The best thing about Halo 3: ODST is Firefight. While a lot of gamers wrote it off as a derivative of Gears of War 2’s Horde mode, it deserves credit for being a much more refined design. Team game design can be seen as a kind of miniature economy or scaled down MMO. The basic rules governing an MMO economy like exclusive resources and mutual goals are distilled and simplified into combinations that can be grasped on the fly. Instead of a Healer and Tank exchanging buffs and timing elaborate strategies, the exchange is much less complicated. A sniper covering you while you close in with a short range weapons is a resource being swapped. You keep the sniper from being overwhelmed, the sniper watches your back in exchange. The individual abilities of a class are now the weapons equipped. Firefight captures the essence of this exchange without forcing the player to participate in it if they choose not to.
Firefight would make a really good XBLA download. It consists of eight levels taken from the ODST campaign re-designed into closed arenas. Two levels can also be played at night to mix things up. Enemy troops drop in at various points or doorways at timed intervals. Five waves of enemies per round, three rounds per set, and 200,000 points total to make par on a set. Waves consist of about three groups of five aliens, give or take, and can be anything from Grunts, Heavies, Brutes, or those God awful bug things. Levels are all varied in playstyle. ‘Crater’ is a big arena with two platforms looking down on it. Getting control of a gun turret on your side is the key to keeping the level under control and not getting overwhelmed. For those more interested in vehicles there is ‘Platoon’, which features a Warthog and has Brute troops drop in on Chopper bikes regularly. Other levels feature complex hallways and tunnels that you have to dart around while enemies close in. To keep things interesting you play as an Orbital Defense Shock Trooper, which means no regenerating health. You have a finite supply of ammo and health kits that restock at the end of each round.
Which sounds simple enough on paper but like any Halo game the devil is in the details. A good team game should always consist of shared resources that have to be shared along with multiple skills being used in conjunction in order to effectively beat a level. Something like Left 4 Dead manages this by making it so your teammates can be pinned down by zombies. Since health and cover fire are key commodities, freeing a teammate from a zombie is an essential exchange of abilities that ensures people stay in the group. Sharing health kits and cover fire are less enforced but still essential exchanges since it’s always better to keep your teammates alive in a Left 4 Dead or Left 4 Dead 2 round. In converse, Halo 3’s multiplayer doesn’t provide a lot of incentive to not just lone wolf your way through the average session. The only resources that can be exchanged are non-essentials like driving the Warthog or cover fire. Team play will always dominate a game, but you can also just run around and do your own thing while still effectively playing. The same can be said for playing the zombie side in Left 4 Dead. The balancing act of resources in a team game is how much should people must work together versus letting them choose to do it voluntarily.
Firefight strikes a unique balance between Left 4 Dead’s team dependence and Halo 3’s open style by featuring a bit of both worlds. ODST features three new guns: the silenced SMG, the silenced 9 mm, and the Red Stapler. Technically that last one is the Brute Plasma Gun but everyone I play the game with calls it that. Any alien you make a headshot with a 9 mm is going to die instantly, anything you’re peppering with the SMG will be going the same route soon. The problem is that once you cross into the second or third round you’re going to be facing a lot of shielded enemies. Bullets are a waste on shields and at higher difficulties even bounce off. Effective teamplay means having one person use the Red Stapler to drop shields while a teammate pops them in the head. Since resources like medkits, ammo, and even lives are collectively pooled players have to negotiate when to use them as a group. You’re never going to outright get your teammates killed, just take more than your share from the collective pool. Grabbing an ammo box when you’re only half-way empty or using one of the few medkits when you don’t really need it screws everyone over.
It’s that precarious balance between lone wolf and group play which made Bungie be very insistent that there be no matchmaking in Firefight. (Why Halo 3: ODST Firefight Doesn’t Support Matchmaking, David Wildgoose, 12 Aug 2009) It’s also bullshit that you can’t play Firefight 4-way splitscreen but that’s another matter. Team play is promoted via very strong incentives, but unlike L4D it never forces you to work as a team via penalties. So while playing the game with strangers would probably fall apart because they’re hogging ammo and health, playing with your friends makes it so you team up naturally due to the incentives. What’s refreshing is that you can still slip in and out of playing as a tightly coordinated group to go wander off and do your own thing without worrying about instant death.
The game’s scoring system and daunting 200,000 points for par subtly encourages teamwork. Enemies never stop coming in Firefight, so locking down a choke point and just shooting until you finish a set is both dull and makes scoring par very difficult. Your best bet is to start ramping the multiplier with a Brute Hammer or sniper shots so that you kill a bunch of enemies in a quick span of time. The only way to do that efficiently is to attack enemies right when they come out of the drop ship. Some levels you can time it so that you dodge the Drop Ship’s turrets, other times you can just shoot a rocket into the thing before unloading into the drop site. Playing like this is effective for short bursts and maxes out your score, but you almost always last longer if someone is watching your back. Someone with the Red Stapler drops the shields, the sniper drops them, and the weaker enemies are taken out by the Hammer player to improve the score. Lone wolf behavior is a necessary resource in the sense that someone is going to have to do something crazy to score the extra points to make par.
Halo 3 was always a very team friendly game, it just never really gave players many ways to feel like a part of a group. You can cover each other and balance out weapon payloads, but sharing resources is not an essential element. Rather than make those shared resources absolutely essential like in L4D, Firefight just adds a couple more layers onto the game design so that you can really feel like a group effort is possible. The little touches bring all this together. If you’re the last man standing your friends can scout the map with the bodiless camera and call out what enemies are closing in. If you’re a good sniper you’ll need someone to drop the shields off the more advanced enemies. On a map like ‘Crater’ the player on the turret is essential and they need cover on both sides and below to be effective. A good Warthog team can dominate ‘Platoon’ while other players sneak off to pursue their own goals. Firefight is a great team game because working with other players feels voluntary instead of forced.