If there's one thing Bungie and Microsoft want to get across about Halo 3: ODST, is that this is a full Halo experience that justifies its full-price status.
"[Bungie] tend to over-deliver on just about everything that they do," says Microsoft Game Studios' Ryan Crosby, "and when we first sat down and started to do playtesting and really got a good look at [Halo 3: ODST], we came to realise it was a heck of a lot bigger than we planned for."
The plan, as you might recall was for a cheaper standalone expansion release, then called Halo 3: Recon. But as Bungie's senior designer Lars Bakken notes, over the course of development it "basically kept growing in scope". (For more from our interviews, check out the Eurogamer TV Show that accompanies this preview.)
Quickly renamed Halo 3: ODST, it became apparent internally that this was a product that could stand alongside other Halo products for scope and ambition. "[Multiplayer mode] Firefight came online, more levels came online, the hub became this massive thing," says Bakken. Indeed, the game's single-player campaign city in New Mombassa is "the biggest Halo level we've ever made".
"And every time we got a look at it, it was a little bit bigger," nods Crosby. "And eventually it was like, 'this is a huge deal.' I think also, as Lars said, once we got a look at [Firefight] the co-operative mode of play, and how much replay it adds to the game as well, it was shocking. It was so much fun."
In terms of gameplay length of the ODST single-player campaign, it's not exactly clear what we're dealing with. During the gameplay presentation, Microsoft said it will be "massive...probably bigger than the campaigns in other FPS titles available today", but later, Crosby admits: "it won't be, in my mind as long [as Halo 3] to play through. If you play through and go really quickly, it won't be as long as Halo 3 in terms of hours, but it is big and it's full. There's a full story told in there."
Bakken reckons: "It's hard to quantify - mostly because, the way the Halo games have been handled in the past, they're all about replayability. Each time you played the level, it'll play a little bit differently each time. You've also got New Mombassa, the hub, the city at night, which is huge... Players are going to be able to spend a lot of time in there."
So why go for an openworld style in the first place? "I think the reason we chose it was to really go hand-in-hand with the storytelling style that we chose," Bakken explains. "Joseph Staten, who was the writer on ODST, he really wanted to try something different, and breaking up the story and kind of placing it in pieces around this big open world was like a cool new way to tell it.
"So, it's non-linear, you're basically picking out these pieces and playing from these people's perspectives and putting those story bits together yourself. That was really a cool way for us to tell a different kind of story in a different way," adds Bakken.
"[Halo 3: ODST] really is a mystery story too, right?" says Crosby. "And the nice thing about telling the story in that way is that it can remain a mystery, and people can have different experiences, and you can figure it out for yourself. I think the idea is that you get all these clues, you're piecing the mystery together in your own way, and the storyline converges, and that's kind of where the climax of the game is, and I think that it works really well for telling this kind of story."
And that's not the whole picture, either. Tantalisingly, Bakken also says "there's going to be a lot of things in there that we aren't talking about yet, and that certain kinds of players are going to be attracted to." The big tease. As you'd expect, you've got the ability to play co-operatively offline or online, and multiple difficulty levels. Players will also have the ability to turn on skulls from the beginning. "It's actually just a full game option now. You don't have to find them anymore," reveals Bakken.
One thing Bungie and Microsoft are willing to expand on right now are the basic tweaks and changes we'll be seeing in ODST. Given that you initially play as 'The Rookie', a nameless Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, instead of the iconic Master Chief, the developer has been able to fiddle with a few gameplay elements to make ODST feel distinct from previous entries in the series.
For a start you can't jump quite as high, there's no motion tracker, and the health system has been altered, so that you cannot regain it like the Master Chief could. This means that, yes, you have to scurry around the city finding health packs, old school - an interesting change we predict won't necessarily be to everyone's satisfaction. In addition, there's a new VISR mode, which you activate by pressing X. This acts as a sort of night-vision mode, where enemies appear with a red outline, while friendlies appear with a green outline.
In terms of new weapons, there's the beefed-up silenced SMG, now with optional zoom, while the other is the Automag, which is similar to the much-missed pistol from Halo 1. Complete with zoom facility, "you can fire it as fast as you can pull the trigger. It's a completely awesome new weapon," according to Bakken.
In addition to a promisingly weighty sounding single-player campaign, Halo 3: ODST also ships with the Gears of War 2 Horde-style Firefight multiplayer mode. Played out in tight, enclosed environments with three buddies (over Live, split-screen or System Link), you face wave upon wave of Covenant forces. With seven lives in reserve, the game carries on for as long as you can survive the onslaught. To make things more interesting, the enemy type varies every time you play, meaning its impossible for players to simply learn the sequence.
On top of that, the skulls system imposes different gameplay conditions with every round, so that, for example, in round one, 'Tough Luck' makes enemies harder to kill, while later, 'Black Eye' forces you to melee enemies to get your stamina back. On the whole, it's too early to tell how big a draw Firefight will be, but it does address the one key question about the high bar to entry to playing Halo 3 online. We especially appreciate the fact that Firefight revolves around playing with friends, as opposed to smack-talking lunatics. Unless you happen to have smack-talking lunatic friends, obviously.
According to Bakken, Firefight should appeal to veterans as much as cowering newbies. "I think the really cool thing about Firefight is that there's a set of skills people have been honing for, what, nine years or something like that at this point. Firefight allows people to not actually jump into the online arena and play against strangers in a competitive way. It allows you to play with your buddies. You're sitting together on the couch, or you're sitting together on Live, playing split-screen or whatever, and it allows you to play in kind of a non-confrontational way, and I think that's going to be cool for a lot of people that aren't really interested in competitive multiplayer side."
And of course, for those of you who live for the Halo 3 multiplayer experience, Halo 3: ODST offers everything and a little bit more. For as well as rounding up the entire Halo 3 multiplayer map collection to date, Bungie is throwing three additional maps into the pot: Longshore, Citadel and Heretic - the latter of which is a remake of Midship from Halo 2. Interestingly, this multiplayer map portion of the package comes as a separate disc and runs as an executable.
One final nugget Bungie has added to the Halo 3: ODST package is exclusive access to the Halo: Reach multiplayer beta program, which is set to kick off later in 2009. When asked whether we're likely to see the game in any meaningful form this year, Bakken said: "I would bet that we're not going to see it this year - only because I think we want ODST to shine this year." So there you have it.
With Bungie still very much intent on keeping a hand-off approach to ODST's press reveal right now - only allowing us to play one Firefight map - it's tough to draw too many conclusions from what we've seen to date. If the promises of an expansive single-player campaign hold true, and Firefight offers the kind of compulsive online thrills that it should, few people will question that this doesn't warrant its price tag. With more multiplayer maps and access to the Halo: Reach beta adding the icing to the cake, then Halo fans are going to be feeling pretty pleased come 22nd September.
Halo 3: ODST will be released on 22nd September. For more from our interviews, check out the Eurogamer TV Show that accompanies this preview.