'Halo' is a game of epic proportions

Millions of fans are eagerly awaiting next Tuesday's release of Halo 3, the final installment in Microsoft's hugely successful video game trilogy.

"Everybody is really excited," says Anne Wolanski, 37, an executive assistant at a major Hollywood studio. "People just know it's going to be fantastic."

Miguel Chavez, 39, of Whitestone, N.Y., an administrator for fan site halo .bungie.org, wants to know "how this whole darn thing ends."

Another fan, Roger Travis, 38, of Stoors, Conn., admits that he, too, "can't wait to see the ending of the story." But Travis, an associate professor of classics at the University of Connecticut, also wants to see how Halo stacks up against the great mythologies of our time. Already, he says, "I certainly don't have any problem putting (Halo) on the shelf next to" classics such as Beowulf.

For those who scoff at the notion that a video game could rival modern-day epics such as The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars— let alone classics — consider some recent accolades given to Halo. "A cultural touchstone, a Star Wars for the thumbstick generation," Wired labels Halo in its current issue with the game's hero, Master Chief, on its cover.

Halo's story "is rich and complicated in ways that we're not used to in video games," Lev Grossman declared recently in Time. The level of lore rivals that of Jane Austen novels, he wrote, and its quality is Wagnerian. "Halo takes itself seriously as, if not art, certainly a spectacle. But art seems more apt."

Halo does "what a truly good book or film or TV show does," says Peter Molyneux, a pioneering game developer (Populous, Black & White) and founder of Lionhead Studios, which like Bungie was acquired by Microsoft. "Halo delivers it in a way that more than ever before is emotionally engaging. In our industry, Halo represents pretty much the top of the game of what we are able to do with our dramatic content."

Released in November 2001 by Microsoft for the new Xbox, Halo: Combat Evolved was a space opera with a spin on the saga of the Spartans at Thermopylae (as seen in the recent film 300).

The main difference between Halo and past epics: You are the Master Chief. "Halo has a hero you could really get behind. You could identify with him because he had a mask on," says Morgan Webb of video game network G4TV's X-Play series. "You were him."

The faceless super soldier has led dwindling forces against an enemy alien collective called The Covenant and the parasitic Flood, an all-consuming race of organisms aimed at galactic domination. At the end of Halo 2 (released in 2004), the Master Chief headed back to Earth, vowing to fend off the Covenant's attack and finish the fight.

Halo 3 is the last game in this trilogy, but there are two new Halo games in development, one from filmmaker Peter Jackson, whose Halo film is on hold.

While Bungie acknowledges its forerunners in the epic tradition, the game developers do not want to needlessly saddle players just out for fun. "The story is incredibly layered, and you can take from it what you like," says Halo 3 co-writer Frank O'Connor.

Those who want to explore the story's underpinnings will find similar components of "creative mythology" that the late scholar Joseph Campbell identified in the exploits of Luke Skywalker and such classical Greek heroes as Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus, and Jason, who captured the Golden Fleece, says Travis, who has made the game part of his courses.

With Halo, Travis says, "the epic tradition that gave us The Aeneid, The Iliad and The Odyssey is being reawakened."