Microsoft’s Halo 3 launches amid spectacle

Microsoft began its midnight sales of Halo 3, the acclaimed alien shooter game that it hopes will widen its lead over Sony in the battle for industry dominance.

While some aficionados lined up before dawn at a Best Buy store on New York’s Fifth Avenue to grab a good seat for the launch extravaganza, others took advantage of the retailer’s offer to let them pay for a copy of the game and pick it up at midnight or the next day.

Alex Escobar was the first one at the store’s checkout counter, turning in a receipt to pick up his advance order.

”It is worth it. It is time to finish this fight,” Escobar said, echoing the tagline for a game featuring a futuristic soldier battling to save humanity from an alien onslaught.

What had been a only a modest gathering earlier in the day had swelled to a crowd of about 500 people that cheered as buyers entered the store, resembling other big consumer debuts this year, such as the last Harry Potter book and Apple’s iPhone.

Halo 3 is seen as the $30-billion video game industry’s equivalent of a new Potter book and Microsoft is counting on the game to finally push its money-losing entertainment unit into profitability.

”This is a critical holiday in terms of winning the next-generation console fight versus our competition and nobody has anything to go up and match Halo,” Shane Kim, vice president of Microsoft Game Studios, told Reuters Television.

Microsoft is backing the game with a marketing blitz that includes celebrity-studded midnight sales events at about 10 000 retailers across the United States.

In New York, someone dressed as the game’s armour-clad hero worked the crowd as music blared, lights flashed and event promoters handed out free goodies such as Halo T-shirts.

Gaming retail chain GameStop said the title set a record for advance orders, while Microsoft expects initial demand to surpass that for 2004’s Halo 2, which racked up $125-million in its first 24 hours.

System seller

The first two Halo games have sold a combined 15-million copies and cemented Microsoft as a serious player in a video game industry that was dominated by Sony’s PlayStation 2.

Halo 3 is targeted firmly at the core Xbox audience of young males, for whom realistic combat games are a staple. It does little to widen the machine’s appeal to a more casual audience that is being courted with tremendous success by Nintendo’s Wii console.

”It’s not necessarily going to move a lot of new systems like the first Halo did,” said Dan Hsu, editor-in-chief of EGM, a gaming magazine.

”At the same time, with all the marketing blitz and hype, consumers will be out there,” Hsu said, ”and if they are thinking video games, they are thinking one of two things: Halo or the Wii.”

Microsoft is certainly betting that the last chapter of the Halo trilogy will give a further boost to its latest console. The Xbox 360, launched in late 2005, has already enjoyed stronger sales than the pricier PlayStation 3, which critics say so far lacks any ”system-seller” games.

”I was caught between buying the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but there are certain games like Madden ’08 and this one that pushed me to Xbox 360,” said Darnell Jefferson (25) who was second in line at Best Buy, referring to the hit football game made by Electronic Arts.

Halo 3 will enjoy the absence of another blockbuster game, Grand Theft Auto IV, whose October debut was delayed by publisher Take-Two Interactive Software until some time between February and April 2008.

The latest Halo has drawn wide praise from reviewers for its lush settings, cinematic story and breadth of features, positive buzz that pushed Microsoft shares up as much as 3,35% on Monday, their biggest one-day gain since April.

The stock ended 1,5% higher at $29.08 on Nasdaq.

George Garcia (32) said he had waited in line for 12 hours and planned to stay up all night playing the game.

”I knew it would deliver,” Garcia said. Reuters

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