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2.7 million gamers reach for new ‘Halo’

More than 2.7 million people logged onto the video game "Halo: Reach," the upcoming prequel to the first-person shooter trilogy starring supersoldier Master Chief.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Master Chief isn't lacking for friends.

More than 2.7 million people logged onto the video game "Halo: Reach," the upcoming prequel to the first-person shooter trilogy starring supersoldier Master Chief, developer Bungie Studios announced Monday.

Players collectively logged more than 16 million hours and more than 1.1 billion virtual kills during the 18-day public beta test of the game's multiplayer mode, Bungie said in a statement, adding the game will be launched worldwide on Sept. 14 — except in Japan, where it will debut a day later.

"It's exceeded our expectations," said Bungie Studios community director Brian Jarrard. "Our only real perspective going into this was the 'Halo 3' beta test, which had about 800,000 people. We knew there were a couple million copies of 'ODST' out there, but we really didn't have any specific information that let us know what the population might be like."

Xbox 360 users who bought last year's "Halo" spin-off, "Halo 3: ODST," were provided access to the beta test, which ran from May 3 to May 20. The gamemakers will use information recorded during the online test to fix glitches, tweak settings and balance the overall fairness of the game's multiplayer mode, which pits blaster-wielding soldiers against each other.

"There really is tons of analytical data that we need to derive from the beta test with regard to the network and back-end systems," said "Halo: Reach" creative director Marcus Lehto. "We needed our fans to provide feedback. We needed a very large audience to hammer on this game, which allows us to use the data that really helps shape the final product."

Unlike previous "Halo" games, "Reach" bestows players with rechargeable powers, such as superspeed, flight and invisibility. The designers also added several new types of online gameplay, including an objective-based edition called "Invasion" that tasks teams of players with advancing through an environment besides just shooting each other in the head.

"We always want to give our fanbase something new and fresh," said Lehto. "We definitely wanted to give them something new to sink their teeth into with 'Reach,' and maybe even grow our audience bigger than we're typically used to seeing. I think we did that with 'Invasion.' Sure, there's a few more rules to learn, but at its core, it's still a 'Halo' game."

When it's released this fall, the latest "Halo" title will be gunning for the top first-week sales spot once owned by "Halo 3" in 2007 with more than $300 million in sales. "Halo 3" was later shot down by "Grand Theft Auto IV" in 2008 with more than $500 million in sales than "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" in 2009 with more than $550 million in sales.

"This is the most pressure we've ever been under," said Lehto. "This is the biggest 'Halo' title we've ever made, and we're worried there's 'Halo' fatigue out there. That's why we set out to add new twists, and we're happy to see people enjoy it, but it was a huge risk for us to release what's essentially a work in progress to almost 3 million people."

"Halo: Reach" is slated to be the last "Halo" game developed by Bungie Studios, which recently signed an exclusive 10-year deal with Activision Blizzard Inc. to publish and distribute a series of games for various platforms based on a new action game universe. The deal marks Bungie Studios' first such partnership since breaking off from Microsoft in 2007.

"It's absolutely bittersweet," said Lehto. "We created this. I was there on day one in 1997 back when it was just three of us working on what ultimately became 'Halo.' Now, we have the largest team we've ever had on a 'Halo' game. We're having fun, but closing this series out as the leader of this project, I will definitely be sad when it's all over."