This game slots in as a little piece on the side of what happens during Halo 2. From a gameplay perspective, the new gimmick is that you no longer play as an invincible super solider. Instead you are a slightly less invincible human solider engaging in street combat in various areas of the city of “New Mombasa”. The fact that you are only mostly invincible means that you have to change up your tactics a little bit. But mostly the same Halo combat engine that we know and love (or hate) makes itself evident from the beginning. It pays to use combinations of weapons well. It pays to engage as few enemies as possible, lest you be burned to a crisp by plasma fire. It pays to conserve sticky grenades.
Bungie also contribues to a bit of the old OCD by adding achievements for some standard Halo combat moves. For example, you can get one for pulling off ten bitchslap moves on the same level. This is great fun. Try it with the Covenant Carbine. Very effective. There is also an audio log collection minigame, ala Bioshock. Apparently audio logs will soon be the new clichéd narrative device for first person shooters.
Speaking of narrative, the game tries to switch things up by introducing a plot that jumps back and forth in time and presents the events of the game through multiple points of view. This works fairly well to distract you from the fact that the writing is about as good as a bad episode of Dollhouse. For some reason, they also tried to tie the threads of the narrative together by introducing a gameplay device that I will call “make the user search the entire map for a small object that glows yellow so he can get to the next area.” I haven’t done so much brute force search since I spent too much time looking for non-rendered treasure chests in Shadow Hearts. Bungie has faithfully reproduced that experience, leaving out only the little thought bubble that is supposed to appear over my head when I am finally standing in the right spot.
This annoyance aside, the rest of the Halo checklist is safely in place:
1. Set pieces with large groups of enemies that kill you over and over until you fight smart: check.
2. Annoying areas where you have to fly a Banshee: check.
3. Blowing shit up in tanks: check.
4. The “I’m driving the Warthog on an endless highway with loud music, this must be close to the last level” moment: check.
5. Long linear hallway often disguised as multiple areas that all look the same: check.
I have not yet dipped into the multiplayer, although I hope to play Firefight with a few of my online friends. Overall, I have to say that I’m happy with the single player. I like the feel of combat in the city. I like the narrative involving multiple characters. I like the slight twists that they have added to the fighting. It’s been a long time since I had a nice alien shooting gallery and this one is well enough implemented that I’ve even decided to go through again on Heroic. It helps that Bungie was considerate enough to make the campaign short. This way you can replay it without wanting to poke your own eyes out with a fork.
There will be the usual chorus of naysayers. Some will say that there is not enough content. Some will call this a glorified expansion pack. Some will chastise Bungie because they didn’t make the game satisfy their literature dork wet dreams. I have no real opinion on whether these people are right. But I do think that they should be ignored. Buy the game. Shoot the aliens. I liked it. So will you.