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Master Chief and the Arbiter can toast anyone or anything. Believe it!

Those who waited in lines to buy “Halo 3” believe.

Following an unprecedented marketing campaign for a video game, “Halo 3” hit the stores Tuesday. Early indications were that the Xbox 360 game, which was developed by Bungie for Microsoft, would break first-day sales records.

The M-rated game is the final installment in the story of Master Chief, Earth’s best hope in its struggle against the alien Covenant. The Arbiter was once a warrior for the Covenant but turned against his leaders when he discovered that their plan to activate a series of ancient interstellar structures known as Halos would destroy all life in the galaxy.

The game starts with the pair tracking down Grunts, Jackals and Brutes in Africa, where the Covenant’s prophet hopes to find an artifact that will help activate the Halos. After a few vicious battles on Earth, another foe appears — the Flood, which infests and absorbs other species, turning them into repulsive zombielike creatures. The fighting then moves beyond Earth with the twin goals of shutting down the Halos and halting the Flood.

The basics of the game haven’t changed much from the previous edition. Each mission features a running battle on the way to a series of objectives — finding a captured comrade, shutting down a shield or destroying some nasty enemy. Along the way, you can pick up different weapons and ammo — needlers, plasma rifles and other familiar implements of destruction. And you get to drive Warthog ATVs and hovering Ghosts and blast stuff with cool Scorpion tanks.

The game controls haven’t changed dramatically, either, except that they feel more refined. Jumping, turning, firing and switching weapons work very smoothly.

One of the biggest changes comes in the cooperative mode. Up to four gamers can play in one campaign — as Master Chief, the Arbiter and two other aliens. In previous editions, two gamers could play together as twin Master Chiefs or twin Arbiters.

This is the first “Halo” for the Xbox 360, so it’s no surprise that the graphics take a huge leap forward. The settings, equipment, characters and animations are rendered beautifully — or repulsively, in the case of areas overcome by the Flood.

The game sounds good, too. The voice work comes across as natural, the sound effects match the action and the music conveys the right mood at the right time.

All of this blends nicely to help tell a rich and often-tragic story about the struggle involving humans, the Covenant and the Flood.

Of course, all of this secondary for the many gamers who buy “Halo” for the multi-player shootouts. And they won’t be disappointed, either.

Gamers can battle in a wide variety of ways — team death match, free for all, king of the hill and much more. Mercifully, there’s even an area where raw recruits can hone their skills. The maps are many and varied — and stocked with plenty of different weapons to pick up. And if that’s not enough, players can go into the Forge mode and alter any multi-player map.

Judging from the in-game chat, those who jumped online early were thrilled with the options and game play.

“Believe” was the catch phrase of Microsoft’s marketing campaign for “Halo 3.” At this point, there can’t be much doubt.


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