Lots of hype hovering around 'Halo 3'

The hero of Halo is about to have his ultimate pop-culture moment.

In preparation for what is likely to be the biggest video game rollout ever — the Sept. 25 release of Halo 3 — Master Chief, the green-helmeted star of Microsoft's top title, is plastered on Burger King products, 7-Eleven Slurpee cups and a new Mountain Dew drink, Game Fuel. If that's not enough, on Sunday NASCAR driver David Stremme's No. 40 Dodge Charger will sport a new Halo 3 paint job at the Dover 400. And Pontiac is giving away 144 Halo 3-themed sports cars.

Marvel Comics has a special four-issue Halo Uprising series underway, and action-figure artisan Todd McFarlane has designed Halo 3 controllers with miniature action figures.

"This is the big one," says Morgan Webb, co-host of X-Play on the G4TV Network, which plans five hours of countdown coverage Monday. "It's a test for the industry on how much hype can you successfully get around a game."

Even if you don't know the Master Chief from Chef Boyardee, you can still join in the Halo-baloo. Game designers at Bungie say they've made the game accessible to newcomers and satisfying to hard-core fans. "Even if you've never played a Halo game in your life, it doesn't matter," says writer Frank O'Connor. "You will be brought up to speed very rapidly in the opening moments."

That is key to Microsoft's strategy of expanding the reach of its almost 2-year-old Xbox 360 system. The first Halo game, Combat Evolved, became the killer application that helped establish the original Xbox in 2001. At a time when many developers make deals to get their new releases onto multiple platforms, an exclusive game can give the Xbox 360 a boost against Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3. "It will be the biggest first-day seller ever … it will grow the installed base," says Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities. With first-day sales of at least 2.5 million (prices range from $60 to $130 for a limited edition), the total could hit $200 million.

Pachter also expects Microsoft to sell about 400,000 360s in September, an increase of 130,000 over August. For those already part of Halo Nation, the release rivals a national holiday. Halo devotees have already pre-ordered more than 1 million copies. About 10,000 retailers will be open Monday to sell the game after midnight.

Many fans plan to play hooky from work or school. "If I have enough sales, I'm going to take that whole week off," says Scott Colombo, 28, owner of Wolfie'z Beef Jerky in Kingman, Ariz.