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Halo 3 for Xbox 360 Preview

The past twelve months have been a time of amazing blockbusters in the electronics market. During the 2006 holiday season, both Sony and Nintendo garnered huge lines when their next-generation video game systems finally became publicly available, though those systems--the PlayStation 3 (see my review) and Wii (see my video game comparison), respectively--have gone down different paths in the months since. Then Apple dropped the shock and awe of the iPhone (see my review) on us, first in a January unveiling that presaged six months of unprecedented consumer awareness, and then again in late June when the company finally unleashed the product. But the biggest blockbuster of the year, by far, is coming this week. And you don't have to be a video game fan to understand its import.

Prosaically speaking, Halo 3 is an Xbox 360-based first person shooter, the third and final act in the hugely popular Halo trilogy. But that simple description does nothing to describe the frenzy and excitement that are building as the game sneaks ever closer to release. That's because the Halo series, like so few video games, is a cultural phenomena that transcends the primarily young, dateless and male world of video gaming. It has transformed the lives of millions--yes, seriously--and changed the way that people interact with each other, albeit in a virtual world. In a more insular way, the success of Halo and Halo 2 (see my review), both of which were first released for the original Xbox console, shaped the development of the Xbox 360 and the way that that console provides its pervasive online experience.

What's most amazing about Halo, of course, is that the sum of its parts vastly outweighs the whole. I recall my first experience with the original Halo and wondering what all the fuss was about, as I am a long-time PC gamer and had seen much better and more imaginative games before. Indeed, aside from the problems of implementing a first person shooter with the constraints and vagueness of a video game controller in mind, Halo developer Bungie had pretty much borrowed the plot, characters, and situations from the game from a number of books, movies, and other video games, the most obvious being the setting, which was taken from Larry Niven's classic "Ringworld" series.

No, Halo, and to a much greater extent, its first sequel, Halo 2, are notable for other reasons. In the video game console world, Halo was among the first--but not the very first--truly playable first person shooter, proving that a video game controller was no detriment to good designers. Halo and its sequel also made multiplayer not just an important component of the game, a way to stretch out the gaming dollar, so to speak, but rather the real reason to own the titles. Halo made multiplayer drop-dead simple, an act that still escapes so many modern video games--PC and console alike--despite the fact that Bungie showed how to make it work years ago. It lets you connect easily with your friends, and find players online who match your skill level. Indeed, Halo's multiplayer mode was so successful that Microsoft based its entire second generation Xbox Live system on Halo, so that gamers can keep in touch with each other, even when they're doing other things.

Look outside video gaming, however, and you can see that Halo--and again, especially the Halo 2 sequel--have touched the wider consumer culture in ways that few video games have. Halo and its Master Chief protagonist are almost as widely known as Pac-Man and the plucky plumber Mario out in the real world, and I very recently sat in wonder in a sports bar watching as the crowd around me stopped what they were doing to intently watch a Halo 3 advertisement on TVs all around the establishment. When Halo 2 shipped in late 2004, it wasn't just a big video game release; it was a Big Event--capital letters and all--that resonated far beyond the sleepless world of college students and others with too much time on their hands. As Microsoft was so fond of announcing at the time, Halo 2 earned $125 million its opening weekend alone, more than the opening weekend draw for "Spider-Man," that year's most popular movie. And Halo 3 is off to a similar torrid start, even though the game isn't even shipping yet: Microsoft announced last month that pre-orders for the game--which is an Xbox 360 exclusive--topped 1 million units, an industry record.

Halo 3 is particularly important for Microsoft because it is the flagship title for its struggling Xbox 360 game system and perhaps the only video game for that platform that can demonstrably affect sales (Gears of War [see my review] helped, briefly, in late 2006). That is, people will literally buy an Xbox 360 console just to play this one game. And that's good news for Microsoft, because the Nintendo Wii is on pace to overtake the 360 in total sales, despite being available for less than half as long as the 360. Meanwhile, the 360 has even had trouble holding off Sony's moribund PS3.

Part of the problem is marketing: While the Xbox 360 actually has a competitive collection of casual games, the perception (wrongfully) is that Nintendo owns this market. Another problem is reliability: Microsoft recently took a $1 billion hit to its bottom line to satisfy widespread Xbox 360 console failures. The seriousness of this problem can't be understated: Of the 9 gamers I regularly play Halo with whom own 360's, 7 have experienced console failures so far. I've had two Xbox 360 consoles fail, personally, and I can't say I'm all that confident in the replacement units either.

Microsoft is hoping that Halo 3 rejuvenates its console, which is understandable, and my guess is that they'll do just fine. For me, however, Halo 3 is important for a number of reasons. Yeah, I want to play through the single player campaign to see how it all turns out and wash the awful experience of the cliffhanger ending of Halo 2 out of my memory. But the success of Halo 3 depends more, I think, on its multiplayer component. If Halo 3 can get people to sign on to Xbox Live and play together across the Internet cloud in record numbers, as did its predecessor, it will be the console's, and the year's, biggest electronics success story. And that, I think, is exactly what Halo 3 will do: Bring together gamers online for a chance to play with and against each other in exciting new ways.

I can't think of a better way to spend the holidays this year. See you online.

Coming soon: My Halo 3 first impressions...

An edited version of this article appeared in the September 19 issue of Connected Home Express. --Paul

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