Videogame sequel hits stores Sept. 25

One of holiday 2007’s biggest vidgames is getting an early launch.

Microsoft confirmed Monday that it will release the highly anticipated “Halo 3″ on Sept. 25. In the past, most big games, including “Halo” and “Halo 2,” have come out in November both to be as close to the holiday shopping season as possible and to give developers more time to finish.

Decision comes before what many industryites say will be one of the most competitive holiday seasons ever for the videogame biz.

By releasing “Halo 3″ relatively early, Microsoft will get an exclusive window of gamer and press attention before several other potentially huge games come out, most notably “Grand Theft Auto IV” in October. Also expected to be released this fall, though they don’t yet have an exact release date, are the new “Super Mario” and “Metroid” games from Nintendo and the fourth entry in the popular “Metal Gear Solid” series.

Early release also means Microsoft will have to spend more to maintain awareness of the game all the way through Christmas three months later.

Original “Halo,” which came out in 2001, has sold over million units. 2004’s “Halo 2″ has sold nearly 10 million.

But the tech giant isn’t just counting on “Halo 3″ being a big selling game. Microsoft is also hoping it will drive sales of its Xbox 360, the only console on which “Halo 3″ plays, and subscriptions to its Xbox Live online gaming service. First two “Halo” incarnations have been hugely popular on Xbox Live.

This holiday season may be the first true showdown between all three next-gen consoles — Nintendo’s Wii, Sony’s Playstation 3 and the 360 — as they will all be widely available for the first time.

“The fact that we’re coming out in September is super important from a competitive standpoint versus Sony,” said Microsoft Game Studios corporate VP Shane Kim. “It will drive a lot of 360 sales and Xbox Live subscriptions throughout the year.”

Sony, whose Playstation 3 competes most directly with the 360 for hard-core gamers, isn’t putting out a major franchise game this fall. The biggest exclusive game for the PS3 will be Konami’s “Metal Gear Solid 4.”

“Grand Theft Auto IV” will come out for both the 360 and PS3.

Nintendo will have several exclusives for its Wii, which has been handily outselling both the 360 and PS3 so far this year. However, with its lower price and graphical power, it targets a broader audience beyond devoted young male gamers.

Kim said that “Halo 3″ developer Bungie, owned by Microsoft, is fully confident it will hit the Sept. 25 release date. Bungie has already shown parts of the game to journalists and starts a public beta of several online multi-player maps Wednesday.

Microsoft plans to market “Halo 3″ and the 360 throughout the summer leading up to the Sept. 25 release in the U.S. and Asia. It will hit Europe one day later.

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