HALO 3: ODST

| Video Game Editor

How do you review three different games as if they were one? It’s a problem that reviewers faced when Valve’s “The Orange Box” landed on their desks, and it’s the same one that “Halo 3: ODST” presents. If a new campaign and cooperative multiplayer mode weren’t enough to entice you, Bungie also threw in “Halo 3’s” entire multiplayer on a separate disc, plus all the currently released map packs and three new maps exclusive to “ODST,” one of which is Heretic, a faithful remake of the beloved Midship from “Halo 2.”

But let’s talk about what’s really new. “ODST” takes you out of Master Chief’s armor and drops you into the combat boots of a squad of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (think British SAS). And you play the whole squad. The campaign unfolds like a moody detective story, where you as the silent Rookie roam around an abandoned Earth city at night, fighting (or avoiding) Covenant patrols and searching for clues to the location of your lost teammates. Each clue thrusts you into a flashback, during which you play as one member of the squad, minutes or hours after the orbital drop that scattered your team across the city. These guys all have their own personalities, but they’re never given the time they need to develop. Even by the end of the story, it was still hard to distinguish between them.

I played the campaign on Heroic difficulty (one step above Normal), which really drove home the fragility of the protagonists. This is not the Master Chief. The ODSTs can’t run as fast, jump as high or throw grenades as far. Encounters that became a joke in “Halo 3,” like a couple of Hunters, will make you crap your pants in “ODST.” *Hell*, even Grunts pose a serious threat if not dispatched quickly. It’s an unfamiliar experience after three games of super-soldiering but very rewarding.

And yet, I’m disappointed that Bungie didn’t push the boundary further. By taking away the superhero, the superheroics lose their plausibility. Things like recharging health and flipping over crashed vehicles, explained away by the Chief’s enhanced physique and armor, seem out of place in “ODST.” Plus, if a small squad of regular soldiers can fight off hundreds of alien forces, why is Earth losing this war so badly? Bungie wanted to have their cake and eat it too, and the game suffers for it.

Firefight is the second piece of new content in “ODST.” A four-player, cooperative mode in which you defend against waves of enemies, Firefight is an absolute blast. Even solo, it can be endlessly addicting, due in no small part to the score that pops up every time you defeat an enemy and all the medals (Double Kill, Triple Kill, Beat Down, etc.) carried over from versus multiplayer.

But the real secret of Firefight’s success is pacing. Each round is divided into five waves. These waves start out quite easy—without a Brute or Hunter in sight—but get progressively harder as you go along, until the final wave, where you’ll face off against three or four hammer-wielding Brute Chieftains and their entourage. And then you’re right back to the first, easy wave of the next round. Where a constantly rising difficulty curve would be overwhelming, Firefight’s well-paced waves keep the game fresh.

Unfortunately, like co-op in “Halo 3,” Firefight can only be played split-screen by two players. It’s still fun with one other person, or even solo, but you probably won’t get the most out of it unless you’ve got a solid group of friends with Xbox Live accounts.

Much like “Halo 3,” “ODST” will be two different games for many people. One, the campaign, is a four- to six-hour adventure that you’ll play through once and never again, except maybe to complete the audio logs strewn across the city or pick up a few more Achievements. You’ll enjoy it for what it is or marvel at the missed potential. The other, Firefight, could sink its hooks into you for dozens of hours, to the point where you forget that anything else existed on the disc in the first place.