Amid all the hubbub of E3, it may have slipped your mind that we're mere months away from a new Halo game. It hasn't slipped Bungie's, though, who was on-hand at the show talking details about Halo 3: ODST.
For starters, the game will ship on two discs. The first will be single-player only, containing only the ODST campaign. The other disc will be a sort of Halo 3 multiplayer compilation, with the entire Halo 3 multiplayer framework and all 21 previously released maps included. There will also be three new maps, one of which is Heretic, a remake of the Halo classic Midship. So original Halo 3 owners and people who buy ODST will be able to mix it up online, regardless of which disc they're using.
In demoing the single-player campaign, Bungie proved how much they've improved their engine, artwork, and on-the-fly storytelling. I saw an in-game cutscene that took place from the player's perspective just before the ODSTs drop into the war-torn city of New Mombasa, and just about everything about the visuals--from the detail of the character models to the camera movements--seemed more refined and believable. I never thought the cinematics in past Halo games were particularly strong, so I'm glad to see Bungie stepping up their game in that department.
This scene also gave me a good dose of the ODST commanding officer Buck, who you may know better as... Nathan Fillion! That's right, Firefly's Captain Mal plays a major role in the game, not just with his voice but also his likeness. It was a gratifying geeky moment to see Fillion come in barking orders at the ODSTs, the kind of thing that brings an unstoppable smile to your face. If you're a huge nerd, that is. (I am.)
Here's something else you might not know about ODST: it's an open-world game. Well, sort of. It's not an open world in the sense that there are bustling citizens and collectible items all over New Mombasa. (Quite the contrary; the beleaguered city looks devoid of human life.) But the game isn't arranged in linear stages like past Halo games. Instead, the playable area of the city is laid out roughly in a circle on the map, with markers indicating available missions that you can approach in any order.
Bungie has updated the game's heads-up elements to help you navigate the new open city. You get contextual information like the map and a compass with waypoint markers popping up on the inside of your ODST's visor, Metroid Prime-style. A lot of this city data is provided by the Superintendent, New Mombasa's friendly municipal AI. The Supe's not exactly ODST's version of Cortana; he's more action than talk, helping you out by opening doors for you and that sort of thing. Bungie's Joe Staten said it's the difference between a "smart AI" and a "dumb AI." Hey, I'll take all the friendly robot help I can get.
Lastly, Bungie talked a little about Firefight, the game's cooperative mode. It's similar to Gears of War 2's Horde mode, or Survival in Left 4 Dead. In other words, it's all about fighting wave after wave of enemies with up to three friends for high scores. Unlike Horde, Firefight has no end; you keep fighting harder and harder waves until everyone is dead. There's a shared pool of lives that all players draw from, and skull modifiers will switch on and off between rounds to change the way the game plays.
ODST is looking like a great way to extend the Halo franchise and its signature dynamic combat without turning out Master Chief for the umpteenth time. I like this slightly different take on the series and I can't wait to play it when it hits stores in September.