The thing is, Halo has always been like this. It's always made little sense, always been more sci-fi fan fiction than Philip K. Dick. And it's never really mattered. Halo's managed to side step such single-player criticism because the multiplayer is just so damn good. This is not to say that ODST's campaign isn't worth soldiering through. It is. In fact at times it's downright heart-thumping. At the end of most of the flashback missions you'll be chucked into an enclosed area and asked to fend off waves and waves of Covenant. These last stand moments are far and away the best ODST's campaign has to offer. One sees you and your squad taking out multiple Phantoms with heavy weapons while on a rooftop - wicked. No wonder then, that in isolation they make such a great co-op multiplayer mode.
I'm talking, of course, about Firefight, ODST's saving grace. Firefight is, after all is said and done, what ODST is worth shelling out for. Put simply, it's brilliant fun. Like Gears of War 2's Horde mode (Bungie and Microsoft insist Firefight was conceived long ago), Firefight is a co-operative game mode that tasks players with working together to fend off increasingly difficult waves of enemies. Unlike Horde, however, Firefight is four-player, and it never ends. You could, if you were good enough, play it forever, although you might run up an electricity bill so scary it would send even Master Chief running for cover.
Firefight's genius is in how tactical it is. You have a set number of lives shared between the squad. Once they're gone, it's game over. And, because you're an ODST, you've no shield to fall back on. This makes you much more cautious than you would otherwise be. Hanging back in strategic positions, coordinating choke points, for example, and letting the Covenant come for you, is a smart strategy. Running and gunning won't get you anywhere, especially against Wraiths, which eat your puny stamina for breakfast. What each wave brings is completely random. Will you be up against four Hunters? Two Wraiths? Or simply scores of Brute Chieftains hell bent on smashing your skull into smithereens with gravity hammers? In Firefight, when you hear the dull vibrations of an approaching Phantom, your heart fills with as much dread as it does excitement.
Firefight is a guaranteed hit online – it's just too much fun not to be. Will it usurp the traditional competitive Halo 3 multiplayer (ODST's second disc comes with all the premium and free Halo 3 maps ever released, as well as three brand new maps)? Probably not. But it will be one hell of a diversion.
Little over a week ago, a website ran a story carrying quotes from an unnamed Halo 3: ODST reviewer who called the game "underwhelming". He said, and I quote: "You just look at it and think 'so what?'. Sure, the multiplayer is fun (it's Halo after all) but it's all built on an old engine (which looks pretty much untouched) and looks nowhere near as good as games such as Gears of War 2 or Killzone 2. It smacks of no effort and is a teensy bit cynical. [Microsoft] needed a big franchise title for this Christmas and presumably there wasn't enough time to build something new, so they gave us new missions on old, ageing technology that didn't really look that great first time round."
The thing is he's got a point. A number of them, in fact. ODST does feel like an expansion, despite Bungie's claims to the contrary. But there is a convincing explanation for each and every criticism. The campaign is short, but that didn't stop CoD 4 from being brilliant. The campaign doesn't offer much replayability - finding audio recordings unlocks weapons caches, which grant the Rookie access to secret weapons and even a Mongoose – but playing it co-operatively with three friends on Legendary difficulty is a blast. Most hardcore Halo 3 fans will already have all of the competitive multiplayer maps that ODST's second disc comes with, but the upshot is Halo 3's matchmaking will be more inclusive. For many ODST will be worth a purchase for two reasons only: Firefight and an invite into the Halo: Reach beta. Well, for many, that will be a purchase well made.
This brings me back to the point I made way back at the beginning of the review. ODST shows Bungie has new ideas. It shows it wants to stretch its creative wings. Every now and then, as you're exploring the unnerving New Mombasa streets, you'll feel it clear as day – the open world, the flashbacks, the adventure experienced from different perspectives, the environmental storytelling, the scrawled slogans, “They lied to us!”, the corpses, the stealth. But as quickly as you feel it the wind of change is blown away by a tornado of familiarity. It's almost as if someone stood hovering over Bungie's shoulder as it slouched in front of the glare of a computer monitor, slapping its hand every time a stray mouse click dared to deviate from its very own Halo formula.
It seems a silly conclusion, but Halo 3: ODST is still Halo. It's still cracking fun. ODST is an absolutely essential purchase if you're a Halo fan, but if you're not, if you've never quite understood what all the fuss has been about, then ODST will do nothing to convince you to join the fight. Some will be disappointed with it. Some will see it just the way the unnamed reviewer sees it – as a cynical release. Some will bemoan the lack of change - I guess that'll have to wait till next year and Halo: Reach (hopefully). Until then, there's a gap in the office lunchtime Firefight match with my name on it.