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Originally published Monday, September 21, 2009 at 12:11 AM

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"Halo 3: ODST" combines old with new, to good effect

"Halo 3: ODST" — which goes on sale Tuesday for $60 — doesn't have the epic sweep of past "Halo" games, but it's a fun and refreshing update.

Seattle Times technology columnist

Sometimes the enchiladas you make with leftover steak are nearly as good as the meat was the first time around. They're not quite as spectacular, but still tasty and satisfying.

That's my take on "Halo 3: ODST," the latest installment in the blockbuster video-game franchise that's carried the flag for Microsoft's Xbox business since the first edition debuted in 2001.

ODST — which goes on sale Tuesday for $60 — doesn't have the epic sweep of past "Halo" games, but it's a fun and refreshing update of a series that was at risk of sequel-itis.

It takes "Halo" in a dramatically new direction and introduces a great new multiplayer mode, but some may still miss the originals.

The game centers on a group of soldiers — "orbital drop shock troopers," or ODSTs — sorting through the confusing start of a war. You play as these personable grunts, rather than the usual faceless super soldier, taking on the same alien menagerie arriving in biomorphic spaceships.

Bungie, the Kirkland studio behind "Halo," made "ODST" in about year after work on a "Halo" movie was shelved and before the studio was fully geared up for "Halo: Reach," a major release due next year.

Yet "ODST" still has polish, smooth play and visual drama — plus cool, new silenced weapons. It's also one of the most-anticipated games of the year, guaranteeing cash flow at a studio that's in startup mode after spinning off from Microsoft in 2007.

"ODST "is actually a three-course meal. The entree is a single-player game that takes place in a fictional African metropolis where the alien invasion begins. It's a prequel to "Halo's" story of warring species.

A series of episodes unfold as a rookie soldier, lost in the dark city, finds clues about his missing squad.

It's realistic. Figuring out what's going on is tough at first. You've got to rely heavily on a new "visor" information display that illuminates key objects and the bad guys.

A new mapping system is key to navigating. At first I tried to feel my way without the map, checking out the moody city, but you can spend only so much time roaming mostly empty streets.

Episodes start with chatty, character-developing animations but still feel like classic "Halo." They also emulate online "Halo" matches — squad mates work together, banter and comment on shots in battles that you wish would last a bit longer.

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The campaign's almost like training for "ODST's" second course, a new cooperative multiplayer mode called Firefight. It lets up to four people play in alien battles lasting about a half-hour.

Firefight is designed for quick pickup matches, giving older "Halo" fans a way to squeeze in a few rounds after kids are in bed, for instance. It's an alternative to the "full court" online matches that millions play in the "Halo" subculture.

Hard-core fans get a few goodies in "ODST." The third course is a second disc with 24 maps for multiplayer "Halo 3" sessions, including all previously released maps and three new ones. Included is a key to the beta-test version of "Reach."

"ODST" is a mélange of old and new. The $60 price seems a little high, but Bungie used enough special sauce to make it a worthy dish.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

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