UPDATE: Read our full Halo 3: ODST review.
Bungie's new offices are rubbish. Aside from a makeshift motion capture studio they exist solely to handle the massive amounts of admin Bungie now generate as an independent developer and are as terminally beige as offices tend to be. Only the stack of Peter Jackson's Halo props and a makeshift motion-capture room remind you there's a game studio just a quarter-mile down the road, but if the offices are a disappointment, ODST is anything but.
More than any other revelation it's the sheer bloody size of ODST which should take you by surprise. For a year Bungie have touted it as an expansion - a little extra dose of Halo for the fans - but ODST is as big as Halo 3, as epic as Halo 3, and even better than the very best of Halo 3.
"The scope of the game did grow some," says Halo 3: ODST's brilliantly-named Lead Producer Curtis Creamer when asked about the size of the game. "We found a lot of ways to get a lot more out of it than we expected, especially since we didn't originally understand what it would mean to have an open-ended world like New Mombasa. You could spend days just wandering around the city."
"In the beginning we did a lot of conceptual 'mass-outs' using primitive shapes to try to get an understanding of exactly how big the city needed to be," says Curtis. "I don't know a good way to measure it, but it's super-big; there's New Mombasa at night which is the main hub, but then the flashback sequences are playing out in real space around the city." The city of New Mombasa is bigger than any game space Bungie have ever built and each of its ten flashback missions clock in at around 20 to 30 minutes apiece.
Four flashbacks and a lot of night-time wandering takes close to three hours to plough through on Heroic - the 'right' setting by Bungie's reckoning. It puts the game on track for a seven or eight hour campaign, all of which can be modified with Halo 3's skulls right from the start if regular Halo isn't vicious enough for you. It's neither an expansion nor a mission pack; ODST is a huge game. "It's big," says Curtis. "This is a full-size campaign; certainly nothing less than what we've done in the past."
You know the story by now. With Master Chief off in space Chiefing it up and shooting the face off legions of Covenant, the assault on New Mombasa is left to a new crew - a six-man Orbital Drop Shock Trooper team dumped into the city at the exact moment the Prophet of Regret zaps out in Halo 2's second level. Of the six characters, The Rookie is the last to regain consciousness and after manually blowing the bolts on his drop pod, sets about reassembling his team, all of whom have spent the day hard at work on the streets of New Mombasa. As The Rookie finds evidence of each squad member's whereabouts a flashback plays out, each a perfectly-made classic Halo experience.
"One of the things (Writer) Joe Staten talked about early on with ODST was thinking about it as a mystery," says Curtis. "You see a lot of crime dramas where detectives have this crazy ability to travel to the scene of the crime and sort of 'imagine' how the crime took place. The Rookie has that ability, so when he finds one of these clue objects you get to 'recreate' what happened to that character."
The ten flashbacks each tell a story from earlier that same day, beginning with squad leader Buck and the presumed death of special agent Dare. As the missions progress Buck begins reassembling the squad, and as the amount of firepower the ODSTs direct at the Covenant increases so does the amount they fire back. By the time all four original members of the squad are back together they're forced to face an airborne onslaught atop the New Mombasa Police Department's rooftop headquarters to rival the most dangerous moments from Halo 3.