Halo 3: ODST prepares to drop

PAX 2009: Bungie contingent offers insights into the development of anticipated Xbox 360 shooter, indicates 8-10 hours of gameplay, no DLC.

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Who Was There: The Halo: ODST panel held during the 2009 Penny Arcade Expo, titled aptly enough "Prepare to Drop," featured a small battalion of Bungie crew. On hand to represent the studio were creative director Joseph Staten; design director Paul Bertone; composer Marty O'Donnell; executive producer Curtis Creamer; community director Brian Jarrard; cinematics director CJ Cowan; art lead Michael Woo; and senior designer Lars Bakken.

New Mombasa under siege.
New Mombasa under siege.

What They Talked About: Halo 3: ODST is locked and loaded for a September 22 release on the Xbox 360, and judging by the popularity of its 2007 predecessor, the title will be more than a bit of a big deal. With that release date looming, a host of Bungie staff offered a bit more insight into the history behind the game.

Creative director Joe Staten began the PAX panel by briefly touching upon the fundamental decision to create a game that followed the orbital drop shock trooper, rather than, say, Master Chief. In fact, Master Chief and the Arbiter were originally discussed as lead characters for the game. However, the team decided that bringing Master Chief or his close compatriots back would weigh too heavily on the game, and the studio wanted to start fresh with something new.

After eventually arriving upon the orbital drop shock trooper, the team began by designing the drop pod and its process of falling from the sky, as could be seen in the initial teaser trailer for the game. The drop pod went through a number iterations to amp up its dramatic feel, art lead Michael Woo noted, with cinematics lead CJ Cowan saying that the interior of the pod and its initial impact constituted the biggest opening for a Halo game yet.

The discussion then moved to the game's environment, better known as the arid, east African town of New Mombasa. Having made appearances in Halo 2 and Halo 3, the team quickly realized that fleshing out the city and bringing it to life required a number of changes; a process Woo called agonizing. Re-creating New Mombasa in intricate detail was made all the more difficult due to the nighttime gameplay that Halo 3: ODST will offer.

The process was aided along, however, when Staten made the decision to bring a gritty, film noir aesthetic to the game. The decision allowed Bungie to deviate significantly from the often colorful environs that have defined previous Halo games, giving the team the chance to introduce high-contrast colors, as well cinematic lighting.

The film noir theme extends well beyond art, with Staten noting that the genre's hardboiled detective was the inspiration for the character that players will control. It was important, he said, to make the character dark and mysterious, showing concept art of a lone soldier walking through a dank alley in the rain on a dreary night.

Film noir also heavily influenced the game's sound. Before playing a sample tune, composer Marty O'Donnell noted that Halo 3: ODST will feature sound that markedly contrasts with previous installments in the serious. He then cued up a somber tune that featured melancholy string instruments and a wayward piano, which stirred up sentiments of the old black-and-white detective films.

O'Donnell also inadvertently revealed that Halo 3: ODST will feature about eight to 10 hours of gameplay--which Staten quickly asked everyone in attendance not to repeat--for which he composed about three hours of music. Notably, before the game transformed into a full-priced venture, Bungie had indicated the game would be a "three-to-five hour expansion pack."

The panel then shifted back to the art direction, with various concept art and screenshots shown of New Mombasa at night. Notably, one shot showed the city being flooded by a wall of water, indicating some kind of natural disaster of biblical proportions. Other shots shown included ways in which the team went about breathing life into the city, with one example being signage that had a decidedly ironic element a la Starship Troopers.

Also in the art vein, various vehicles and weapons were shown, including a revamped Pelican and what appeared to be a heavily armored dump truck. The team also noted that two of the primary weapons in the game would be a sound-suppressed pistol and sound-suppressed SMG.

As was the case with Halo 3, Bungie has tapped a number of vets from Joss Whedon's cult-sensation Firefly to lend their voices and likenesses to the game. As has previously been announced, this includes Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk, and Adam Baldwin. Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer, who Blizzard Entertainment recently announced would voice Kerrigan in Starcraft II, will also lend her voice and likeness to the game. Again offering a bit of a slip, O'Donnell noted that Fillion's character and Helfer's character have some smoldering romance that will impact the game.

Staten concluded by offering a few details on Sadie's Story, which will apparently be a tangential plot line from the perspective of a New Mombasa civilian caught up in the ordeal. The story, which will emerge as a player progresses, details the events leading up to the arrival of the orbital drop shock troopers.

A number of odds and ends were also offered during the Q&A portion of the panel. According to community manager Brian Jarrard, people should "be sure to keep your ODST disk handy" for when Bungie begins to talk more about its next Halo project, Halo: Reach. Senior designer Lars Bakken also stated that "there are no current plans for doing DLC for ODST," though Jarrard quickly chimed in with a practiced community relations response that Bungie is always evaluating its options.

Takeaway: With only a few short weeks left until Halo 3: ODST's launch, gamers will soon know how well Bungie's latest effort will complement the franchise. As is becoming more and more obvious, the game will represent a marked departure from the vibrant Halo aesthetic, with the film noir bent offering more complex and, possibly richer, characters.

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