LOS ANGELES — Master Chief isn't lacking for friends.
Bungie Studios announced this week that more than 2.7 million people logged onto the beta test of the video game Halo: Reach, the prequel to the first-person shooter trilogy starring supersoldier Master Chief.
Players collectively logged more than 16 million hours and more than 1.1 billion virtual kills during the 18-day public beta test of the game's multiplayer mode, Bungie said in a statement. The developer said the game will be launched worldwide on Sept. 14 — except in Japan, where it will debut a day later.
"It's exceeded our expectations," Bungie Studios community director Brian Jarrard said. "Our only real perspective going into this was the Halo 3 beta test, which had about 800,000 people."
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Xbox 360 users who bought last year's Halo spin-off, Halo 3: ODST, were provided access to the beta test, which ran May 3-20. The game makers will use information recorded during the online test to fix glitches, tweak settings and balance the overall fairness of the game's multi-player mode, which pits blaster-wielding soldiers against each other.
"There really is tons of analytical data that we need to derive from the beta test with regard to the network and back-end systems," said Halo: Reach creative director Marcus Lehto. "We needed our fans to provide feedback. We needed a very large audience to hammer on this game, which allows us to use the data that really helps shape the final product."
Unlike previous Halo games, Reach bestows players with rechargeable powers, including super speed, flight and invisibility. The designers also added several new types of online gameplay, including an objective-based edition called "Invasion" that tasks teams of players with advancing through an environment besides just shooting each other in the head.
"We always want to give our fan base something new and fresh," Lehto said. "We definitely wanted to give them something new to sink their teeth into with Reach, and maybe even grow our audience bigger than we're typically used to seeing. I think we did that with 'Invasion.' Sure, there's a few more rules to learn, but at its core, it's still a Halo game."
When it's released this fall, the latest Halo title will be gunning for the top first-week sales spot once owned by Halo 3 in 2007, with more than $300 million in sales. Halo 3 was later shot down by Grand Theft Auto IV in 2008 with more than $500 million in sales, then Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in 2009 claimed the top spot with more than $550 million in sales.
"This is the most pressure we've ever been under," Lehto said. "This is the biggest Halo title we've ever made, and we're worried there's Halo fatigue out there. That's why we set out to add new twists, and we're happy to see people enjoy it, but it was a huge risk for us to release what's essentially a work in progress to almost 3 million people."
Halo: Reach is scheduled to be the last Halo game developed by Bungie Studios, which recently signed an exclusive 10-year deal with Activision Blizzard Inc. to publish and distribute a series of games for various platforms based on a new action-game universe. The deal marks Bungie Studios' first such partnership since breaking off from Microsoft in 2007.
"It's absolutely bittersweet," said Lehto. "We created this. I was there on day one in 1997, back when it was just three of us working on what ultimately became Halo. Now, we have the largest team we've ever had on a Halo game. We're having fun, but closing this series out as the leader of this project, I will definitely be sad when it's all over."