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Before Sergeant Johnson. Before the Master Chief. Before the Fall of Reach. There were the Hell Jumpers. The elite of United Nations Space Command (UNSC) the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (ODST) were the troops you called in when a situation needed resolving, with extreme prejudice. But then the Spartan super-soldier programme and the Master Chief aka John-117 came along. The ODST just became re-skinned grunts until Halo 3: ODST came out in 2009.
The differences between the main Halo games and Halo 3: ODST are at once vast and minimal. You’re still fighting the same enemies with the same weapons but the story takes place over a day and a night in New Mombasa, Kenya. Focusing on the Rookie’s attempts to find his squadmates Dutch, Romeo, Mickey and Buck along with Naval Officer Dare Halo 3: ODST is as much jazzy, noir investigation as it is sci-fi shooter.
The story of the Halo series right after Halo: Combat Evolved was bizarre. A cynical attempt at fitting a War on Terror metaphor into an alien crusade shaped hole the storyline never really recovered no matter how excellent the gameplay was. It was left to the standalone games like Halo 3: ODST, Halo: Reach and the RTS games Halo Wars to carry that storytelling burden. They did it marvelously. Halo: Reach remains to this day the best Halo game since Combat Evolved but Halo 3: ODST stands out as the most unique.
The Halo series has always been a sucker for bombast. Planetary genocide, alien warships the size of Manhattan island and soldiers that stood 7 feet tall dominated the series and its lore. Halo 3: ODST reigned all of this in, to a degree. It’s nighttime segments were the closest the Halo series would ever get to ASMR. The neon lights of New Mombasa, the gentle rainfall as Brutes stalked the streets and Marty O’Donnell’s reigned in, jazz-inspired soundtrack gave Halo 3: ODST a feeling no other Halo game has had before or since.
A great deal of Halo 3: ODST takes place in the open-ended levels Combat Evolved was famous for. Although they were large and took place in the sprawling mega-city of New Mombasa Halo 3: ODST was perhaps the most claustrophobic and tense of all the Halo games.Every Halo game from Combat Evolved through to Halo Wars is supposed to be played on the Heroic difficulty level. This puts the Elites, Jackals and Grunts on almost even footing with the Master Chief or other player characters. You’re still a super-soldier but you’re also still capable of being killed.
Like all of the Halo games before and after it Halo 3: ODST was supposed to be played on Heroic. But rather than making you feel like an uber-mensch taking risks it made you feel isolated, afraid and wary. As Hell Jumpers the Rookie and his squadmates are expected to take risks and accomplish feats of derring-do but that was in the times of space colonies not when alien fundamentalists are raining fire on a city. Not to mention the aliens they fight are essentially bear-men hybrids, armour encased worm colonies and methane breathing suicide bombers. Halo 3: ODST never feels like a fight in a large war it feels like a fight for survival.
At the same time though ODST is still a Halo game. It involves all the same weapons – the only additions being upgraded versions of the SMG and Magnum – as well as the same enemies and vehicles. The sniper still kicks like a mule. Fleeing from a wailing Grunt wielding two plasma grenades still inspires the same terror sweat. Ploughing through the alien hordes in a Warthog jeep or Scorpion tank still makes you feel like Patton rolling on Berlin. But even within the confines of a traditional Halo game ODST feels different.
In the vast tomes of Halo lore the Spartans are described as working just as well as a unit as they are at being lone wolves. The Halo games outside of maybe Halo Wars never really gave you that feeling. ODST did. The Rookie, despite being the newest member of the squad, works well as a lone wolf type adding to the game’s sci-fi noir atmosphere. As the game goes on and the Rookie finds the rest of his squad that cohesive unit feeling finally kicks in. The distinctive personalities – provided by voice acting royalty Nolan North, Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk and Tricia Helfer – supersede the Halo AI’s bullet sponge tendencies.
Still when it comes to teamwork ODST’s Firefight mode offered it in spades. A completely customisable version of the co-op Horde mode in Gears of War Firefight was Halo 3: ODST’s only new version of multiplayer. Although it lacked the blood-and-thunder adrenaline rush of Slayer or the pinpoint accuracy of SWAT Firefight was fast, frenetic and most importantly fun. It offered a quasi-tactical chaos that had you and three friends adapting on the fly to bigger and deadlier waves of Covenant troops. Or you could make yourself invincible and gift yourself a rocket launcher with unlimited ammo and go bug-shit crazy. It was a telling sign of the overwhelming customisation options that would come with Halo: Reach.
Halo 3: ODST may not be the best Halo game but it was certainly the most unique. It was something fans of the series didn’t know that they wanted. It added nothing much to the over-arching story of the first Halo Trilogy but by telling a smaller story inside of it ODST gave us a sense of what it was to be vulnerable and afraid. Outside of the boots of the Master Chief’s Mjolnir armour the world is a scary, dangerous place and Halo 3: ODST made players feel that. Before Halo: Reach became the most complete game in the franchise Halo 3: ODST was a guiding light of what the series could do and the kind of stories it could tell.