A line of customers formed early Tuesday morning outside the entrance to Wal-Mart in Steamboat Springs.
By the time employees opened the doors at 7 a.m., a group of people, mostly male, was eager to claim what they had waited three long years for -- a copy of what could become one of the best-selling video games of all time.
"Halo 2," published by Microsoft for its Xbox video game console, is the much-anticipated sequel to "Halo: Combat Evolved," a game some industry analysts think kept Xbox afloat despite system sales that lagged behind that of the more popular PlayStation 2 game console.
Three years in the making, "Halo 2" continues where the original game ended. Master Chief, a superhuman soldier charged with the task of saving Earth from an onslaught of Covenant alien forces, teams with elite Marines to wage a battle against the enemy in a variety of stunningly realistic indoor and outdoor landscapes. The game, classified in the first-person shooter genre, includes a symphonic score, improved graphics, new weapons and other subtleties that have been the subject of online chat-room gossip for more than a year, as dedicated fans from across the globe anticipated the new game's November release.
And with the anticipation came early sales. Microsoft reports gamers pre-ordered more than 1.5 million copies of the game before its Tuesday release. Nearly 7,000 retail stores across the country opened their doors at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday to allow sales of the game.
There weren't any midnight store openings in Routt County, but the gamers who lined up in front of Wal-Mart early Tuesday were rewarded for their efforts. The store, which received about 40 copies of the game, sold out by 10:30 a.m., Wal-Mart employee John Sena said. About half of the 40 copies were set aside for savvy fans who had taken the time to reserve them ahead of the release date.
Steamboat's All That Jazz quickly sold its copies of the game, and customers at Blockbuster Video had rented out its limited supply of the game by midday Tuesday, store employees said.
"It was totally amazing," Sena said. "I've never heard of anything like that for a game. I just couldn't believe there were people waiting outside to come in and get the game."
By Wednesday morning, Microsoft reported selling 2.4 million copies of "Halo 2," bringing the company $125 million in sales.
"'Halo 2' has blown the roof off of any other sales day in the history of GameStop," Dan Dematteo, president of the national video game and entertainment software retailer, said in a press release. "In just one day, we sold more than half a million copies of 'Halo 2' -- more than any other game in history in first-day release.
"'Halo 2' has become more than a pop-culture phenomenon. It's become a pop-culture frenzy."
Indeed, first-day sales generated more money for Microsoft than any blockbuster Hollywood movie ever has collected in first-day ticket sales.
"Halo: Combat Evolved" and "Halo 2" have a bevy of features that make them such smash hits.
For Steamboat Springs High School sophomore Patrick Dickey, the game combines a surprisingly well-written story line with amazing graphics and gameplay, not to mention the ability to play with as many as 16 of his friends in a variety of multiplayer game modes.
"Halo 2," Dickey said, is about "16 people all playing at once, blowing each other up, running around and talking to each other."
Compatibility with Microsoft's Xbox Live online gaming service enables "Halo 2" players to organize online games with friends and complete strangers, talk to each other through special headsets and microphones and keep track of their own statistics -- all without leaving their sofas.
Fifteen-year-old Dickey, who said he has at least seven friends with "Halo 2" and subscriptions to Xbox Live, made a special trip to Wal-Mart before school Tuesday to pick up his reserved copy, and then had to wait through a seemingly endless school day to get home and power up his new game.
His afternoons and evenings have been occupied with the game since. Needless to say, he's not alone.
But "Halo 2" isn't just for children and teens. A large number of the game's fans are college-age and older. In fact, the game is rated "Mature," meaning its not intended for players younger than 17. But that isn't likely to prevent young video game players everywhere from getting their hands on a copy.
"How can you keep kids from playing 'mature' games when their parents buy it for them or they go over to a friend's house to play?" asked Sena, who says Wal-Mart employees ask for identification from customers trying to purchase mature-rated games.
Steamboat parent Julie Herman doesn't like that her 16-year-old son, Jeremy, plays video games as much as he does. Quite frankly, she doesn't understand the fascination children have with them.
"If it were my choice, he wouldn't have an Xbox at all," Herman said. "I just don't get it. I don't see what's neat about it at all. I guess it's a concept I just don't get."
But she doesn't worry about the violence in "Halo 2" and similar games having a negative effect on her son.
"It's not in his personality to take it beyond the computer," she said. "To him and us, it's a game."
The release-day sales of "Halo 2" illustrate its popularity:
For years, Sony's PlayStation 2 dominated the game-console market with help from the wildly popular "Grand Theft Auto" series, a collection of games that encourage players to steal cars, complete a variety of missions that include murdering and even picking up prostitutes for quick energy boosts. Sales of the recently released "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" surpassed 2 million copies in the six days after its release. "Halo 2" surpassed that total in its first day on the market.
The popularity of the two games demonstrates the place the video game industry has in this country.
U.S. video game sales, including hardware and software purchases, have surpassed $10 billion in each of the past two years, according to The NPD Group, a marketing information provider. Those totals are expected to increase as technology improves, and competition drives the creation of better games and gaming systems.
Indeed, for many "Halo 2" fans, talk already has shifted to the possibility of a "Halo 3."
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