- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 24, 2009

Superhero and cartoon characters are integral parts of the electronic entertainment industry. With this in mind, I salute the meld of pop-culture character and video game with a look at Halo 3: O.D.S.T.(from Microsoft Game Studios and Bungie for Xbox 360, rated M for mature, $59.99).

One of the premiere first-person shooters returns to introduce a new type of human soldier ready to stop the continued invasion by a powerful extraterrestrial coalition. Up to four players take part in events that led to the Halo 3 saga.

What’s the story? From the game manual: It’s the year 2552, and a Covenant carrier has breached Earth’s defenses and attacked the African megacity, New Mombasa. Now military leaders of the United Nations Space Command have prepared their response.

Teams of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (O.D.S.T.) are ready to assault the carrier from Navy ships in low orbit. This is a near-suicide mission. But these troopers are the best of the best. And saving New Mombasa could be the most important mission of the war.

Play the role: A player becomes an O.D.S.T. rookie and finds himself dumped in the dark, dangerous and too-quiet locale of Mombasa after the major offensive.

Campaigns are broken up between times when the player, as the rookie, searches for his squad mates through streets and structures and then finds objects to trigger flashbacks to battles, in which he becomes squad members, including Buck, Dare and Dutch.

The troopers are not of the superpowered Master Chief quality but more vulnerable and unable to shoot more than one weapon at a time. As they take damage, a stamina shield glows red, and eventually their health is affected. Health is restored only when med packs are found, but stamina will regenerate if the player can take a breather and stay out of the line of fire.

Troopers also wear a sophisticated helmet that contains technology to identify personnel, enemies and objects in low light and can easily tap into a locale’s communications, intelligence and map navigation.

Get to the action: For this fan, Halo is all about the interaction of cool weapons, vehicles and bad guys, and this latest game offers an abundance from each category.

Shock Troopers are equipped out of their pod with a submachine gun and a new scoped pistol. Legendary weapons such as the Spiker with an attached ax blade, Brute Shot, Beam Rifle, Shotgun and the shiny red Brute Plasma Rifle are found littered around or near the bodies of fallen enemies or comrades, ready to pick up and use.

Vehicles, such as the reliable UNSC all-terrain Warthogs, are especially exhilarating to control. Hijacking a Brute Chopper or quick-moving Ghost also can give a thrill.

As far as enemies, the Covenant collective is at full strength and more aggressive and powerful than I have ever seen. Oh sure, those Oompa Loompa Grunts are more nuisance and comedic filler, but beware of Brute Chieftains, sniping Jackals and new, gold-armored Hunters that slaughter everything in their path - especially humans.

Memorable moments (in no particular order): Catching a ride on a Warthog to handle the gun turret or sitting shotgun while a fellow trooper recklessly runs over Grunts; hijacking a speedy Ghost by tossing a Brute out of it and then ramming a Wraithe; jumping on its armored hood, planting a bomb, jumping away and watching it blow up; sniping a resting Hunter by aiming for a meaty part of his wormlike body.

Violent encounters: Multiple colors of species’ blood is spilled on the streets and outskirts of Mombasa. Combine that with a scattering of profanity, and the game warrants its mature rating.

Read all about it: Marvel Entertainment offers a sequential-art view of the life of an O.D.S.T. in the five-issue limited series Halo: Helljumper ($3.99 each), written by the legendary Peter David.

Pixel-popping scale: 8.5 out of 10. Using the enhanced infrared option in night battles takes away from the hardened beauty of the game, but daylight firefights are as spectacular as ever. Adding to the visual prowess is an orchestra-rich musical score from Marty O’Donnell that overwhelms with moments of melancholy one minute and adds to the nail-biting tension the next. The voice-over work is as powerful and believable as in any recent war movie.

And as a cool extra with the franchise, amateur filmmakers can review video clips of their Halo antics and also upload their best battles for others to appreciate.

Multiplayer:Most entertaining is the cooperative multiplayer Firefight mode in which up to four friends must hold off waves of Covenant forces in 10 mission locales. “Friends” is the key word here, folks, as the team shares multiple lives and med packs to sustain against the merciless opposition that grows stronger with each O.D.S.T. success. And online friends can participate in Firefight, so, read it and weep, there’s no player matching; you must have actual friends in your Xbox Live universe.

Extras and unlockables:Owners get a second disc that contains all of Halo 3’s online multiplayer maps in addition to three new ones (a total 25 arenas) for up to 16 Master Chief mutations to simultaneously blast away at each other. By the way, the action is embellished with 35 variations on nine scenarios, ranging from simple death matches to avoiding being turned into a zombie.

Those who purchase the Collector’s Pack also get a token to unlock Sgt. Maj. Avery J. Johnson for use as a playable character in the Firefight mode.

Also, don’t forget about locating the 30 audio transmissions hidden around Mombasa to get further involved in the story.

What’s it worth:Halo 3: O.D.S.T. places fans in a well-worn but very comfortable universe. It is not an expansion pack and provides a challenging, shoot-out style experience supported by an intense story and cast of characters.

Those new to Halo will find the campaign satisfying enough and that second multiplayer map disc a time-consuming lifestyle change.

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