If Halo 3: ODST's campaign is "Combat Distilled," then its co-op multiplayer mode, Firefight, is the product of the same process, further refined. Firefight is combat distilled, then filtered; then distilled again and again. While the story mode can already be played cooperatively with up to four players (with or without scoring enabled), Firefight re-purposes eight of the sets from the campaign missions into closed, gladiatorial arenas where the odds are heavily stacked in the Covenants' favor. It's not a complicated formula. We've seen Gears of War 2 similarly extract itself into Horde Mode, as well as a number of other recent shooters spinning off their core gameplay elements into various arcade-like challenges.
In all, Firefight contains ten maps (two are featured twice as night and day versions with slightly varied ingredients), and three of the ten are unlocked through campaign progression; though anyone can play on a locked map, so long as the match host has unlocked it. Likewise, except for the Rookie, character skins are unlocked through campaign play. (Sgt. Johnson will be a bonus skin for ODST pre-orderers.) Firefight lives on the campaign disc (separate from "vanilla" Halo 3 multiplayer; contained on a second disc), and players are bound to the limitations of an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper: non-rechargeable health, no dual-wielding, and so on. You're no Spartan.
Played on Heroic difficulty, as I recently chose, Firefight is an often quick, but engaging experience that benefits from varying enemy AI and seven "skull" modifiers activated as players progress through waves of attacks; for example, at the start of Round 3, the "Black Eye" skull is activated, requiring players to melee enemies to regain stamina (normally auto-recharging). With these various factors at work against me, surviving to the end of even the first round (after five waves) felt like an achievement.
And what was the group reaction to reaching the end of the first set (after three rounds and fifteen waves)? I wouldn't know. Even with a Bungie level designer on our side, we never made it that far.
The average Firefight match length probably resides in the five- to ten-minute range if you're playing on a difficulty setting that's challenging for your squad's skill level (some folks could survive much longer) -- but remember, the team shares a single pool of lives (though everyone respawns after a wave is completed, even when you've exhausted your extra lives). The Heroic setting was the sweet spot for my crew, and I found Firefight most satisfying when played in two to three matches per sitting. It's a diversion -- a fervid skirmish -- and not the slow-burning, hypnotic experience that turns a night into dawn. I can only imagine how potent this slice of Halo would be if broken out and sold, say, as a $10–15 dollar XBLA game.
My initial curiosity was dashed when I realized that all of Firefights' maps were trimmed out of the campaign I had already completed. I was disappointed that I'd been denied the exploratory element of stepping into a wholly new multiplayer environment for the first time. Within seconds though, that idea was swept away by the first wave of Grunts, Jackals and Brutes. The stimuli are the varying group strategies that must be developed and executed to survive, if only for several minutes, on each map.
What I discovered is that the Firefight areas are subtly different from the same death traps you knowingly step into during the campaign. All manner of Covenant creep, drop and stampede from numerous entry points; bases provide refreshments,
A new canvas for mythic players to paint their best stuff.
a quick breather and sometimes your final resting place (yeah, they come right in); and key items have been carefully placed about by the unseen hand of Bungie.
Alpha Site, inside the ONI facility, has a deceptively simple blueprint. Shaped like a "Y," waves of Covenant are dropped off at either the left or right upper points where your squad can split up and meet them, using structural pillars as cover, or you can fall back and let enemies pour into the natural choke point formed at the base of the enemy entrance routes. At the bottom of the "Y" is your base -- a dead end.
The "Night" version of Crater is a classic, circular arena (in the campaign, the site of your captain's drop pod) and the darkness allows the use of the VISR; a vision mode I'd mostly forgotten about in Firefight since it's utterly useless in sunlit maps. While the VISR eliminates some of the difficulty of fighting in the dark by highlighting enemies in red, friendlies in green and usable weapons in yellow, the night beckons a tougher breed of Covenant and the appearance of mass overshield–generating Engineers. (Protip: Kill those floating sacks with the quickness.)
Rally Point, the entrance to the ONI facility, is another circular map, with bridges and other architecture that create layered elements and cluster points. Security Zone, one step closer to the interior of the facility, is an uphill courtyard dotted with turret-equipped terraces -- just be mindful not to expose yourself to the Phantom dropships' cannons and the Wraith tank's "hadouken" blasts.
The remainder of the maps, which have yet to be publicly revealed, introduces other nuances to Firefight. In all, there's still a singular and unchanging objective: kill or be killed; but differences in scale and battle-flow design should give Firefight some longevity if Bungie sticks to its current "no DLC planned" line -- but, man, how I'd love to see some "non-canonical" maps populated by Elites or (dare I regret mention of) the Flood. Firefight has legs, too, in its competitive scoring element (there's an individual score, as well as the team total) complete with numerous medals, stats and Achievements to attract those who continue to grind their way up the community ranks. And surely, Firefight presents a new canvas for mythic players to paint their best stuff with video support to prove it.
Firefight boils down to ... actually, it boils down core Halo gameplay into quickly digested servings. The mode is a demonstration of how expertly programmed the foundation is: I retreat into the base to retrieve an SMG, and from the doorway peer out to mow down a swarm of Drones that has decimated my exposed squadmate; and then suddenly I'm trapped, with a useless weapon, as a Hunter charges and shatters my safe zone. There's no fail-safe strategy. Firefight, like pure Halo, is a game of constant adaptation.