Bungie Takes Us Through Halo 3: ODST
Chief's on vacation but the fight's far from finished! Bungie's Lars Baaken opens the door to the first standalone Halo expansion, as we seek answers and get hands-on time.
Turning a bunch of writers and editors loose on an unfinished game will always make a producer's palms sweat, but worry lines are especially prevalent when the game in question's a sandbox title. You've got all the classic pre-release rough spots - place-holder audio, twitchy lighting, unexpected plummets to blue screen oblivion, mid-mission dead-ends and so on - plus an unwelcome degree of subjectivity as players wander off to different corners of an incompletely mastered universe, some gravitating to the polished bits, others dawdling around the frayed edges of the project. Ensuring every previewer gets more or less the same experience must be quite like ensuring that every participant in a three-wheeled shopping trolley race crosses the finish line simultaneously.
It's perhaps no surprise, then, that Bungie is keeping the campaign portion of Halo 3: ODST firmly off-limits when we drop in for another look, amidst the gaudy theatre fašades and mid-morning ruckus of London's Piccadilly Circus. The bleary throng are treated to a rehash of the E3 presentation, bright-eyed Lead Designer Lars Bakken walking us through the cinematic intro, a few initial firefights in the suburbs of Covenant-occupied New Mombasa, and one of the playable flashback set pieces that most readily evoke the Halos of yesteryear. Then it's over to a tightly crammed bank of debug units for a shot at Firefight, the new four-man co-op mode.
We can't fault Bungie for being coy - besides the above difficulties, there are plot specifics to be hoarded from greedy journalistic eyes - but with the expansion barely two months from release our trigger fingers are starting to itch. Where Rockstar had painted a reasonably detailed picture of Liberty City some time before launch, New Mombasa remains a giant, smoking, tumble-down enigma, ghoulishly lit by the health stations that sustain your journey through the depths.
Grand Theft Auto IV isn't the best comparison, perhaps, though Lars concedes that Bungie has "looked to" the reigning prince of 360 degree gameplay (among other titles) in designing New Mombasa. "It's a huge open world that you're able to traverse and there are a lot of cool things going on," he tells us. "But it's not a living, breathing city in the way that Liberty City is."
Not any more, at least. Shortly after the ODST campaign begins, this once prosperous Earth settlement is charred to a crisp in the backwash from a Covenant cruiser's slipspace jump. New player character "The Rookie" and his Orbital Drop Shock Trooper squad are en route to assault the cruiser at the time, hurtling out of the upper atmosphere in a set of vacuum-sealed Dodgem cars, and the blast scatters them across the ruined metropolis.
The Rookie regains consciousness six hours later, his drop pod wedged into the flank of a sagging skyscraper. New Mombasa's power and transport infrastructures are almost entirely out for the count, and surviving civilians have long since been evacuated, but parties of Covenant Brutes and Grunts stomp through cracked concrete boulevards and Phantom dropships flick their searchlights over inverted cars. Aided and abetted by the Superintendent, a lowly AI administrator responsible for the day-to-day running of the city, the Rookie sets out to regroup with his squad and, presumably, discover just what "cool things" await at the other end of the street.
While Bungie keeps you tightly leashed for the first twenty minutes or so, the game template soon swells and bifurcates. As the Rookie you have the run of New Mombasa - "the biggest single level in a Halo game," according to Lars - free to investigate the pulsing hotspots flagged up on your map screen in any order you please (or indeed simply hare from plaza to plaza shooting the purple guys). Every time you visit one of those hotspots, however, you'll be flash-rewound into the boots of one of your squad mates, fighting their way through chains of set piece encounters some hours earlier.
As the Rookie's search progresses, you'll thus string together the events which took place between impact and awakening. Once all (or perhaps most - Lars is keeping the lid on the subject of optional missions) of the jigsaw has been filled in, the open-ended template will narrow back down to an exhilarating finale.