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With latest launch, Halo could Reach new heights

After nine years and millions of sales, it's hard to imagine Halo: Reach taking anyone by surprise. But the sixth iteration of the hit franchise could shatter sales records.

This special Halo: Reach kit consists of a metal briefcase that opens to revel a series of Halo-related items. Matt Fitzgerald/CNET

There's probably no better way to determine who's a hard-core Xbox player and who's not than this: do they play Halo?

On November 15, 2001, the then relatively low-profile video game development studio Bungie, which at the time was owned by Microsoft, released what would become one of the most significant game titles ever--Halo: Combat Evolved.

No one knew it at the time, but this storyline, spelled out in the game's manual--for Microsoft's original Xbox, not the Xbox 360--ushered in what is now nine years and the six titles of what is easily one of the most successful franchises in entertainment:

The year is 2552. Planet Earth still exists, but overpopulation has forced many of her former residents to colonize other worlds. Faster-than-light travel is now a reality, and Earth's unified government, through the United Nations Space Command, has put its full weight behind the colonization effort. Millions of humans now live on habitable planets in other solar systems. A keystone of humanity's colonization efforts is the planet Reach, an interstellar naval yard that builds colony ships for civilians and warships for the UNSC's armed forces. Conveniently close to Earth, Reach is also a hub of scientific and military activity.

Thirty-two years ago, contact with the outer colony Harvest was lost. A battlegroup sent to investigate was almost completely destroyed; only one badly damaged ship returned to Reach. Its crew told of a seemingly unstoppable alien warship that had effortlessly annihilated their forces.

This was humankind's first encounter with a group of aliens they eventually came to know as the Covenant, a collective of alien races united in their fanatical religious devotion. Covenant religious elders declared humanity an affront to the gods, and the Covenant warrior caste waged a holy war upon humanity with gruesome diligence. After a series of crushing defeats and obliterated colonies, UNSC Admiral Preston Cole established the Cole Protocol: no vessel may inadvertently lead the Covenant to Earth. When forced to withdraw, ships must avoid Earth-bound vectors--even if that means jumping without proper navigational calculations. Vessels in danger of capture must self-destruct.

On Reach, a secret military project to create cyborg super-soldiers takes on newfound importance. The soldiers of the Spartan-II project rack up an impressive record against the Covenant in test deployments, but there are too few of them to turn the tide of the war.

Existing Spartan-II soldiers are recalled to Reach for further augmentation. The plan: board a Covenant vessel with the improved Spartan-IIs and learn the location of the Covenant home world. Two days before the mission begins, Covenant forces strike Reach and annihilate the colony. The Covenant are now on Earth's doorstep. One ship, the Pillar of Autumn, escapes with the last Spartan-II and makes a blind jump into deep space, hoping to lead the Covenant away from Earth.

In the worlds of video games, there are many developers and publishers that herald their franchises as among the most successful of all time. Of course, it can be hard to measure which are actually the most successful of all time, since there are many different metrics--unit sales, revenues, number of users, hours of play, and so on. But there is no doubt that Halo counts among the top tier, joining the likes of Guitar Hero, Call of Duty, The Sims, and so on. According to VGChartz, which tracks sales, the five existing Halo titles--Halo, Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo Wars, and Halo 3: ODST--have sold a total of 33.5 million units for the Xbox, and that doesn't include additional versions of some of those titles that were released for Windows and other platforms.

Of course, among console players, no one has played any Halo title on any of Sony's PlayStations, or Nintendo's Wii, given that the franchise has always been an Xbox exclusive. And while Bungie developed four of the five existing titles, there was a brief moment in 2009 (Halo Wars) when Ensemble Studios took over for Bungie, which had severed official ties with Microsoft in 2007. But with Halo 3: ODST and now, Halo: Reach, he now independent Bungie stepped right back into the breach and took back the Halo reins--and returned it to the top of the charts after Halo Wars' less than stellar sales performance.

And while it's been years since Microsoft released its Xbox 360 and moved the Halo franchise onto that platform with the massively successful Halo 3, it was only recently that the very last players were forced to step away from playing Halo 2 on Xbox Live via their original Xboxes.

Over the years, Halo has become such a cultural touchstone that not only is there a movie version in the works--it is scheduled for a 2012 release--but "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson is on board as its executive producer, and actor Kevin James is said to be slated to play Master Chief.

Now, with Halo: Reach finally in stores--and likely on millions of players' Xboxes--the franchise has taken its next step. Last February, Bungie let the cat out of the bag, revealing that the game is a standalone prequel to the franchise, offering fans a fully original story and a number of new characters, as well as a scale beyond what the developer has done with any previous Halo title. At the time the company said that the new game will have a much darker story line than its predecessors and is centered around "a key turning point in the Human-Covenant War," said Bungie creative director Marcus Lehto.

In the game, which takes place in 2552, the planet Reach is mankind's final line of defense against the Covenant, as well as home to the human military, the Spartan program. Halo: Reach focuses on the Noble Team, a single group of Spartans, led by a character called Carter 259.

But, if you're reading this, you're no doubt one of the hard core. And you already knew all this.