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.