I don't know about you, but I saw it coming. "This isn't the typical, huge, three-year cycle for our studio; it's one of three products we have going on, so it's a little smaller in scale," said Bungie community lead Brian Jarrard at the Tokyo Game Show last year. Yeah right. "It's going to represent hours of new campaign gameplay, but it's not a full, entire game like Halo 3." Yeah right.
Speaking at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, Bungie insists the now-broad scope of ODST snuck up on them, but Jarrard admits to me that it was mainly a case of wanting to under-promise and over-deliver. In fact, I suspect the only reason it's still "Halo 3: ODST" and not just "Halo: ODST" is that it would be one name-change too many ("Halo: Reach" suggests they're going into next year's effort a bit more knowingly). Whether they realised it or not, this was always going to be a big game. Now it's one of the biggest of the year.
A big part of that big game is Firefight, the new four-man co-operative mode where players defend against waves of Covenant forces, which tags onto the new campaign (covered in detail by our E3 write-up). Firefight's the focus at PAX, where a deep queue snakes around the Xbox 360 booth offering a chance to play on one of five of the 10 shipping maps. But "shipping" is the operative word, despite constant denials of any DLC plans. Surely they aren't just going to build a new multiplayer gameplay mode and then forget about it? That wouldn't be very Bungie.
"The number one question these days is whether we're going to do DLC for ODST and add more Firefight maps," Jarrard admits. "Right now we honestly have no plans to do that because we have another huge game in the works." Yeeeah, buuuut.... "I can't talk too much about Reach specifics, but hopefully the game mode's going to be received as well we think it will be, and people are going to enjoy it. I don't think we've ever been known to really take things away from each successive release, so I think it's safe to say that if Firefight gets a lot of traction and people love it, it probably has a good future home in our next title as well." Yes. Exactly.
Playing it, you sense it will get a lot of traction, because it's ace. Although it lacks the playlist functionality of proper Halo 3 multiplayer, there's tremendous versatility. The map I sit down with - the night-time version of Crater - is a typically composed layout. A mall-style open-air plaza with significant nooks at either end features cover points scattered around a raised central area (lots of nice flowerbeds), overlooked by four straight corner staircases leading up to balconies on left and right with recessed areas, and higher vantage points on the remaining sides, one with a turret gun and routes to the ODST safehouse, and one with a more open layout, a stalled bus and a street beyond. It's all tightly appointed with considered verticality and sufficient cover to get out of battle.
But it's not this that really delivers the versatility. The ODSTs - the four of you - face battle in a different manner to the Master Chief. Without recharging shields, once you're engaged you have to be committed, as there are only four health-packs for the team (and those hidden away back in the saferoom) per five waves of Covenant attacks, and you can't rely on old tricks to escape (unable to jump as high as the Chief, you can't leap over a Brute to beat a hasty retreat, for example). Weapons are a consideration too - the default ODST automatic rifle kicks like a mule and while the pistol is an improvement on Halo 3's, you need to make use of dropped Covenant weaponry to maximise your effectiveness.
But it's not really this that delivers the versatility either - it's the skulls. Once a hidden bonus in Halo 3 for people who wanted to find them and test themselves, now they're put into play in increasingly complex configurations across a Firefight session. They might force you to recoup stamina by melee-attacking enemies, for example, or increase each Covenant unit's strength for a spell, and since Firefight is a potentially endless mode, only limited by how quickly you exhaust your pooled stock of lives (topped up every five waves, when you also receive a new complement of saferoom health-packs), if you're in a group that lasts a long time you could theoretically end up with virtually all the skulls on at once. Bungie uses the introduction of skulls to control pace and tempo, mixing up enemy spawns to keep you on your toes, and you sense that skulls will be the key to Firefight's longevity - and that mixing them up as a bit of 'lite' DLC might not be as out of the question as Jarrard and company suggest.
While Firefight's considered a campaign add-on (with several of the maps unlocked by playing through the main game) rather than a new component of the Halo multiplayer universe, it will get plenty of love on Bungie.net. "What we're doing on B-net is going nuts with statistics," says Jarrard. "Lifetime career stats for all of your Firefights, for medals, for scores - so you and your friends are going to have arcade-style high-score leaderboards for every Firefight map, and we actually built a pseudo ranking system into the website." All this will allow you to compare your skills to other people in various ways. Jarrard reckons the Bungie.net revisions, set to go live with ODST's release, "add a lot more meat" to ODST.
What you shouldn't expect, however, is for ODST to fold into Microsoft's Halo Waypoint project. "Sure we're talking to them, it's just obviously not our project," says Jarrard, diplomatically. "It's really more from a content side right now, we're not talking about feeding them stats or anything like that... It kind of remains to be seen where they're going and what their objective is." Surely their objective is to own Halo, basically? "Yeah, that's probably fair to say. We're pretty comfortable with how we're representing our community on the web, and how we're able to extend our game experience onto the net. With Waypoint it'll be in your living room, so it'll be cool for some things." I'm still suspicious.
Playing with a bunch of randoms without voice communications at PAX, it's hard to get a sense of Firefight's heft, but it's not hard to enjoy. Bunching together for ad hoc co-operation prolongs your more fragile life, and I no doubt win the hearts of my comrades by vanquishing a series of Brutes from my elevated turret position during one particularly fraught wave, even if the post-match score breakdown reveals that the other players are all much better and more experienced than me (probably why they cared enough to queue). It will be interesting to see how the skull variation plays out, what impact the vehicles have on certain maps (warthogs and mongooses have been sighted, although you won't be able to commandeer the Covenant wraiths, for the record), and how long those 10 shipping maps keep Firefight propped up.
My guess would be for a fair while. Bungie's deliciously indiscreet developers let slip at a fan panel on Friday that the campaign takes around eight hours to finish even if you only uncover a few of its extras and secrets, and while together with Firefight this may not be a game with content bulk to match some of last year's fourth-quarter monsters like Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3, the hopefully not-so-distant promise of Halo: Reach beta access and the second disc of Halo 3 multiplayer content (including three maps that haven't made it into previous download bundles) patch this up to a strong standing. Which is a good thing, because whatever the plan was and whatever it is now, hopes for ODST are as big as the game was clearly always going to be.
Halo 3: ODST is due out on 22nd September for Xbox 360.