By Chris Matel
If there are only two things Bungie is capable of delivering to the landscape of gaming they're: a drive to satisfy a ravenous community of fans, and an ability to excel at making classical design formulas exciting and addictive. Fortunately, the team behind the popular Halo franchise is competent for more than just the above, but such philosophies were the most evident as we played through their final Halo 3 multiplayer maps, and their Halo themed survival gameplay, both from the upcoming ODST title.
ODST isn't a simple expansion to the series, but a completely new angle to the universe. And although we still haven't touched the single-player portion of the game, our time with its Firefight mode showed how small tweaks in gameplay make for a unique-yet-familiar experience.
Open to play were three maps set on New Mombasa, where the single-player campaign takes place. Just like the classic survival setup of games past, Firefight offers a never-ending battle for points, that's only over when you and your team run out of a pooled number of lives. However, additional lives, as well as health packs and ammo, are awarded to you after completing a full set of five waves. An additional incentive to survive three sets awards you with a sixty-second bonus round of pure chaos.
Capable of being played with up to three teammates, the three maps we experienced showed the varying challenges not only presented by in-game skulls activated after successive waves of enemies, but in varying arena-style level design and AI.
After choosing the female ODST with a shady dossier, Dare, our team of four hit the first map with a run-and-gun attitude. Security Zone is an open exterior map comprised of a courtyard, destructible pillars, and a large descending staircase. We didn't have time to examine the towering cube structure over head or the landscape for long as we drew sight of two drop-ships unleashing around a dozen Grunts. Easy grenade kills, right? Not exactly. As mentioned, in Firefight, skulls award various attributes to your enemies, and with certain combinations, even pitiful Grunts can be deadly. On the first wave, luckily, you only have to deal with the “Tough Luck” skull, which grants enemies an increased dodging ability of grenades. So saving our explosives for the bigger foes, we made quick work of the swath with the default weaponry given in every map: the new silenced small machine gun and the deadly accurate pistol. While both are effective at range, it's obvious the pistol is great for quick headshots on easy enemies.
With the first wave downed quickly, we moved on the second and third, each unleashing Jackals and Brutes with various weaponry. With the “Catch” and “Black Eye” skulls compounding on “Tough Luck,” not only was it hard to hit enemies with grenades but they began to throw more at us and we could only rejuvenate stamina by punching enemies. Still, not much in the way of difficulty, even on the Heroic setting.
We spoke too soon.
After the fourth wave, we learned why tactics become a necessary skill in Firefight. While more and more heavily armored Brutes made their way into the arena, our numbers staggered a bit as we were spread too thin, unable to help each other with the hopping behemoths smashing the ground with Gravity Hammers.
With a few lives lost we began to feel the pressure, and this was only the first set. Then, a familiar blue sphere arched its way over the horizon—a giant, plasma volley from a Wraith stationed just below the foot of the staircase. Between an unpredictable AI that not only rushes, but moves between cover, the increasing onslaught of stronger enemies, our own inability to track each Wraith shot and our old Spartan-based tactics, we were done before we even got through the first set.
Our scores pathetic, but our excitement building, we caught a glimpse of the stats screen after our first game was done. With full B-net support, ODST tracks how many of each enemy you kill, your favorite weapon, your biggest target taken down, which medals you earn, and various other markers. We're thankful to see that even with the turn to cooperative multiplayer, Bungie is continuing to provide its stellar stat-tracking for those that just love numbers.
With the first map under our belts, we carried a bit more caution and a teamwork mentality into the next game. Alpha Site took us inside the ONI superstructure from Security Zone, and into a tighter arena with a main room connecting a large outdoor pavilion via two open corridors. These corridors would be our choke points as we broke into two teams, each with a one person securing heavy weaponry (rocket launcher, sniper rifle, and later Fuel Rod cannons).
