Video game aficionados lined up before dawn on Monday for the midnight release of Halo 3, the acclaimed alien shooter game that Microsoft Corp hopes will widen its lead over Sony Corp in the battle for industry dominance.
The equivalent of a new Harry Potter book or Star Wars film for the $30 billion video game industry, Halo 3 has drawn wide praise from reviewers for its lush settings, cinematic story and breadth of features.
Positive buzz about the science-fiction game -- in which players try to save humanity from an army of aliens -- pushed Microsoft shares up as much as 3.35 percent, their biggest one-day gain since April.
Microsoft is counting on Halo 3 to push its money-losing entertainment unit into profitability. The game is the final chapter in a trilogy that began in 2001 with the launch of the software giant's original Xbox game console.
I was caught between buying the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but there are certain games like 'Madden '08' and this one that pushed me to Xbox 360, said Darnell Jefferson, 25, who was second in line at a Best Buy store on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.
Halo 3 will enjoy the absence of another blockbuster game, Grand Theft Auto IV, whose October debut has been delayed by publisher Take-Two Interactive Software Inc until the some time between February and April 2008.
Microsoft is backing its game with a marketing blitz that includes celebrity-studded midnight sales events at some 10,000 retailers across the United States.
Gaming retail chain GameStop Corp said the title set a record for advance orders, while Microsoft expects initial demand to surpass that for 2004's Halo 2, which racked up $125 million in its first 24 hours.
Uchendu Nwachukwu, 28, a freelance Web designer who was first in line at the Best Buy store, said buying the game was not as important as experiencing what will probably be a major media event when the doors open at midnight.
They are going to make it a big event, lots of celebrities out here, concerts and prizes, all sorts of craziness, said Nwachukwu, who claimed his space at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, nearly 30 hours before the launch.
If it was just about the game, he said, I would have gone on Tuesday to the store and got it.
The first two Halo games have sold a combined 15 million copies and cemented Microsoft as a serious player in a video game industry that was dominated by Sony Corp's PlayStation 2.
Microsoft hopes Halo 3 will work similar magic for its Xbox 360. The console debuted in late 2005 and has enjoyed stronger sales than PlayStation 3, which is more expensive and so far lacks any system-seller games like Halo 3.
Halo 3 is targeted firmly at the Xbox's core audience of young males, for whom realistic combat games are a staple. It does little to widen the machine's appeal to a more casual audience that is being courted with tremendous success by Nintendo Co Ltd's Wii console.
The title is not necessarily going to move a lot of new systems like the first 'Halo' did, said Dan Hsu, editor-in-chief of the EGM gaming magazine.
At the same time, with all the marketing blitz and hype, consumers will be out there, Hsu said, and if they are thinking video games, they are thinking one of two things: 'Halo' or the Wii.
Shares of Microsoft rose 68 cents, or 2.4 percent, to $29.33 at mid-afternoon on Nasdaq, after earlier hitting a high of $29.61.