Thank God it's Fragday

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If an uncommonly large number of your coworkers called in sick today—in particular men under 30 and and anyone known to be something of a techie—the release of the Halo 3 Multiplayer Beta may have something to do with it. Yeah, it's invitation-only (unless you purchased a specially marked copy of the February release Crackdown) and it offers only three levels and is unfinished in a number of ways, but that doesn't matter to devotees of Bungie's ludicrously popular first-person shooter franchise (beloved by Steve Carell in The 40 Year-Old Virgin; it's also been featured on Entourage, The Shield and Veronica Mars)—they've been waiting for a taste since the day the Xbox 360 went on sale in November 2005.

Last Friday, Microsoft (which owns Bungie, the developer) invited New York journalists to hang out and play the game at an eight-hour open house at Blvd down on the Bowery. Playing the game on a 46" LCD (assuming you could grab a spot at one of the 15 stations) was everything a Halo fan could hope for...even if I got my ass handed to me six ways to Sunday. The club was a poor showcase for the game's amazing sound design, but that proved to be a nonissue when attendees were handed a serial number that let them download the game and play at home all weekend. On top of the journalists attending parties in New York and San Francisco, a few thousand "friends and family" of Bungie were granted access to the demo, making for an online pool of 1,500--3,000 players over the past few days.

Today, the floodgates open, as Crackdown purchasers and drawing winners join the three-week beta test, pushing the number of players into at least the high six figures. This means, of course, that untold spittle-spewing 15-year-olds will be flooding the chat system with the racist and homophobic insults that have driven an equally large number of adults away from playing the series online. For grown-ups, the last five days were fun while they lasted (though if you have friends with access to the beta, you can get around the teenagers by forming parties and playing private games). The downloader built into Crackdown was supposed to give players access starting at 6am, but instead it's been gradually getting rolled out around the country. The result? Threats of a class action lawsuit and fan art like the following gem (is the typo deliberate? It's really impossible to tell). Microsoft also reportedly shut down the Xbox 360 customer service 800 number around 1pm, because of the staggering call volume. Patience, people!

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If you're really desperate to try it out, you might get lucky and find one of the specially marked copies of Crackdown at a retail store (on eBay, they've fetched as much as $40 over list price; invites that granted beta access over the weekend changed hands for as much as $800!). But if you want to wait for the finished game—which'll have a lot more polish and will also offer a single-player campaign (which is what a lot of people will buy it for)—you don't have long: In an extremely rare move for the video-game industry, Microsoft last night set a carved-in-stone release date four months in advance: Halo 3 will be in stores on September 25. In an impressively hyperbolic press release, Peter Moore, Microsoft's VP of interactive entertainment, said "Halo 3 is much more than a video game release; it's the biggest entertainment event of the year". If you've been wondering where the William Castles and David O. Selznicks of today are, they ain't making movies.

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