Two months before Halo 3 hit store shelves, it had already sold more than 1 million copies. It's an unheard of accomplishment that was promptly upstaged by the $170 million the game made the day of its launch. As for the meager few who haven't already snagged a copy, a recent survey by specialty retailer Game Crazy indicates that teen boys (14- to 17-year-olds) tagged the game as their No. 1 Christmas pick. Girls in the same age group listed it as their No. 5.
So what's the big deal? This is merely the third installment of a franchise that appears to challenge gamers with little more than "shoot everything that moves." Why is it so popular that it's raking in the big bucks faster than any entertainment release in history—faster than even Spider-Man 3 and the latest Harry Potter book did?
Us vs. Them
Part of the massive draw can be laid at the feet of Halo's groundbreaking history as a first-rate first-person shooter. In this trilogy (so far) of futuristic war games, players don the battle armor and the immovable faceplate of a genetically engineered super-soldier named Master Chief. He and his war-hardened buddies battle the Covenant, a race of technologically and physically imposing creatures who want to rid the universe of ... us. (Even if they have to do it one mouthful at a time.)
The first Halo chronicles humanity's efforts to destroy a deep-space Covenant outpost. Halo 2 is a cliffhanger that has the evil aliens reaching Earth. And now Halo 3's invaders attempt to activate floating space weapons and, in the process, let loose a plague of creatures that could destroy the galaxy.
But, of course, Master Chief strides through nine gun-blazing game missions to save it from harm.
Coup de Grâce
This Halo packs a powerful punch in the area of artificial intelligence. The enemies don't just stand there for you to shoot. You can never be sure if they'll work as a team and try to take you by storm, sneak around to outflank you, or just decide to stick by cover and get out the sniper rifles. Each time through the scene can play differently.
It's the Xbox Live multiplayer mode, however, that lands Halo 3 onto most gamers' "must have" list. For years Halo 2 has been praised for blowing away other titles in online gaming and tournament play. And its sequel doesn't disappoint. Players are ranked and teamed with up to 16 other Internet crusaders of like skill and thrown into vast, beautifully rendered terrains to practice their combat finesse and marksmanship—in this case on either aliens or humans. Games range from capture-the-flag challenges and point battles to multifaceted, hours-long strategy campaigns.
There are also an array of exotic weapons to play with. (Have I mentioned yet that not everything that's attractive about Halo 3 should be?) This nonstop shoot-'em-up utilizes an arsenal that ranges from standard-issue assault rifles, shotguns and rocket launchers to alien weapons powerful enough to kick off Armageddon. One such implement of percussive power is the Gravity Hammer—a handheld melee weapon that mashes opponents to the ground and throws assault vehicles around like confetti.
The M rating on the box cover, therefore, isn't misplaced. None of the three games are as gory as, say, Manhunt, Gears of War or even BioShock. But Halo 3 certainly has its dark side.
Players shoot or dismember a whole heap of screaming, sharp-toothed behemoths, insectile critters, and zombie grotesqueries, mercilessly spilling their blue blood. Which raises the question: Can countless hours spent destroying hundreds of horribles change the way kids (and their grown-up cousins) see flesh-and-blood people and deal with the real world around them? Many experts say yes.
Mild profanities ("d--n," "a--," "b--tard") and Master Chief's computer helper—a projected holographic representation of a woman wearing either body paint or a form-fitting bodysuit—round out the game's predictable problem areas. But there's also a subtle underlying spiritual tone to the Covenant that can sometimes get lost in the gunfire. When you listen closely you realize that it's not just their desire to devour human flesh (we never see that happen, by the way), it's the aliens' religious zealotry that drives them to destroy mankind.
When these creatures talk, it's through the rhetoric of a holy war. "Die heretic!" is among the cries heard from attacking Covenant grunts. And an ominous disembodied voice tries to stop you from destroying an enemy location with soothing words such as, "Do not be afraid. I am peace. I am salvation."
So let me tally up the aliens-vs.-humans scorecard: On one side, crisp and clever AI, save-the world bravado, the super-cool Master Chief and trend-setting online gameplay. On the other—if I can read the words between all the bullet holes—there are hints of foul language and sexual imagery. There's a dark spiritual connection. And there's that whole thing about pulling the trigger 'til your fingers fall off, your arms go numb and your brain oozes out of your head.
"We do a lot of testing to make sure that it's easy to pick up, easy to play, and, hopefully, easy to get addicted to," says game designer Paul Bertone Jr. "Some games, after you die, a box saying 'Do you want to continue?' will pop up. We never ask you if you want to stop playing."
If they won't ask, maybe you should.