Game review: 'Halo 3: ODST

FOR: Xbox 360

FROM: Bungie/Microsoft

ESRB RATING: Mature (blood, language, violence)

A new perspective on the 'Halo' universe

Lest there be any lingering confusion about what, exactly, "Halo 3: ODST" is, here's the rundown.

It's a standalone game, not an expansion, and you don't need "Halo 3" to play it even though the online competitive multiplayer is ripped verbatim from that game. The single-player campaign is brand-new, as is the Firefight co-op mode (two players splitscreen, four online) and three of the competitive multiplayer maps.

Judged on its own merits, the game lives up to its billing and feels right at home alongside "Halo" releases.

Partial but significant credit for that goes to the Firefight mode. Waves of Covenant forces descend on you, and they don't let up until you do. Brief respites between waves allow you time to restock, and there's a dual emphasis on being a good teammate and taking chances to stockpile points. Nothing about the mode really innovates, but it's a predictably great time because it infuses the formula with the gameplay polish that's defined "Halo" games since the franchise's first day.

With that said, it's the story campaign - which, like "Halo 3's" campaign, can be conquered alone or online with three friends - that ultimately defines the game.

For starters, it's remarkably different despite also being more of the same. "ODST" pits you not as series mainstay Master Chief, but as a handful of comparatively underpowered orbital drop shock troopers, and your diminished abilities make fights against the Convenant's tougher foes more menacing than they were in "Halo 3."

The story, which takes place entirely on Earth and alongside the events of "Halo 2" and "Halo 3," also takes on a decidedly different structure by centering itself around the hub city of post-war New Mombasa. "ODST' introduces missions as flashbacks that piece together the events that led to the city's destruction, and different missions put you in the shoes of different troopers before coming to a head in present day.

The actual missions are trademark "Halo" - new locations and objectives, but same weapons and enemies - but the hub city is considerably more wide open. You can take on missions out of order, uncover audio clues that further unfurl the story and hunt patrolling Convenant forces in the dark. It's a novel change of pace for a series known for its uncompromisingly linear gameplay, and it works surprisingly well.