Meet The New Mombasa, Same As The Old Mombasa

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Earlier this week I was all enthusiastic about how Halo: ODST was unambiguously superior to all the previous Halo games, but it turns out that I had only played the part before they’d gotten around to turning it back into, y’know, Halo.

For those (both?) of you unfamiliar with it, the Halo series are open-environment, plot-on-rails shooters in which you play an armored space marine from the future, playing a hero’s role in a compellingly-storyboarded interstellar war; while not particularly revolutionary in narrative terms, they’re well-executed and, if that sort of thing is your bag, good fun. So don’t get me wrong, I like armored space marines from the future just fine. Some of my best friends are armored space marines from the future. But once you’ve played some Halo, you’ve got a pretty good idea if you want to play more Halo, you know? There’s aliens, you shoot them, there’s more, you shoot them, you drive some, you fly some, but basically there’s aliens and scenery, and you shoot them up.

But there’s a lot of it, and at a certain point it’s a bit like being made to eat a ten-gallon jug of Rocky Road; in that first few bites, you get the peanuts, the chocolate, marshmallows, it’s all delicious sweet variety. But by the end of it, yeah, just one more mouthful and you’ll be that guy that ate ten gallons of Rocky Road. So, you might say to yourself, at least there’s that.

Achievement Unlocked: Ten Gallons Of Rocky Road.

The first three-quarters or so of ODST is not like that at all. Instead of being an unstoppable special-government-program super-soldier running from brightly-coloured place to differently-brightly-coloured other place shooting up uniformly dumb aliens you’re regular old Private Rookie, and your fireteam’s deployment to a city called New Mombasa has gone horribly wrong.

And now you’re walking around this nearly-abandoned city at night, skulking around corners and bumping into random Covenant now and then; this is most of the game, and it’s unambiguously great. It could be that I only think that because it plays into my preferred way of playing this sort of game – I am all about the sneaking and the sniping, which is basically why everyone I know who plays Halo hates playing it with me – but this is real Silent Hill 2 territory, an unclear mission in a sinister city, saturated with the quiet fear of being totally alone. The soundtrack is excellent spooky jazz, the ambiance is wonderfully ominous and spring-loaded-cats are kept to an endearing minimum as you scavenge for information and ammo in the darkened ruins of a not-quite-abandoned-enough futurist metropolis.

And then the last quarter of the game happens, and all that gets tossed out the window. You actually find some of your colleagues, and whatever the dialogue says, the actual AI plays as 100% classic Halo, a heavily-armed fratboy rodeo.

It’s jarring in a number of ways, not the least of which is that the monkey you’re ostensibly backing up will say something like “ok, keep it fast and quiet” and then run off into a crowd of twenty bad guys waiving his hands and shooting his gun in the air. At one point, I realized that not only is this precisely the opposite of what I’d very carefully done to make it to this point, but that none of it mattered because AI-controlled characters apparently can’t be killed. You can just let them work the whole room, until it’s empty except for whatever key-monster or task you have to deal with is left, which they won’t touch. You can finish the last quarter of the game by just letting the AI handle it. Which is pretty much 100% unfun.

And soon after that you’re back to the driving and shooting, and you’re outside and there’s daylight and aliens and here’s another gallon of Rocky Road, except now the delicious peanuts are that two of your indestructible moron AIs are in a relationship. Um, woo? I certainly wish them all the best, I’m sure they’ll raise a big happy family of indestructible idiot kids, but this isn’t about them. I wanted it to get back to being about me and my fun, but then the game ended.

So, there you go. You’re really looking at two games here, one of which is a quite good and arguably great survival-horrorish shooter, even if it’s a few hours too short. The other one is a game you’ve probably played before, and probably don’t need to play much of again.

One Comment

  1. Posted December 13, 2009 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Whereas to me, ODST’s story seems to get rid of the things that make Halo uniquely great.

    Halo is a TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE single player game. Boring, dull, and generally uninteresting. But as a multiplayer co-op game, it’s great. So a Halo game that’s oriented on being alone and solitary is… missing the point.

    (And yeah, you can play it co-op, but that’s just weird in both ways.)