- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The video-game world braced yesterday for today’s debut of “Halo 3,” expected to help Microsoft and its XBox 360 console in its battle against Nintendo’s Wii and Sony’s Playstation 3.

Microsoft Corp. was scheduled to release the game in the United States at 12:01 a.m. today and in 37 countries by the end of the week with a series of high-profile events.

“With nary a pirate, a spider or a wand in sight, day-one sales of the highly anticipated video game are expected to shatter entertainment sales records and top the biggest entertainment launches of all time,” Microsoft said, comparing the event to releases of “Harry Potter” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Microsoft won’t divulge exact sales predictions for “Halo 3” and won’t specify just how many tens of millions they poured into developing it but seems confident of outdoing the “Spider-Man 3” movie, the summer blockbuster that grossed $151 million in its first day.

Released in 2004, “Halo 2” grossed $125 million during the first 24 hours of its release, according to company sales statistics.

“We know we’re going to clear that,” Microsoft spokesman Ryan James said.

For months, the “Halo 3” hype machine has been in overdrive with star-studded events where celebrities effuse about how chic it is to be a “Halo” geek. Then there’s a merchandising juggernaut that would make George Lucas proud: From “Halo 3” edition Mountain Dew soda bottles to novels, comic books and action figures.

Even for some self-professed “Halo” fans, it’s all getting to be a bit much.

“It’s crazy, you see it everywhere,” said Rich Douek, a 32-year-old graphic designer who lives in New York. He plans on buying “Halo 3” soon but said he would not line up for one of the midnight madness events last night.

“At the end of the day it’s just a really good first-person shooter. I don’t see it as breaking any molds or being any new revolutionary concept in gaming,” he said. “It may turn out to be best first-person shooter ever, but it’s not going to, like, change the world in a meaningful way.”

In Atlanta, insurance worker Graham Jones, 25, planned to be among the first in line at a local GameStop store to snag his pre-ordered $69.99, “limited edition” version of the game that includes an art book and other extras.

More than 1 million copies of the game have been pre-ordered, according to Microsoft. There is also a $59.99 “regular edition” that comes with just the game; a $129.99 “legendary edition” complete with a replica helmet worn by Master Chief; and a $399.99 special edition XBox 360 with a “Halo”-themed custom paint job — but no “Halo 3” game.

“I’ll be there at 12:01 a.m. with all the other 14-year-olds to get my copy,” Mr. Jones said. “I gotta work and I gotta eat, but I can sacrifice my sleep.”

A Best Buy Co. store near Times Square also was to open at midnight so rabid fans could get their hands on the game as soon as possible.

“Halo 3” promises to tie up the loose ends in “Halo 2” that left some fans confused, even angry, said Brian Jarrard, an executive for Bungie Studios, which Microsoft acquired in 2000.

With the tag line “Finish the Fight,” it resumes the saga of hero Master Chief, a masked human soldier of the future, returning to Earth in the midst of a battle for humanity’s survival.

The alien armies of the Covenant are seeking to take over the planet, while an even more nefarious alien threat called the Flood threatens the galaxy’s existence. As a player, gamers will guide Master Chief in the single-story mode to the conclusion.

“We’ve definitely heard a lot of complaints about the cliffhanger ending in ‘Halo 2,” ” Mr. Jarrard said. “For us, this is the third chapter. We are definitely wrapping up the story arc. We talk about it as our ‘Return of the King.” ”

The significance of “Halo” can’t be underestimated for Microsoft, which was a newcomer to the video game console business when it debuted the original XBox in 2001.

“Halo: Combat Evolved,” the first game in the series, “really defined an entire gaming platform,” said Dan Hsu, editor in chief of Electronic Gaming Monthly.

“Halo” and “Halo 2” have gone on to sell 14.8 million copies on the XBox and PC, according to Microsoft.

“When you look back at when XBox launched, there was this cold software company trying to get into the gaming market,” he said. “If it weren’t for Halo 1, who knows if there would still be an XBox.”

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