Version tested: Xbox 360
Getting more out of the Halo universe was never going to be difficult. There was plenty of drama waiting to be uncovered in New Mombasa, just as there will be in the since-glassed extremes of next year's Reach. But getting by without the Master Chief was always going to be difficult. He's the apex predator of Halo's enormously diverse battlefield ecology, sucking in his breath and diving out of space stations, smashing the Flood without breaking sweat, and hijacking Ghosts with one hand tied behind his Mjolnir armour. Everyone else can only be so tough; can only jump so high, recover so quickly, and do so much damage without need of backup.
Halo 3: ODST does present a compelling alternative to the Master Chief, but the smartest thing about the game is that Bungie faces down this intimidating challenge by realising it cannot do so through one man alone. Although you control the Rookie, a seemingly fresh-faced but faceless new tip of the spear in the battle against the Covenant, the developer prefers to tell the story of New Mombasa through a series of playable vignettes, each of which showcases individual acts of very human heroism on the part of a scattered group of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers.
The Rookie's story begins in space as the ODSTs plans their attack on the Covenant forces that have appeared above New Mombasa, equatorial home to the space elevator that connects the world to the war machine that sits reluctantly on its shoulder in geostationary orbit. They're going in, but as they do so - in a fantastic first-person introduction sequence that captures the violent insanity of outer-terrestrial deployment - a Covenant ship jumps away, and its slip-space wake throws everyone off their drop coordinates and leaves the Rookie unconscious, suspended in his pod above the streets until after nightfall.
When he wakes up, at first it's to a game that is nothing like Halo: a dark, deserted city with very little human or Covenant presence to speak of, with nobody whispering instructions in his ear and little to go on besides an instruction to find medical supplies, while piano and theremin peels float unhurriedly on the wind. This is the game's hub world, a fat expanse of downtown New Mombasa, which the Rookie will spend the night crawling over for signs of his lost squad-mates.
Like them, he's equipped with a VISR, which offers night-vision augmented by outlines and markers to identify beacons and hostiles, and which provides access to an overhead map of the city for plotting routes back and forth across it. Picking his way past Covenant patrols - some light, some heavy - he tracks down remnants, like a helmet with a crushed visor, a sniper rifle with a bent scope, or a faltering gauss cannon, each of which triggers a playable flashback level.
The hub may be a world apart from the Halo we recall, but the stories the flashbacks remember are not only the Halo world we recognise, they play out like a greatest hits compilation. They begin with squad leader Buck's assault on a Covenant-controlled plaza, a desperate rampage through streets filled with jackals and brutes in search of Veronica Dare, the naval intelligence officer with whom he has a history, and whose radio messages suggest is in serious trouble. Buck may be in a nervous hurry, but you will be back in your comfort zone, using the occasional building interior and split levels of the promenade to outflank and outgun the Covenant with your new suppressed, kick-heavy machinegun and revitalised, headshot-happy pistol.
Next you move on to the squad's hard man, Dutch, who ends up trawling the Covenant-packed parks outside New Mombasa in a warthog, lining up Wraiths for his gunner. Later you take control of Mickey, who drives a tank through the heart of the city. Then there's an explosive bridge sequence, and sniping among the rooftops with Romeo. It's a checklist of Halo disciplines level by level, but far from lazy, it's an ideal delivery mechanism for the thrills we've been missing since we finished the fight, with its own unique high points, like fighting off Banshees in the ruins of a downed Pelican, and teaching a Scarab to pick on something its own size. Between levels, the game returns to the Rookie, who continues his hunt, scavenging weapons and ammunition from Covenant detachments.
He also gets to know the Superintendent, the city's controlling AI, by locating glowing yellow phone booths and data points. This provides him access to supply caches - much-needed as ammo is scarce - but more importantly it gives him another couple of minutes' audio from the computer's logs, which tell the story of a young girl called Sadie and her attempts to reach her father, who is intimately connected with the events that brought the Covenant to bear on New Mombasa and, puzzlingly, only New Mombasa. You hear the audio recordings sequentially, no matter where you are when you locate the next one, and they are, in effect, a radio play; a well-acted, interesting side-story which leaves you anxious to learn more with each instalment.
