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ODST is bittersweet, for me
Posted By: Jordan117Date: 6/2/09 5:10 p.m.

For me, the coolest part of the Halo canon has always been New Mombasa. One of the earliest memories I have of the series is watching the Halo 2 E3 trailer for the first time and seeing the metal hive of Earth City rising out of the smog, with the title card:


That image, before anything else, was what convinced me that Bungie were serious worldbuilders. Any other game company would have stuck their shooter in a generic scifi metropolis or some overused futuristic locale like Neo York or MegaTokyo. But to set it in an obscure African city? And to make that city an immense arcology? It was original and interesting, and got me hooked.

I loved the way that Bungie fleshed out the city over the next two games. The exotic retro-futurism of Old Mombasa. The industrial yet cosmopolitan feel of New Mombasa. The skylines full of distinctive architecture. The space elevator. The Swahili PA guy. The East African Protectorate flags. The accurate (but subtly altered) street map in Terminal.

[Modern Mombasa vs. New Mombasa]

All these details and elements came together to make New Mombasa a cohesive and consistent environment. The map, especially -- it really drove home the feeling that the city was a real place. That every street and skyscraper stood on ground that existed in the real world, that you could hop on a plane and stand where you're standing in the game (albeit with slight cosmetic changes :P ). It gave the area a backstory, a social context, a reason to exist. It made it feel compellingly real -- like you were glimpsing the future.

So naturally when ODST was first announced, I was thrilled. It was my dream Halo game. Set entirely within my favorite environment -- and not just as a series of dungeon crawls, but as a full-fledged open-world city! I could hardly wait.

Unfortunately, what we've seen of the game so far has convinced me that Bungie has scrapped their prior vision for something very different. While the architecture is similar, the structure of the city has completely changed.

The blue tactical map (which I guess is a simplified representation of the game world) looks nothing like the old Terminal layout. Instead of a broad island, New Mombasa is a crooked peninsula, with odd angular coasts built like terraces. The space elevator, instead of sitting in the city center encircled by access roads, is out on the water (?) with a floating highway going out to who-knows-where. There's another smaller island nearby, which I think is the ONI building set piece the trailer hints at.

This is really disappointing. I mean, I know gameplay and story are more important than background details like geographical accuracy, and that sacrifices should not be made to accommodate things that few people will notice. But there isn't any reason for these changes. The street grid visible in the tactical map looks like a generally compact and generic chunk of urban terrain. Why couldn't that environment be placed on a hitherto unseen part of the island? There's no reason to completely alter the established large-scale geography.

Also, the inconsistency of effort in terms of accuracy is odd. Need a throwaway texture for a multiplayer map? Spend considerable time researching Mombasa and design a detailed and realistic map of it that reflects 500 years of urban evolution. Need to actually recreate this city in an open-world format as the foundation for a major new game? Eh, just plop a few dozen buildings on some land somewhere, whatever. Why do that, when you already have a complete map of the entire city right there?

I guess part of the letdown is that since Halo 2 I've learned a lot about the real city and had high expectations for the accuracy of the game, based on the Terminal map. I thought you'd be able to drive a Warthog down Moi Avenue, firefight in Kibokoni Park, and even revisit the parts of the game seen in Halo 2, like the monolithic towers or the half-dome amphitheater. Similar to the District map from Halo 2 Vista, which took an existing locale (the starting area from Outskirts) and expanded it beyond the old borders. Something like Grand Theft Auto IV: ODST, with the game recreating New Mombasa just like the island of Algonquin recreated Manhattan.

But that was just wishful thinking. I'm sad mainly because that potent sense of realism is gone. Apart from the name, there isn't anything connecting this new New Mombasa to anything real. It's disconnected, a no-place. Artificial (especially when you look at those odd terraced coasts). And it's even more confusing when the trailer refers to specific areas of real-life Mombasa like Lumumba and Sidiriya. Why use these areas of the real city to name parts of a completely invented one? "And this here is Wall Street, which as you can see is a polluted industrial area just across the lake from Queens." It's simply wrong.

Looking back, I guess I have Robt McLees to thank for keeping things consistent up till now. He drew up the Terminal transit map, maintains the Halo Bible, and, like me, is obsessed with the arcane details that make up a convincing world. For instance, from an old Weekly Update interview:

Q: Just the other day Frank Capezzuto came up to the Writer’s pod and asked what year the Docks that appear in a certain level of the game were created, explain exactly how you go about answering a question like that.

A: Yeah, that sort’a came out of left field—but Frank really likes to build history into whatever he’s working on. In this instance I went straight to the Bible and looked at the timeline. Knowing that the political climate in this particular region was pretty volatile I looked for some event that would predicate a level of political stability on a global scale and then pick a date within about 15 years of said event that is aesthetically pleasing. Yeah, you heard me correctly—aesthetically pleasing. When given a task as seemingly arbitrary as establishing the construction date of a fictional dockyard one might as well take into account the physical representation of said date.

Heh, a man after my own heart. I guess he must be working on something else, because I doubt he'd have let such a messy and needless retconning go forward, especially when he was willing to draft a map on his own when it wasn't even necessary. It's too bad Frankie's gone, too, because he did stuff like this well.

Crap, this is long. Uh, I just wanted to add that this is not a criticism of the actual level design. The screenshots so far look amazing, and I have no doubt that ODST will be kickass fun times. I just wish that the original vision of New Mombasa as a real-world place hadn't been abandoned for a purely invented environment. It makes the geography/backstory/Mombasa lover in me a sad panda.

(FWIW, I love how the cityscape is festooned with billboards for companies that have been referenced elsewhere -- AMG, Traxus, Hinos, Mainz Trager, Sinoviet, etc.)

Message Index


ODST is bittersweet, for meJordan117 6/2/09 5:10 p.m.
     Oops.Jordan117 6/2/09 5:14 p.m.
     Re: ODST is bittersweet, for meThe More Deluded 6/2/09 6:51 p.m.
     :-\pete_the_duck 6/2/09 7:51 p.m.
           Re: :-\Stephen L. (SoundEffect) 6/2/09 8:15 p.m.
           Re: :-\Jordan117 6/2/09 9:11 p.m.
                 Consider this:InnerRayg 6/2/09 9:19 p.m.
                       Re: Consider this:Jordan117 6/2/09 9:26 p.m.
                 Re: :-\Stephen L. (SoundEffect) 6/2/09 10:22 p.m.
                       Re: :-\Omega 6/2/09 10:37 p.m.
                             Re: :-\Stephen L. (SoundEffect) 6/3/09 1:26 p.m.
                                   Re: :-\bluerunner 6/3/09 1:55 p.m.
                                   Re: :-\Omega 6/3/09 2:24 p.m.
                                         Re: :-\vlad3163 6/3/09 4:58 p.m.
                                               Re: :-\Omega 6/3/09 6:18 p.m.
     Re: ODST is bittersweet, for meMasterNoob 6/2/09 9:32 p.m.
     Gameplay issueFyreWulff 6/2/09 9:46 p.m.
           Good Point...Here's another questionInnerRayg 6/2/09 10:55 p.m.
     Re: ODST is bittersweet, for meWarp2 6/3/09 8:50 p.m.
           Re: ODST is bittersweet, for mePsychophan7 6/4/09 3:37 a.m.
           Re: ODST is bittersweet, for meGeneral Vagueness 6/4/09 1:53 p.m.
     Re: ODST is bittersweet, for mePsychophan7 6/4/09 4:32 a.m.

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