With the next Master Chief-led addition to the Halo universe looming around the corner, I’ve been doing a fair bit of introspection. The series of increasingly serious space epics has always felt like my perfect kind of FPS, from the orbital base jumps and gun-butting of Covenant Elites, to the dense growing layers of mythology and enemy headshots that reward you with explosions of ticker tape and cheering children.
The final game in the series from Bungie – 2010’s Reach – gave the player a unique close-up view of that entire world being wiped clean. However, Reach didn’t always “feel” like classic Halo to me – too somber, too light on day-glo purple – and that pushed me to try and pin down my favourite video game take on the mythos, at least so I could be mentally prepared to judge Halo 4. Interestingly, my final decision neatly contradicted a former strong set of opinions I had, and took me back to the time when Bungie decided to be a little more human.
Originally planned as DLC missions for Halo 3, ODST for the first time puts us in the boots of plain old humans. Highly trained badass humans, admittedly, but still far removed from the augmented flesh and seven-foot green armour that gives Master Chief such a brazen disregard for bullets. The game rotates around a squad of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (voiced by enough Firefly alumni to justify a dreamy insistence that it’s an official tie-in) who are fighting away the invading Covenant in the lead-up to Master Chief’s explosive re-entry at the beginning of Halo 3. Microsoft’s insistence to turn it into a full retail release seemed to require more padding, so the set of missions is linked together by the silent Rookie searching through the city in search of clues. Every new clue prompts a new playable flashback.
There’s a clear noir-influenced direction in ODST, probably a result of circumstance – the game’s hub is the city of New Mombasa after a complete emergency evacuation, so its dark empty streets are the perfect place for pulsing neon billboards and dangerous lurking shadows. Even the soundtrack reflects this tonal shift, the classic Halo strings backing off to let in some crooning sax and light piano refrains. After the repeated chaos of the previous Halo games, this quietness at first feels…wrong. I remember rushing through these sections, desperate to find the highlighted helmet or gun that would activate the next story flashback. The way I rocketed past entrenched enemies, map waypoint dead ahead…it did feel a little like I was some kind of sci-fi streaker.
The missions, thankfully, were fantastic the first time and age has not damaged them. The split focus between the squad members – each with specific skills and weapons – meant that Bungie could really mix up the variety of objectives and locations. With a sharp script and snappy vocal delivery, it’s very easy to feel the jolt of going back to a silent protagonist at the end of each section. The final mission in particular is fantastic, a desperate fight across a bridge leading to a dug-in battle as you wait for extraction with a valuable asset. It felt enough to balance out the initial feelings of frustration and separation.
So, for me, that was it for a long time. A disappointing beginning that led to an exhilarating finale, in a package that just filled a gap before we got to be Spartans again. An interesting but flawed side project that put up a decent fight, but ultimately could never compete with the Chief.
Then time passed, other games got played, Reach got bought (amongst a gaggle of teenagers) at 12:30am, and ODST quietly sat untouched in my Halo collection. My fervent anticipation around Reach resulted in quiet disappointment over the end result (I’m not sure how it could have ever lived up to the Halo prequel my imagination conjured up) and the series finally felt like it had moved from my present into my past.
Thing is, ODST wouldn’t stay quiet. The idea of the human troopers was pervasive, not just the show-stopping orbital torpedoes that they insisted on using but also the fact that they had to fight in a very different way. Master Chief is designed to take the heat and stand tall as he fires a million rounds into an unlucky Brute’s face. That’s a vital part of his charm and the reason why players keep returning to him. ODSTs, however, don’t have this luxury. They are fragile, delicate meatsacks with a weak shield and paltry layer of metal being the only things keeping away the volleys of energy blasts and bullets. This calls for a distinct strategy – part stealth, part positioning and planning – and felt all the more human for it. We can never “be” the Chief, just daydream through his eyes, but the Troopers are only a few degrees removed from us in comparison. Self-preservation is a very strong motivator and it heightens every small victory.
It was actually through Reach’s lens that I grew to understand just how much I loved ODST. Firefight mode, which debuted in the latter, just didn’t feel as much fun in the former. Spartans don’t carry the same level of desperation in packs. Coordinated groups of these super soldiers are like sets of oncoming dumper trucks. This revelation led me to the realization that I missed the vulnerability of the Troopers as they provided a different kind of battle that required more of me as a player.
This is what made the muted shady structure of ODST’s hub finally fall into place. As I replay it again, I no longer have the urge to sprint. Now, I’m the human trooper up against absolutely massive odds, barely scraping through blazing battles with enemies that massively outnumber me, using strategy to win as much as weapons, before sneaking off down the streets, keeping in the shadows, listening for movement in the rain.
The quietness suddenly makes sense. It allows me to pick my route and plan my attack, which was never a real requirement of stronger warriors from previous games. The solace of being separated from your squad, of being forced to fight alone, is perfectly reflected in the gloom of the deserted city and the meanderings of the soundtrack. The back-heavy structure of the game allows me to find my feet and prove myself, before thrusting me back into the squad for the fight for my life against an army that is stronger in everything but intelligence and spirit.
And as Master Chief prepares to take my gaming world by storm once again, I find myself in the strange position of wishing I could be back as a Trooper, sneaking in the dark, battling in desperation, fighting the human fight.