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halotop.jpgIt is less than a week until the arrival of Halo 3, the final part of the epic space trilogy and showdown between the Master Chief and the alien Covenant, and Microsoft has announced that more than 10,000 retailers in the United States will be opening their doors at midnight. This past summer at the Electronic Entertainment Expo then Microsoft Game Studio VP Peter Moore called the franchise “this generation’s Star Wars,” while Microsoft has since gone on to call September 25 the biggest day in entertainment history.

And the company is pulling out all the stops for the release of Halo 3, with major events in New York City, Miami, Seattle and Los Angeles, where fans can gather throughout next Monday in anticipation of the release of the game at midnight. But is this just hype for yet another video game launch, or is Halo the real deal?

Whether this just more PR hype, or the real thing, one thing can be said for certain. Probably no one including the developers at Bungie expected this level of success when coding began on the first game in the mid-1990s. The original Halo made its debut at MacWorld of all places in 1998, and had already undergone a bit of a make over. The first concept was closer to a sci-fi strategy game than shooter, but slowly it evolved and became much more. Yet, is it fair to call it Star Wars for this generation?

“Hell no,” says Billy Pidgeon, video game analyst for IDC. Pidgeon has covered games for more than 15 years and says maybe Harry Potter but not Halo. “That’s as false an analogy as calling a new band the Beatles of their time. I’m not saying that as a Star Wars fan or a Beatles fan. I prefer Bladerunner and the Stones myself, but the Internet and the global community dissipate culture focus and have made it impossible for any cultural phenomenon to grab and sustain the attention of water letter generation it is now.”

Of course Halo did go on to become the killer app title for the original Xbox in 2001, and without Halo it seems that Microsoft might not have been able to edge out the Nintendo GameCube that holiday season. “For most Xbox gamers, Halo is the title that defines the system,” agrees Pidgeon. He says that the franchise is crucial to expanding market share for both the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live this year.

So it is no surprise that as part of the promotion Xbox Live Gold is free for everyone during the first three days of Halo 3 availability. This promotion is there to show gamers what they’re missing. Likewise, adds Pidgeon the game will help move consoles for Microsoft this holiday and let the Redmond giant make strides on the PS3, and even the Nintendo Wii — despite the fact that Nintendo has announced that production has increased to bring more Wii systems to the market this holiday. To sustain the success Microsoft is going to have to line up more quality first party titles, and third party exclusives. Who knows, maybe we’ll see a Halo 4 after all.

halocontroller.jpgThe other question is whether this hype is the wave of something new. Already this year games such as BioShock proved to be break out hits, with real buzz from gamers. So is the Microsoft machine just generating artificial hype? Head over the EBgames.com or Amazon.com. There are countless options of Halo-brand accessories and special editions of the game, including the Halo 3 Legendary Edition with Halo Spartan Mjolnir Mark VI Helmet!

“Maybe I am missing something here,” says video game author Steven L. Kent. “I think back to the launches of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Sonic The Hedgehog 2, and the excitement surrounding these launches. I have been in Japan for the launch of a Dragonquest and the launch of a Final Fantasy, and I have seen the chaotic insanity surrounding those launches. I must be missing something, because I have not seen that for Halo 3. I’m not even sure that I have seen the level of excitement I saw surrounding the launch of Halo 2.”

But Kent adds that the Microsoft message machine is going into the usual and predictable PR overdrive, but he says that they have the genuine article to hype.

halocar.jpgThen again how many games have contests tied to them that include winning a Halo themed Pontiac G6 GXP car or Samsung home entertainment system? This is just further proof that Microsoft has done a great job of playing to the hype as well, going so far as to position Halo as an event eclipsing film blockbusters.

But says Pidgeon the buzz is legitimate. So the other big question is whether the game can deliver. “People are excited about the game, but their expectations are high,” says Pidgeon. “As an original title, BioShock had lower expectations and so earned respect and good word of mouth in the gamer community. BioShock was more of a pleasant surprise for Xbox 360 gamers.”

And the comparison to films is somewhat apt as well, considering the Halo has followed the annoying trend of movie trilogies where the second part tends to be a set up for the final act. While certainly Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back could be seen as the foundation for this trend, it was used with later trilogies including Back to the Future, The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean. And in the case of all of these movies it certainly wasn’t planned — nor is there evidence that the creators of Halo planned to go for three either.

So at the end of the day the question of Halo hype comes down to whether the series manages to hold up and go out on top. Thus far the first two games have delivered and there seems to be little reason to think that it won’t be a triple play.

“If Halo 3 is as good from start to finish as I anticipate, it will indeed be remembered 10 years from now,” says Steve Kent. He says that games such as Super Mario Bros. 3 came out 17 years ago and is still remembered fondly, and adds that even if Halo 3 is bad it will be likely remembered. “I cannot say whether it will be ‘just another game’ as I have not played much of it yet. The first two Halos were not ‘just another games,’ they were well crafted, visually stunning, well written, and stood out in their generation.”

So maybe it is Star Wars for this generation.

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