The loss of the Chief has also had another side effect: it has thrust real, full-faced humans to the fore, encouraging Bungie to tell a human story. The result is worlds away from the wooden, military bombast and otherworldly Cortana interludes in Halo 3; in fact, with a core male cast plucked almost exclusively from Joss Whedon's contact book (Nathan Fillion as Buck, Adam Baldwin as Dutch and Alan Tudyk as Wash - sorry, Mickey), complemented by the multi-talented Nolan North (Uncharted, Prince of Persia), this is the closest we'll ever get to Firefly the FPS. There are a few duff lines, and Tricia Helfer is disappointingly shrill and one-dimensional as Veronica Dare, but Fillion in particular injects real pathos into the game's simple mystery.
It's a major change, but as a whole ODST is still more of the same. The ODSTs lack the Chief's recharging health beneath an overshield, but they soak up a good few hits before they exhaust their stamina, which opens a broad health bar along the top of the screen to depletion unless you can find cover. The basic attack-and-retreat pattern of past Halo games remains, except now you need to keep an eye out for health packs, much as you did on the first of the Forerunner's ring worlds way back in 2001.
There is no equipment button, although you can always borrow a brute's shield bubble once it's deployed, and the ODST arsenal is pretty close to the Chief's, except for the addition of an enjoyable new incendiary grenade which douses targets in flames. Playing the campaign in co-op, you could well be playing Halo 3 again; pace and tactics are determined by the game's usually excellent level design, and even the night-time battles that rely on the VISR's night-vision play out in familiar fashion.
Bungie eventually knots the Rookie's story together with that of the other ODSTs cleverly, but the concluding sequence of discovery and deliverance is patchy, playing shotgun Wac-A-Mole with flying bugs before a repetitive flight from danger and a final siege sequence, all of which lacks the impact and urgency of its predecessors. With stretch-marks becoming evident, the campaign still ends after less than six hours on Normal difficulty, a figure that grows on Heroic and Legendary, or if you hunt down each of the 30 audio recordings, but not to an enormous degree. And while the Rookie's hub world interludes are generally laudable, the sight of locked doors and the respawning patrols are throwbacks that suggest Bungie hasn't quite mastered its new and otherwise encouraging approach to storytelling.
The greatest surprise, however, is that the game's co-operative Firefight mode, offered as an alternative to the competitive modes that made Halo 3 the most popular game on Xbox Live for a staggeringly long time, is an unconvincing extension to the New Mombasa playset. Repelling waves of Covenant reinforcements round by round, coordinating your attack and defence to make the most of the shared pool of lives, health packs and ammunition spread around each environment, has a lot in common with Gears of War 2's Horde mode, but despite the use of game-changing "skull" modifiers to interfere with your plans, there is both a sense of futility in the knowledge that death is only a matter of time and odds, and fatigue in the realisation that many levels play out just as they did in the campaign, except a bit more so.
Each of the 10 is drawn from the story mode, and some are just night-time versions of one another. Halo's gameplay foundations have always been laid in variable combat, and Crater - the plaza Buck strikes out for in the first flashback level - along with Rally Point and Security Zone are exemplary in dictating a fascinating character for each battle, just as they were in the campaign, but others are less successful. The rooftop Windward, fought among crates, split levels, corridors and ramps, is rather boxy and stifling, while Lost Platoon's sprawling parkland is quite the opposite.
Between the campaign co-op and Firefight, you can expect to double or treble the amount of time you initially spend uncovering the secrets of New Mombasa, but without the added battlegrounds, playlists and ranking systems we've come to expect, you'll be back to Halo 3 in no time. The second disk of Halo 3 multiplayer maps (three new, the rest drawn from existing Xbox Live map packs) and the promise of Halo: Reach beta access are valuable extras, but before long they feel less like bonuses and more like justifications for the game's premium price tag.
Horribly, it's that price tag that ultimately does for Halo 3: ODST. This is a marvellous campaign, and its clever pacing, shifting focus and expert storytelling all heave effortlessly under cover of wisdom inherited from the phenomenal Halo 3. Our fear had been that the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers would struggle to escape the Master Chief's shadow, but the developer's improving craft means they have no difficulty doing so over a short distance. Instead, it's the shadow cast by Halo 3 itself, and its contemporaries then and since, that proves slightly too long and broad for Bungie's valiant efforts of the past 18 months to escape, because no matter the quality of what's on offer, they can't reasonably make the same demand of your wallet, and yet they still do. It's all the more disappointing, because as a roadmap to the future of Halo, if not the future of Bungie, Halo 3: ODST is fantastic.
8 / 10