I don't know what your expectations were for Halo 3 ODST, but I wasn't expecting much. Bungie seems to have been playing down the significance of its latest entry in the Halo series, following year-long back-and-forth contradictions about what exactly Halo 3 ODST even is. Such issues didn't inspire much confidence, but it's a new Halo game, right? Of course I'm going to play it.
But while I'm sure to have any number of memorable gaming experiences before this year is up, I'm convinced Halo 3 ODST will stick with me. Halo 3 ODST is important. It's a game worth putting on a pedestal, pointing to the rest of the industry and demanding many more games like this.
This isn't a review and really has little to do with the Halo franchise; it's needed applause for the quality workmanship that went into a year-long product from a AAA studio in an industry increasingly focused on quick, cheap downloadable games or Hollywood-style epics.
The latter trend Bungie itself has perpetuated and no doubt will continue to endorse, but I sincerely hope Halo 3 ODST sells enough to send an encouraging message: risks, even if it's especially calculated and low risk, are a good thing. Is developing a new Halo game a risk? No, of course not, but letting Bungie craft a new Halo game sans its iconic character in a gameplay style that looks like it plays exactly like the pervious Halo installments but is, in fact, subtly very different in narrative and substance, is an important takeaway for Bungie, Microsoft and the industry. Branding it Halo guarantees sales numbers, thus providing an opportunity for significant innovation.
If Halo 3 ODST's numbers are big, it's because of the Halo brand -- but what Bungie did with that opportunity is key. Rather than spitting out a series of deleted scenes with Master Chief, Bungie produced a noir-inspired detective tale with a gameplay style both iterating on past experiences and simultaneously trying something completely different. Best of all, Bungie produced this extension in roughly a year, an unheard of development sprint for a major release these days. But it happened because of realistic expectations and scope, which isn't the gaming norm. Halo 3 ODST may not have been conceived as the game it became, but the lessons from the experience can be applied quite broadly.
There are very few instances these days where developers take advantage of the built-in audience from a successful game to challenge expectations. Bethesda Softworks played with that a little bit during the Operation Anchorage expansion for Fallout 3, which felt like Fallout 3's take on Call of Duty. Again, that happened in an instance where Bethesda was working on a smaller development cycle and building upon the confidence that they could take a categorically safe risk because they can expect gamers to support them, based on Fallout 3.
Small, talented teams with modest expectations and realistic ambitions can do great things. Halo 3 ODST is proof. I'd love more of that, but even Bungie admitted to me at PAX that it's unlikely Bungie will always have a smaller team working on something. Once Halo 3 ODST was finished, that team was bundled into the massive workforce behind the upcoming Halo: Reach. That's disappointing.
Halo or not, we need more games like Halo 3 ODST. Agreed?