, flashback narrative was an awesome concept and one I couldn't wait to experience myself. In reality though, the first missions away from the Mombasa hub-world are weak and the characters of the squad are generic at best. No-one has a memorable personality and the celebrity voices (and likenesses) feel like complete nerd-service rather than effective story-telling devices.


So what the reason for this lack of connection or soul? Well, it goes against everything I usually consider when it comes to story in games, but the technical level of visuals and animation conspire to make the environments and characters feel completely unreal and, well 'videogamey'. I think its the tendency to take things slower in the hub-world that really highlights the limitations in ODST's technology. New Mombasa doesn't look or feel like a ruined city - it looks and feels like an artificial creation displayed on the screen.


This is, of course, the same visual style that Halo 3 used to great effect two years previously, but I believe the pacing of that game was so much better and suited to its universe. The corridor-shooting, with overpowered strength, shields and weapons pulled me along so quickly I didn't have time to see the technical flaws. Fortunately for ODST, the game picks up in the latter half, pulling together its narrative threads and reaching a satisfying ending that makes it worthy of the Halo name.


But with this change in quality, the heart and soul of the game evaporates completely. Yes it turns into a good shooter and hits all the Halo buttons the enthusiasts will enjoy, but the chance to portray Earth in this devastated and occupied state has gone. I had hopes that ODST would show a far more human side to the conflict with the Covenant than any other game had done before. Whilst the audio logs of Sadie and her quest to find her father give an interesting and sad perspective of the attack on New Mombasa, they feel too distant and too removed from the action to carry any powerful meaning.


Halo 3: ODST is by no means a failure for the series. Perhaps I had put too much hope into its release or expected a level of narrative that Halo games are simply incapable of. Either way, the fascinating concept was ultimately let down by its unbalanced execution that left me feeling too bored and apathetic to care for its characters. When those character include half the cast of my favourite sci-fi series, Firefly, then I know the soul of the game has gone.


 


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