Anyone who personally knows me or reads this blog knows that I do love to play some Halo in my spare time, so the arrival of Bungie's new 'expansion' to Halo 3 brought a huge smile to face. Obviously, I'd pre-ordered and received my Sgt. Johnson DLC code too :)
My wife, the kind woman that she is, had already agreed that I could spend the evening in front of the TV shooting some Brutes in the face. I rushed home from work (the cancellation of a train not helping) to slap the disc into the drive and embark on a new adventure, with a new hero.
You see, Halo 3: ODST, as I'm sure most of you know, is a stand-alone title (not a typical expansion as such) set between the events of Halo 2 and Halo 3. No longer playing as the signature front-man, Master Chief, you now control various members of an ODST squad, who drop into Earth after the arrival of The Covenant in New Mombassa.
It was immediately apparent from the title screen that this wasn't my usual brand of Halo - the music and exceptionally dark look of the title screen had given that away - there was something about the vibe that had let me know that this was going to be different.
I wanted to approach this game with fresh eyes, so I'd avoided almost all other media exposure to it. I had no real idea what to expect from the campaign or the new 'Firefight' multiplayer mode.
Visually this game is no Killzone 2. It's not even a Gears of War 2.. but you'd be forgiven for not noticing. The artists and designers have made some very wise use of lighting, shadowing and closed environments (especially at the beginning of the game) - creating moody, dank locations, a place where it's very clear that you and the rest of your team are very much alone.
Last night I didn't make it very far because (and I admit I'm not the world's greatest Halo player - I love it but that doesn't mean I'm good!) I made my usual, stubborn mistake of starting the game on Legendary difficulty and found my evening being punished for it.
This game is crushingly difficult. Jen was treated to various yelps and wails as she walked about our apartment as I got my ass handed to me by small groups of Covenant comprising of just one brute and a few of their minions.
This isn't Halo 3 as usual (I know I've already said this but I can't emphasise this enough!).
As I played through the first level, I enjoyed the ODST's use of the new visor - which cleverly draws a nice outline around all the 3D objects in the scene (good one Mr. Shader Programmer!), highlighting the good guys in green and the enemies in red, whilst providing much needed night vision.
My only, exceptionally minor gripe, is that that meant that I couldn't soak up the vibe of a battered New Mombassa as much as I would have liked - the lighting all drained out of the scene because of my visor. The recent Batman: Arkham Asylum also suffered from this problem, offering a nice gameplay mechanic to the player that sacrificed the exceptional look of the game.
I guess the biggest thing that I immediately enjoyed about this game is the new found fear that I had for the smaller enemies from Halo 3.
Jackals, who Master Chief used to laugh in the face of, are now a formidable threat.
Seeing a minion (I can't remember their names right now..) running toward you holding two plasma grenades causes you to rethink your plan and tuck tail and run.
I'm looking forward to returning to this nightmare edition of Halo 3 tonight.
Later on in the evening, once Xbox Live had settled down (it seemed to have been taking a bit of a hammering because of the influx of ODST players), I met up with most of my usual squad who had managed to secure a copy of ODST on launch day.
We didn't even try out the ODST campaign's co-op mode and made a beeline for 'Firefight' instead.
The three of us, usually four, have played something in the region of 500 matches together on Halo 3 - and I think I'm the only one of us now that would like to see it still in regular rotation, the other guys have moved onto other pastures such as COD4.
One of the reasons for this is that, and I don't meant to sound big headed, is that I used to beat them to a pulp every single night of the week.
The arrival of Firefight is exceptionally welcome though as it brings an end to all that.
Where, for a very short while, we embarked on Gears of War 2's Horde mode, for a gameplay premise where we stand back to back, shoulder to shoulder, to face off against hordes (ha) of enemies, I predict that this will last us significantly longer.
GoW2's levels are too small. Their players too clunky, chunky and slow. Their gameplay is more like rock, paper, scissors than chess, with a very limited amount of weapons and manner to use them.
Halo 3 offers us, frankly, ridiculously sized environments with vehicles to mow the enemies down in. The maps offer nooks and crannies, places to hide, enemies who'll find you. Huge enemy vehicles to make the most hardened player stop in his tracks.
Firefight was ridiculously good.
Last night I read on Kotaku, one of their writers describe Halo 3's gameplay to being the closest approximation of a boy imagining to be a soldier, jumping in tanks and hanging out with his squad. As I read the article, I grinned and nodded my head, this guy had totally hit the nail on the head.
Driving around large sandy maps, with my buddies as passengers in my Warthog, one gunning down the enemy (rather sloppily) and the other jumping out at the first sign of a Wraith to plant a grenade on it's back - I can't remember the last time I had this much co-op fun in a videogame.
The hilarity that ensues as a little runt fires the fuel-rod cannon at the front of the car, sending you all flailing in a bloody mess. The laughs as you realise your team-mate has long been out of ammo and is fleeing across a plain from a hammer wielding Chieftain.
I heartily recommend Halo 3: ODST, I really do. Even if H3's campaign isn't your bag, the multiplayer is worth the price of entry alone.
Given that ODST includes every H3 map released to date (all the DLC maps plus a few new ones currently exclusive to ODST), a new campaign (which I have no idea how long it is), guaranteed beta entry to Halo: Reach and Firefight (co-op multiplayer 'Horde-like' mode) I imagine that my credit card almost wants to shake my hand (if it had one) for making such a smart purchase.
(Including the H3 maps also means that I can delete the ones on my HDD - freeing me up over 1GB of space which is obviously very nice.)
If you're looking for a game with an interesting approach to a single player campaign and a sizeable multiplayer experience with both split-screen and online experiences, look no future.
Is it better than Halo 3? I don't know. It's just too early to tell - but the fact that I even wonder makes this a winner.
Halo 3: ODST is now available for Xbox 360.