The campaign of this fall's Halo 3 ODST surfaced at an event in New York this week, right near a bowl of lime green jellybeans and a bunch of Zunes. Here's what we learned.
The demo being shown in New York was the same displayed behind closed doors at E3. We've previewed the game's multiplayer mode, Firefight. This is our first eyewitness report of the campaign.
The player's main character is an ODST (Orbital Drop Shock Trooper) known as Rookie. He drops to New Mombasa, Africa, during the battle that leads into the beginning of Halo 3. But his drop goes awry and he's knocked out for six hours. Once he's conscious, his journey through the Covenant-besieged New Mombasa traces the trunk of the branched ODST story.
I was shown Rookie using his series-new silenced machine gun and non-regenerative shielding to fight through part of the city. After a skirmish, he found a computer terminal and helpful AI that uploaded a map of the metropolis into his visor. Once the map was added, several waypoints were selectable. We selected the one that marked the Office of Naval Intelligence on the map. (The Microsoft rep showing me the game said that Rookie needed to go to the "ONI" building — nice Bungie pun, man!).
The E3 demo skipped ahead to place Rookie at the edge of what was an obliterated bridge. That bridge would have led to Rookie's destination. Walking near a piece of metal on the ground prompted a button press, and that led to a flashback set two hours after the game's opening ODST drop. And that's how ODST differs from other Halo games. The various waypoints on Rookie's map lead to different trigger-able, playable flashbacks. These sequences, set at different times, put the player in control of different members of the ODST squad and ultimately piece together the story of the game. We didn't have to go to ONI first, and when you play, you won't either.
Going to the ONI location and activating the flashback puts the player in control of Dutch, a munitions specialist. In Dutch's portion of the game, the bridge is intact. The player, as Dutch, is the one who has to do something about that by placing charges along the bridge and blowing it up. The Convenant resist every footstep of that mission.
The Microsoft rep showing me the game said the ODSTs all have the same abilities. Visions of the player controlling different styles of characters would be wrong. This isn't Eternal Darkness or other character-hopping games that provide different move-sets. But each ODST has the new ability to activate a low-light vision mode (VISR - Visual Intelligence System Reconnaissance-class) that outlines enemies and other items of interest with a thin colored line for better targeting.
I was told that ODST campaign will not be as long as Halo 3, which no one who've been following news about the game would be expecting, but it is shaping up to be "much longer" than the original handful of hours estimated by Bungie.
One note about the graphics: the game's orange-tinted palette didn't impress me when it was debuted on stage during Microsoft's E3 briefing. Seeing the game a few feet from a TV was a better showcase. New Mombasa's skies are a firestorm of billowing black clouds and illuminations of blazing orange. Its streets are dark and doomed. There's a grim mood to the scene that Bungie is building, which looks oppressive and impressive up close.
Halo 3: ODST's will come bundled with Firefight mode (even more info on that here), new and old multiplayer maps and free access to the forthcoming multiplayer beta of the 2010 Bungie game Halo: Reach.