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Originally published August 3, 2010 at 11:00 PM | Page modified August 4, 2010 at 12:19 PM

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Corrected version

'Halo' creators pull out all the stops for fourth version for Microsoft's Xbox

Bungie game studio had to figure out how to make the fourth major installment of "Halo" feel fresh. The game had to appease millions of existing fans. And it had to appeal to old and new Microsoft Xbox players.

Seattle Times senior technology reporter

This must be Seattle's year of grand finales.

First it was Ken Griffey Jr., and now it's "Halo." Somebody better check on Pearl Jam.

The wildly successful sci-fi game that established Microsoft's Xbox business, earned more than $1.5 billion and became a global phenomenon reaches a crescendo Sept. 14, with the release of "Halo: Reach."

For the last version of "Halo" it's producing, Kirkland game studio Bungie cut loose, rewriting the game's software engine to create a version that's bigger, brighter and more realistic than anything it's done.

"We want this game to be like the final send-off to our fans," said Marcus Lehto, "Reach" creative director and co-creator of the franchise. "Without them, we wouldn't be anything, and so we want to make sure that this one's the best of the bunch."

"Reach" is more than Bungie's adieu to "Halo," though. It also marks the start of a holiday-sales season during which the video-game industry hopes to rebound from two years of slowing sales.

Either way, "Reach" will be a boon for Microsoft's Xbox business, which is helping fund the company's latest push into phones and other consumer products.

At least 6 million copies of the $60 game will be sold in the coming months, and perhaps 10 million will be sold over the next year, according to Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter. In other words, Microsoft will make more than $300 million on a game Pachter expects cost $40 million or $50 million to make.

"I don't think it moves the needle for Microsoft Corp. that much, but it's going to make their entertainment and devices division very, very profitable," he said. "They rely on that a lot."

Going forward, Microsoft's going to have to share Bungie, if not "Halo."

The studio, which Microsoft bought in 2000, became a separate company in 2007 after "Halo 3" was released. Bungie's nearly 200 employees now build games for other platforms in addition to the Xbox, under a publishing deal with Activision.

Microsoft is going to keep making products based on the "Halo" franchise, but "Reach" will be the last from Bungie, which shipped the first version in late 2001.

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"Reach" was a tall order. Bungie had to figure out how to make the fourth major installment of the franchise fresh. The game had to appease millions of "Halo" fans. And it had to appeal to old and new Xbox players who have more choices when it comes to multiplayer action games, including a new version of the blockbuster "Call of Duty" franchise going on sale Nov. 9.

Instead of playing as a super soldier battling aliens along a fairly defined path, "Reach" is played through a squad of relatively ordinary soldiers fighting for an Earthlike planet where they sometimes encounter animals roaming the forests.

""Reach" recognizes that women are a larger part of the audience for video games -- 40 percent, according to the Entertainment Software Association -- and serving in combat nowadays. It gives players the option to play as a female soldier. It also has a female lead character, a soldier named Kat, who is one of the toughest members of the squad despite her prosthetic arm.

Dialogue changes to reflect the avatar. If a female avatar is chosen, other characters in the game address her as a woman. The customizable avatar also appears during cinematic sequences within the game and online in multiplayer matches.

Like other military-themed games released during wartime, "Reach" gives soldiers and their mission respect. It also has the intense, percussive sound of modern battle games.

But "Reach" is funnier than previous versions of "Halo." It incorporates more of Bungie's character — including dark and offbeat humor that had been enjoyed mostly by advanced and online players — and makes it more accessible.

During firefight games, for instance, you can choose to have aliens burst into confetti with squeals of laughter when they're shot. In earlier versions, players had to find a hidden skull to unlock this feature.

Then there's the forklift. "Reach" has all sorts of new vehicles to drive, ranging from a fighter jet flown in space combat to a lowly forklift that players can drive, very slowly, just for the heck of it.

Think of the forklift and space combat as exuberant bonus numbers during a rock star's farewell performance.

"We literally thought about all the things we wanted to do over the last decade but didn't have the opportunity to do so," Lehto said. "We wrote them all on a board and we had this list of hundreds and hundreds of things we wanted to try to pack into this game. I think we've got more features in this game than we've ever put in any game before."

Lehto — a 41-year-old gearhead who commutes year-round on a custom chopper he built — always wanted to let players drive all of the "civilian" vehicles scattered around the world of "Halo."

The forklift's appearance during a heated round with friends will "make everybody laugh out loud hysterically, because it's silly."

"It's just fun to do," Lehto said. "You can change up the experiences as a result."

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

This story was published Aug. 3, 2010, and corrected Aug. 4, 2010. The story originally said that a game player had the option to play as a female soldier named Kat. Players do have the option to play as a female soldier, but not as Kat.

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