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Incoming! Fans Brace for Latest `Halo 3'

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MATT SLAGLE | September 24, 2007 08:29 PM EST | AP

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— Can "Halo" hero Master Chief blast his way past "Spider-Man 3" too?

We'll soon find out as the third installment in the "Halo" video game franchise debuts Tuesday for the Xbox 360 console.

Microsoft Corp. 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 opening weekend _ a comparison the company has embraced itself.

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. And 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 won't be lining up for one of the Monday midnight madness events.

"At 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, 25-year-old insurance worker Graham Jones plans 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 a million copies of the game already have been pre-ordered, according to Microsoft. There's 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," said Jones. "I gotta work and I gotta eat, but I can sacrifice my sleep."

A Best Buy Co. store near Times Square also will be open at midnight, when rabid fans can 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 tagline "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 very 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,'" 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."

And despite "Halo 3" being the final chapter in the story arc, it doesn't appear the series will be fading anytime soon, Jarrard said.

A strategy video game called "Halo Wars" is set for release in 2008. Last year, Microsoft reached a deal in which Peter Jackson, the Academy Award-winning director of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and his wife, screenwriter Fran Walsh, will help create two new video games, at least one of them in the "Halo" universe.

(This version CORRECTS figure to $151 million to reflect opening-weekend gross of movie instead of opening-day gross.) )