While "shock" troops denote the shocking of an enemy force, I was the one shocked. Halo 3: ODST immediately chucks its Rookie into unknown territory. You mean, the tutorial level is not a corridor crawler through a spaceship?
After a rough insertion, I awoke six hours later, dangling precariously above New Mombasa's streets. This is the night-cast world we'd seen at E3. Bungie calls this map "the hub," the open-world environment through which the player accesses campaign missions (portrayed as flashbacks). "Film noir" is another term we've heard, and it's a reference to atmospheric elements, like New Mombasa's glowing-red dim, smoky streets and its jazzy background cuts; rather than a classic plot outline that goes something like: handsome good guy led astray by beautiful femme fatale. There is, though, a mystery to unravel.
While the hub, Mombasa Streets, is initially limited to several blocks in the "Prepare to Drop" tutorial mission, it's nonetheless disorienting. Left? Or right? Maybe straight ahead? Which way do I go? I was confused and starting to feel frustrated. That's when I turned to game designer Alex Pfieffer, who looked pleased with my reaction. "Have you been using the map?" he grinned.
In combat, you forget you're not a Spartan (and early on, you'll pay for that). The subtraction of dual-wielding and the reintroduction of health packs feels natural enough -- it's just how you remember the first Halo. What's changed is getting around. I took for granted Master Chief's "intuitive" sense of direction, and his life-saving radar. New in ODST is an overworld map, accessed through the VISR's menu screen (which does not pause the game). It's simple in appearance and generates the basic geometry of New Mombasa, along with known enemy movements and signals emitted from various friendly beacons. Custom waypoints can also be placed on the map and are useful for navigating a specific route you might want to take to a more distant destination (as the hub opens up). Waypoints and beacon signals are displayed on an in-game compass that scrolls across the top of the screen.
Finally oriented, I began to make my way to the first "clue," one of several answers to the question: Dude, where's my squad? In New Mombasa there is no war. It's occupied territory, and I, the Rookie, appeared to be the only ally behind enemy lines. The streets are patrolled by Covenant squads (a new AI script), typically led by a Brute and padded with several Grunts. Jackals are sometimes in the mix, too -- usually placed as snipers or apart from the patrol movement.
Call it: Combat Distilled.
These floating, tentacled sacks-of-creature don't actually attack UNSC Marines, but they do "cast" overshields upon the Covenant troops they protect, and for that reason should be eliminated. While Engineers are nearly immune to human ammunition, one charged blast from a Plasma Pistol triggers them into combustion.
Otherwise, the new human munitions: the Suppressed SMG and equally silent Automag combine to form my favorite Halo weapon loadout to date. While an underpowered combination, the SMG is perfectly capable of handling clusters of Covenant and Brute forces and the Automag is, well, if you've missed the M6D Magnum from Halo: CE, you'll probably be packing the Automag throughout ODST's entirety -- saving those last few rounds at mission's end for a clear line of sight to exposed dome. It is as if every burst set forth from the Automag is magnetically pulled into Grunt head.
When I did stumble up some stairs to that first clue, a Recon helmet embedded into a flat screen (there was no head inside, Pfieffer confirmed), I was loaded into a "flashback" mission, Tayari Plaza; earlier events of the day that led to that most-violently planted helmet. Now in the boots of Buck, my squad's Gunnery Sergeant, I felt suddenly empowered. The world was back to daylight and the vibrant, cartoonish colors I associate with Halo. I charged forward, playing the Chief, and was quickly stripped of my "stamina" (a rechargeable shield layer to ODST's health system). Buck began to groan and pant, and the screen reddened as I took more fire. The life bar quickly diminished. I was dead.
ODST is a more cautionary take on the war we've previously experienced as a super soldier. It's ever-night hub plays on your insecurities and you might find, as I did, that you initially avoid combat whenever possible, slinking around the darkest edges of the map. When the game brightens into flashbacks, you'll naturally slip into your old ways -- just be careful.
The flashback narratives are wrappings over what are essentially classic Halo scenarios. Call it: Combat Distilled. It appears that Bungie has stripped away the repetitive layers that often padded out previous Halo games and exhausted players. The first several flashbacks I played were relatively short; certainly each less than an hour. Each ended right as I was beginning to bore -- or, alternatively, right when I wanted more. The first flashback, Tayari Plaza, was a standard series of encounters throughout a straightforward path through urban New Mombasa. The event culminated in a typically lopsided battle against a wave of Covenant troops (note: as history would imply, Elites are only featured in ODST as been-dead bodies littered in the streets.)
Subsequent flashbacks broke out other familiar gameplay elements from the franchise. Uplift Reserve pits you as Dutch, the veteran and heavy weapons specialist of the squad, in a "Warthog level" as you tear through a sprawling zoo park where the animals shoot back. NMPD Headquarters introduces Romeo, the squad's sniper, into what Bungie calls the "rooftop level" where I was encouraged to deepen my headshot skills. And during the ONI Alpha Site flashback, as Dutch again, I joined up with Mickey as we blew the bridge leading to the ONI facility, which houses sensitive information. Of course, that didn't stop the dropships from approaching, and we fought off a few waves of Covenant reinforcements on the hills leading into the complex before being pushed inside and ... well, I won't spoil it for you.
Back in the hub, I was beginning to piece together the plot -- the mystery -- and uncover new oddities. I'd linked up with the Superintendent and it was trying to tell me something. A car alarm would activate, a public phone would ring, a billboard would simply state: "LOOK OUT!!" With my VISR mode on I began to see objects outlined by yellow, not just the red silhouettes that I was so cautiously avoiding. Stepping closer to an automated health station, then an ATM, and so on, I was prompted to download data into my visor. Another mystery was unfolding. Sadie, a civilian, had a story to tell about New Mombassa during the invasion -- a piece here; a piece there. Halo 3: ODST, it seemed, was just getting started.
Halo 3: ODST will be released on September 22. 2009. Our full review is coming soon.