June 7, 2009

The Prodigal (Part Two)

> — Vociferous @ 4:38 pm

It’s sometime in 2009.

Now I’m cornered by three glaring flatscreen monitors, two of which are overrun by spreadsheets, decks and large volumes of email, several of the most recent telling me I have to delete some of my email or make room for more email. Yes, that’s right, I’m still working for the same company, but on this day, I’m doing it from within the confines of my home. This isn’t the important part, though – the important part is why I’m doing it from home. You can find the reason for that on the third monitor, as I watch Joseph Staten once again take the stage some six years later… this time showing off Bungie’s newest title – Halo 3: ODST.

Once again we find ourselves high above the city of New Mombasa, which remains under the iron-fisted grip of the Covenant war machine. And once again we find ourselves near that very same assault carrier, amongst a throng of drop pods. But this time, the pods are not holding Elites – this time they carry ODST units, your squadmates and brothers in arms. And this time, you’re the one laying siege to the Kenyan island city.

And as the player emerges from their HEV, exploring the city streets in the blackness of night, we come to realize that Halo 3: ODST might be far closer to the hopes conjured by 2003’s demo than Bungie has ever been.

Originally planned as a campaign expansion of Halo 3, running off essentially the same engine, the game was intended to briefly explain the fate of New Mombasa after the Master Chief pursued the Prophet of Regret to the other side of the galaxy; and the story would be told through the eyes of an ODST soldier and his lost squadmates. Initially, this was billed as a simple addendum to the trilogy; however, this is no longer the case. The volume of material has not only significantly increased, but the mechanical direction of the game has taken a turn which no one outside of Bungie could have predicted.

Halo 3: ODST was first shown at E3 2009 in an homage presentation courtesy of Joseph Staten which intentionally hearkens back to memories of the legendary E3 2003.

And the most distinct virtues of these directions with Halo 3: ODST is its expansive hub world.

Not since Halo: Combat Evolved has there been such a significant push for nonlinearity. When the E3 2003 demonstration first aired, many believed that Halo 2 would offer this, and, in truth, Bungie probably believed as much too. But alas, this lofty goal was too ambitious to be effectively captured in either Halo 2 or Halo 3, and now, in the post script of the trilogy, we will finally experience it.

At its core, the hub world is Mombasa’s city center six hours after the ODST drop – a battered midnight remnant of what once was. The city is completely occupied by the Covenant and the player’s goal as the Rookie protagonist is to explore the area looking for clues to the whereabouts of his fellow squadmates as well as their abrupt change in mission directives by the ONI agent we know only as Dare. In this dark, enemy-patrolled landscape, the player will finally enjoy the type of urban combat promised by the 2003 demo… and they’ll do so in ways which even that demo could not foresee.

Stretching kilometers in every direction, the city center lies in the moonlit shadow of the severed and burning remains of the space tether. The entire area offers the player freedom to do with it whatever they choose and to do so alongside three friends. The players can move about the environment in any direction they choose and experience this world under their own dictation, rather than through a series of myopic tubes which lead from from Point A to Point B. This open-world exploration mechanic is not only a return to some of what made the first Halo game so fun, but also a crucial factor in the game’s design, as it operates in direct tandem with the title’s mystery-driven story…

As the hub world’s 1940’s stylized mystique hints, the player is assuming the role of a detective, hunting for clues which will trigger the flashback “spoke” missions, which will supply the narrative backstory for the hub itself. After the first beacon, the player will be able to access the spoke missions in any order they wish, each offering a small piece to the puzzle of the last six hours. By locating an object of interest, the player will slide backward in time, delivering a campaign mission which explains what has taken place.

The cast of Halo 3: ODST: the Rookie, Dutch, Mickey, Dare, Buck and Romeo. Although the Rookie is the game’s central hero, the team as a whole represents our story’s collective protagonist since they all will be controlled at one point or another.

And if this grand, player-determined campaign story wasn’t enough to raise the ante, ODST also offers a cast of celebrities from the highly-regarded Firefly series (among others) which explore character personalities in ways that previous Halo games couldn’t effectively attempt. These iconic, classical film noir archetypes buttress the mystery-laden story in ways which may at times give the game a feel closer to a serial episode of Dick Tracy rather than a mission in a Halo game. Such an ambitious direction could not have been implemented within the trilogy’s main story arch; but within a game such as this, Bungie has taken considerable risk – and from what can be seen now, it has paid off huge dividends.

But the story departure isn’t the only thing that Bungie has risked within this game. Further reinforcing the notion that this title is aimed primarily at the hardcore, long-time Halo fans, a level of depth and strategy has been applied in ODST which would not have likely passed playtests geared toward casual gamers.

