Halo. Microsoft's great Xbox seller. Bungie's tour de force. It knows no bounds. It conquers all. It is our Star Wars.
Halo's enduring popularity is remarkable. Some two years after Halo 3 broke global entertainment launch records it's still the most played game on Xbox LIVE. Master Chief is Mario for the console FPS generation.
Why is Halo great? Answers are varied, and objective. But ask many why they keep flooding back for more, and they'll answer with one, simple word: multiplayer. Arguably Bungie's most influential innovation, Halo's multiplayer paved the way for console shooters that followed it. Halo: Combat Evolved made system linked Xboxs fashionable. Halo 2's ground-breaking online matchmaking carried Xbox LIVE's fledgling years on the crest of a wave, breaking only when Halo 3 refined the process further on the Xbox 360. Without Halo, would we have enjoyed the brutal online thrills of Modern Warfare or Killzone 2? Now, in the post CoD/Gears of War world, it's time for Halo to return.
And returned it has, this time with Halo 3: ODST, a two-disc release described by Bungie as “much more than an expansion”. We've finished the brand new campaign, checked out all the new weapons, explored the abandoned city streets of New Mombasa, pumped hours into the brand new co-operative multiplayer mode Firefight and killed more Covenant than we could possibly count. So, is Bungie right? Is Halo 3: ODST much more than an expansion? Is it worth your hard-earned cash?
With ODST, it often feels as if Bungie desperately wanted to create something different, but, for whatever reason, wasn't able to go as far as it wanted. There are obvious influences from other games, most clearly 2K Games' BioShock, and distinct tweaks in the tried and trusted Halo formula, but ODST is still very much a Halo game that fans will instantly find familiar.
The most obvious change is the introduction of the Rookie, a UNSC Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, as central playable character. Master Chief is nowhere to be found. He's off gallivanting in space. He's saving the world. He's doing his thing. The Rookie, being a human bereft of the cybernetic enhancements that make John-117 a super soldier, has less grandiose ambitions.
Set during the events of Halo 2, ODST begins with a cutscene as testosterone-fuelled as it is typically Halo. Buck, voiced by Firefly star Nathan Fillion, is preparing his five-man squad for a drop on the African city of New Mombasa. The Covenant, Halo's deranged cult-like alien brotherhood, has taken complete control over the city. As the ODSTs lock and load, you get a sense that you're embarking on something of a suicide mission. But with Master Chief otherwise occupied, you're New Mombasa's last hope.