Saturday, September 22, 2007

Halo's in the house




Soldiers clad in robotic-looking body armour splash through puddles in their tanks as bullets fly overhead, shot from all direction.

There's a lot happening on-screen in Halo 3, most of which is confidential until Tuesday's launch.

So without saying too much, I'll say this: Halo 3 is pretty overwhelming from a graphics point of view. Never mind all the pumped-up game-play and next-generation capabilities.

Everything in this revamped Halo universe is shadowed, heavy, three-dimensional and intensely lit. It's big and exciting -- sort of like the hype surrounding the game itself.

When video game icon, Master Chief, kicks off his final mission to save the Halo universe this Tuesday, billions of bucks will be on the line -- never mind the planet.

And Microsoft doesn't seem worried.

So far so good after all.

Halo 3, the final instalment in the massively popular Xbox-only series, has already sold more than one million copies.

Some hardcore gamers -- or fanatical nerds, depending on who you speak to -- began lining up outside retailers 10 days ago. (That's two weeks in advance.)

"It's been compared to the Star Wars of video games," says Ryan Bidan, games project director for Microsoft.

"It's a big deal."

Following a summer of power sequels, he says, Microsoft expects to outsell any movie launch in history with their third and last edition of the Halo series.

They intend to beat out Spider-Man 3's opening weekend, which banked $151 million, in just one day, he says.

Video games can compete with movies and music albums -- and win, he says, "It's all about entertainment."

THE ART OF WAR

Even though the soldiers on-screen are firing at each other at an explosive rate and there's clearly a violent clash going on, Halo 3 is a spectacle to behold.

It's no wonder the new game system includes a "saved video" function so gamers can record and playback their own battles.

Each scene feels like a mini action movie, and the player gets to take on the lead role.

Gamers will be blown away by the visuals -- right down to each blade of grass.

"It is so much more beautiful," says Mike Zack, manoeuvring his player through a canyon, over a rocky ledge. "We recreated everything."

Zack, 31, who is originally from Victoria, is in town to talk to media and demonstrate the game. As we speak, he manages to do both simultaneously.

"I made those leaves," he says, aiming the viewfinder of his player up to some foliage rustling in the trees overhead.

As an environment art lead at Bungie Studios, the game developer behind Halo, he's most concerned with the way the new game looks.

And while Zack worked on Halo 2, he says, this time around was particularly heady since Halo is no longer just a game.

"It's definitely a phenomenon," Zack says. "We knew that."

Type the words "Halo 3" into Google, and you get more than 23 million hits. Online speculation over graphics, gameplay, price and characters abound. So has secrecy, even though an alternate ending of the game, likely recorded by a mobile phone, was leaked online.

STAR FACTOR

Beyond the millions and millions who make up the so-called Halo Nation -- from hardcore gamers who tattoo Master Chief on their person to casual gamers, or people who just like to watch -- the game also attracts a proud celebrity following.

Most notably, Justin Timberlake, singer/actor and lover of the "sexyback," reportedly has his own room assigned just for Halo gaming.

Shaggy-haired crooner, John Mayer, likes the game so much he's filmed himself and his buddies playing Halo for a television show. Comedian Dane Cook, actor Ryan Phillippe and emo-rockers Fall Out Boy all like to play too.

Halo's own quiet hero, Master Chief, is an icon in his own right. The seven-foot-tall soldier became the first video game character to get his likeness enshrined in Madame Tussauds' wax museum.

"I'd never say I feel intimidated, but humbled for sure," says Zack, of Halo's success. Worldwide sales for Halo's first two games total $14.8 million -- or well over $1 billion. The more people who love the game, the more responsibility, he says.

"As fun as it is, you take it really seriously," Zack says.

"Every day you work on a game there's a million things you could do and you have to pick a handful -- you have to decide what's the most important thing."

While he talks, he steers a tank along a rocky terrain, periodically changing his character's viewpoint.

"It's amazing. I still love looking at it," Zack says, before pressing pause.

HOW FAR WE'VE COME

What's so amazing about Halo anyway?

Zack likens it to Atari's 1970s video game: Pong.

"Imagine Pong where you still had just two little paddles and a ball bouncing back and forth," Zack says. "Now imagine that rendered in three dimensions and you're still controlling one of the paddles."

Okay.

The paddles look real, Zack says, and the game feels like a real ping-pong match.

"And then imagine, rather than playing a game of ping-pong, you're actually playing through an epic, science-fiction fantasy where you're exploring the landscapes and you can actually run around," he says, smiling.

And with the Internet, through the Xbox LIVE online game play, you can play with anyone anytime anywhere from Singapore to New York or Yorkton, Sask. Every day, 300,000 gamers log on to play it.

"That's Halo," he says. "Cool, eh?"

Working on this project has been a blast, he adds.

"It's been a dream come true," Zack says, reflecting on the past three years. "It's been super fun. We had a great time making it."

HALOMANIA

Since more than one million copies of Halo 3 have already pre-sold, Microsoft may have already banked more than $100 million since the sought-after Halo 3 Legendary Edition retails for $149.

(This includes a model of a Spartan helmet and so far it has already sold out in the U.K. Bidan says it will likely be sold out by the end of Tuesday.)

Advertising has been intense. Halo 3 has been plugged before movies all summer long, during prime time television shows and even branded on fast food packaging. Retailers, many of which have massive posters up proclaiming Halo 3's arrival, are readying for the coming Halomania.

More than 10,000 stores across North America have midnight openings planned, including the Future Shop on West Broadway.

THE BIG GUY

Master Chief strolls through The Vancouver Sun, periodically stopping to shake hands with flummoxed reporters.

The human facsimile of the Spartan soldier named John -- just John -- doesn't speak. He only nods. Any expression is hidden through the visor of his helmet.

Master Chief, or the person dressed up to look like him, will be at the midnight sales event Tuesday. He's also been touring the city, doing media stops and photo shoots.

A fellow named Benny is dressed in army fatigues, trailing by his side.

"I'm probably one of the marines who will die in the first mission," he says, grinning. "Master Chief will try to protect me. Won't you?"

Master Chief nods.

In the Halo universe, Master Chief would be about seven-feet tall. He'd be mid-combat, fighting evil forces.

And he wouldn't be touring newsrooms. But since he did, we caught his pit stop on tape.

Go to www.vancouversun.com to see a clip from his newsroom romp.

THE GRANNY FACTOR

No one should be surprised by the buzz around Halo 3, Bidan insists.

The first two Halo editions have sold more than 14.8 million copies worldwide because Halo has transcended the typical video game market, he says.

"Halo has really become a bit of a pop cultural phenomenon," he says.

"It wildly exceeded our expectations with the popular imagination that it captured and the broad range of people who were really interested in Halo. . . these were people who weren't traditionally gamers or weren't really into hardcore games."

His own grandmother even asked him what "this Halo thing" was all about recently, Bidan says.

This is part of Halo's appeal, he adds.

By the end of this year, Microsoft expects gamers will have spent more than $1 billion on the Halo franchise. Not bad for a war-based series built around a character who is never seen without his helmet on and barely speaks. This is also a big deal for Xbox360 console sales because you can't play Halo 3 on a PlayStation or Wii.

"Halo 3 will absolutely have a positive impact on Xbox360 sales," Bidan says. Just how much of an impact? That is confidential, he says, repeating: "We expect this title to be a driver of console sales."

They've released a limited edition Halo 3 Xbox360 console, in green and gold tones to match Master Chief's armour. "You can still currently find those," Bidan says, adding these too will likely sell out quickly.

The $449 Halo 3 Xbox360 console doesn't include the game though. That's sold separately.

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