This time we stood our ground for over 45 minutes. Taking on wave after wave of enemies, groups of Hunters and Buggers included. After our third set, we also got a taste of the Bonus Round, as Lars Bakken, senior designer, mockingly readied us for our award: an onslaught of plamsa grenade-toting Grunts, descending on us from above. I was out quickly, and it only took our last teammate 30 seconds to fall to the barrage. Though we fell to the Grunts, the bonus round play didn't impact our overall pool of lives as we re-spawned with only a few thousand extra points earned.
We probably could have survived awhile longer, but it was time to try out the final offering, Crater (Night). Playing in what is described as “Dare's sunken crash-site,” Crater looks like an open-ceilinged mall, with a gorgeous city scape rising high into the background—definite eye-candy. As a symmetrical arena, you start above a courtyard centered by a fountain, accessible from stairs flanking your balcony. You spawn in a relative safe zone, inside a set of doors that also house your health packs and ammo.
The night time setting might have been a bit rough for Master Chief, but each ODST comes equipped with a visor capable of night-vision like clarity, that also outlines key targets—enemies, teammates, ammo, etc. And here, the night-vision is needed, as enemies not only jump from drop-ships, but emerge from adjacent hallways as well with the sound of an alarm, randomly. Making things only tougher was the “Tilt” skull which requires plasma weapons to kill shielded enemies, rendering your bullets in your default weapons nearly useless.
Ultimately, Firefight expands on the cooperative gaming Bungie offered us in Halo 3, but they've also tuned it into a mode that is less like a cheap tack-on trying to piggyback off of core gameplay. However, Firefight isn't the only multiplayer action you get from the release of ODST. Packed in a second disc comes all of the previously released downloadable maps, as well as three that mark the end of Halo 3's DLC: Heretic, Citadel and Longshore. This final set of maps show just how tuned into their community Bungie is, as they aim to fulfill some of the over-arching wishes from cacophonous feedback.
Not only do the maps offer rounded out match sizes, with a pair of smaller arenas, but they also mark the opportunity for players to unlock the much coveted Recon armor. No longer will players have to petition Bungie for the highly prized armor; they put the power in the players' hands by having to complete seven difficult achievements (yet to be announced).
However cool new armor and 750 new Achievement points may be, it's the maps themselves that are a great treat in the collection. First off is Heretic. For any Halo fan, all you really need to know is Heretic is Midship reborn, with an impressive new skybox showing off a Covenant armada. For those that don't posses the knowledge of muscle memory of Halo 2, know that Heretic offers a small, symmetrical, two-level arena taking place in a single room with a hovering platform. The map still plays well for free-for-all or small-team matches, such as King of the Hill.
Citadel departs from the Covenant theme and sets players in a Forerunner arena borrowed from Halo 3's campaign—albeit heavily modified for Matchmaking. Similar to Heretic, Citadel is a symmetrical, two-level map with a platform structure dividing two base areas. Light flooding in from above details one base from the other, and it's entirely possible to invade an opponent with a skillful jump across the platform. Here, more medium-sized games fill up the space a bit better, but we found that games of free-for-all Oddball with six players or Rockets played well with the level's open setting; yet, hard corners and pillars offered enough protection within and below bases to escape pursuit.
Finally, there's Longshore: a rundown port fish-packing facility. As an asymmetrical, larger map it caters well to big teams and games of single-objective matches. There is a definite one-sidedness to its design that allows for a practiced team to protect a single flag, but multiple paths of entry and an arena big enough for a ghost and tight sniping allows for smart offense to take the win. Also, a retractable sky-bridge above the defenders' base can be activated from within it, making for a point of aerial assault. Aesthetically, it's one of the better looking maps in the set as a giant Marine aircraft carrier is silhouetted off in the sea with visible Pelican's lining its deck.
All in all, ODST seems to living up to its claim of not being a simple expansion—the expansion is only half of the package—but a response to Halo's fan base, and a continued tradition to make the familiar addictive.