For example, the newly-introduced “VISR” will not only allow the player to see their surroundings better at night, but also houses a software suite which includes the overhead schematic of the entire city and other features which have yet to be revealed. This volume of information isn’t for the faint of heart, and while it won’t rival a typical RPG, fans of the original Halo game and the E3 2003 demonstration will likely gravitate toward it because it represents, in many ways, the type of evolution they expected but never received.

In addition to many of the returning elements of Halo’s already augmented sandbox, the player will see that their two new default weapons are, in actuality, modified variants of weapons from the past. The M7 submachine gun has now been given a silencer and an electronic sight, allowing the player to effectively and modestly eliminate hostiles from both short- and mid-range. Along those same lines, fans of the original M6D pistol from Halo: Combat Evolved have much to celebrate. Bungie has introduced a silencer-modified version of the M6C from Halo 2 – a weapon having the speed of Halo 2’s sidearm while adding the stopping power of the first game’s iconic implement of war. Affectionately called the “Auto Mag,” all reports indicate that this gun is not only as satisfying as the first game’s memorable pistol, but more versatile and effective than even it was – a true masterwork in design and functionality.

There have been a total of zero complaints lodged against the new Auto Mag thus far. Not sure if that’ll hold up permanently, but it’s almost guaranteed to have a better batting average than the previous two and it looks completely bad ass.

And guiding the player through the enemy-hustled vestige of the city is the Superintendent, Mombasa’s clever yet cartoonish urban infrastructure AI. The player interfaces with “the Super” through a number of kiosks and machines littered across the cityscape – all of which offer information that not only directs the player’s path, but supply another dimension to the story. This symbiotic relationship of sorts develops as the player both investigates in the hub environment and flashes backward in time to the events earlier in the day, experiencing what the Super has already witnessed first hand.

Although this collage of intriguing gameplay enhancements serves to provide depth where depth was not present before – much of Halo 3: ODST has clear earmarks of the original Halo game…

As the trilogy has progressed, even the most subtle of design elements have become leaner and more amiable for the average player. The Chief’s movement speed, jump height and shield technology have made the game easier to understand and control. In the first Halo game, the player had to moderate their combat strategy under the reality of health loss – if your energy shielding was sapped during a firefight, you’d begin to lose health which could not be regained unless you found a health pack. This lost element of gameplay, along with a somewhat slower, more methodical movement speed, has returned in Halo 3: ODST.

And not altogether surprisingly, in tune with ODST’s hub world we’ll be seeing the aggressive return of the classic Halo waypoint – the type of waypoint which doesn’t simply offer the player the location to the level’s exit or an indicator if lost, as it did for the most part in Halo 2 and Halo 3. In the hub, the waypoint becomes a crucial and prominent ingredient as it was in the first game, navigating the player across the expansive game world from one story element to the next. ODST takes this premise even further, allowing the player to designate their own waypoints within the city’s playable realm, opening up an entirely new level of strategy during cooperative play.

With many of the the game’s mechanics returning back to the formulas provided by the first Halo game, it is no small wonder that sequences like this will be considerably more terrifying than they already are.

Attributes like fall damage and the lack of dual-wielding also hearken back to the days of Halo: Combat Evolved – a simpler overall combat experience, but one which was intrinsically hinged to tactical strategy and health preservation. These nuances in the game’s mechanical system may seem like reversions to some of Halo’s newer fans, but for the diehard among us, they are clearly layers of nostalgia enmeshed in a welcomed revisiting of Halo’s classical roots. Perhaps unintentional, this concept is altogether encapsulated during an early cinematic when we stare out through the Rookie’s eyes from the inside of his drop pod as the door seals shut. In Halo: Combat Evolved, you may remember witnessing something surprisingly similar when the Chief was awakened from cryo and the chamber door opened, releasing him into battle.

Essentially, Halo 3: ODST will be the first game since the E3 2003 demonstration to meet the lofty expectations it set – this game offers the series a proper evolution, as many fans had envisioned at that time. Like the prodigal son’s homecoming, it’s the culmination of the hopes and dreams of its fervent followers – a deep game which respects the tradition of Halo: Combat Evolved while also taking its best parts and fleshing them out in incredibly exciting ways. This might be why it garners more excitement presently among many more than even Halo 3 could muster. The demo we first witnessed, spellbound, more than six year ago is now finally materializing before our very eyes.

September 22nd may seem like an eternity away, but hold fast fellow denizens of the Halo community: Halo 3: ODST draweth nigh and with it, what we’ve been waiting for the last half decade…

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