The countdown of my personal picks for the best games of 2009 has now reached its halfway point. Next week I'll reveal my top five, but for now at #6 we slaughter Covenant in a smoky jazz bar...
6. Halo 3: ODST (360)
Bungie took me by surprise with ODST. Going in I knew there was no Master Chief and I knew it was an expansion intended to complement the Halo story, filling in some of the blanks between the second and third chapters of the series. So playing as the unnamed Rookie and his squadmates over the course of a slightly shorter campaign didn't phase me.
The first thing that surprised me was how engaging I found the city of New Mombasa to be. I appreciate games that have you revisit areas, coaxing you to pay attention to the environment, recognising landmarks and learning the layout. As a hub area traversed between missions, ODST's city space provides a real sense of place often lacking in more linear games. That it looks and sounds beautiful - the sombre neon haze and synth-noir soundtrack is quite unlike any other Halo game - and is populated by a mix of set-pieces battles and random skirmishes makes it a place that's worth returning to each time.
The second thing that surprised me was Firefight, the co-operative multiplayer mode introduced in ODST. I'd played Gears of War 2's Horde mode, of course, so the concept of fending off waves of enemies in a single location wasn't a surprise. But Bungie's masterful execution of it was.
The maps, lifted from familiar areas of the campaign, are uniformly well-tailored to the new format, each offering a multitude of tactical avenues depending on your personal play style. The skulls, which switch around some of the game "rules" between each wave, heightened the unpredictability and forced you to rethink your approach.
And of course, Halo's peerless core combat - the rhythm delivered by shield regen, the choices afforded by its two-weapon limit, the strategic nuance of facing swarms of multiple enemy types, each requiring a different method of confrontation - translates effortlessly over to Firefight, elevating an unoriginal idea to best in class status.
As a package, ODST is the best in the Halo series. Not bad for an "expansion pack".
Kotaku AU's Games of 2009 are my personal picks for the best games of the year. I make no claim to have played everything released this year, nor do I pretend to be any way objective in my rankings. I look forward to debating my choices with you in the comments.