Tomorrow is "Halo 2" day. This might not mean anything to you, but for Xbox owners, it's akin to a holy day. The original "Halo," released November 2001, was an instant hit, selling...

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Tomorrow is “Halo 2” day. This might not mean anything to you, but for Xbox owners, it’s akin to a holy day.

The original “Halo,” released November 2001, was an instant hit, selling 5 million copies worldwide. Rated M for Mature because of its violent content, this Microsoft-published series is the brainchild of the Redmond-based game studio Bungie. “Halo 2” is the jewel of Bungie’s crown: a stunning 1.5 million copies have been pre-sold in the months leading up to the game’s release.

In “Halo 2,” gamers can play alone, with a friend in cooperative mode, or in large multiplayer groups. The solo game continues the complex sci-fi story from the first “Halo,” telling the tale of the battle between the Spartans (physically enhanced supersoldiers) and the Covenant (alien bad guys with varying IQs). Fighting as well-armored, robot-like humanoids, players shoot first and ask questions later.

For six local fans, their “Halo” obsession started simply. One of the players, Jun Galsim, explains: “When ‘Halo’ first came out, I started playing it with a group mostly of married couples. We played marathon capture-the-flag games — all-day events into the wee hours of the night.” But soon, he says, ” ‘Halo’ became an attachment to all get-togethers.” They had “Halo” New Year’s Eve, “Halo” Halloween — even “Halo” baby showers.

Fans take on the pros

Most “Halo” fanatics will be lining up at electronics stores at midnight tonight. But these lucky six have gotten to play the game before its scheduled release date. They include Jun Galsim and Doug Avery, who both work for Nordstrom. Greg Kinney, one of the quieter men of the group, is an assistant professor of rehabilitation medicine. The others — Darin Nelson, Lance Hayes and Rob Morgan — engage in that nebulous Seattle pastime: freelancing.

At the Bungie offices, Katie Goldberg, one of the game’s marketing representatives, rolls out the red carpet for the guys — who are about to battle the Bungie pros.

They settle into their spots in a cubicle and decide to break into two teams, even though “Halo 2,” unlike the original “Halo,” allows for up to 16 small groups of soldiers on the battlefield at a time. The lineup is set: It’s the pros versus the underdogs, the Yankees versus the Sox, or as Nelson says, trying to play down expectations, the varsity team versus the JVs.

But to be a “Halo” fan is to show no mercy, admit no fear. Round 1 begins with a soundtrack of trash talk. There’s a delay as the Bungites decide what map to use. “Give them time,” Kinney heckles. “They’re strategerizing.”

I ask the JVs what their plan of attack is.

“Kill them before they kill us,” Nelson shouts. “Figure out where stuff is on the map, and don’t get killed,” Avery says.

It takes a few rounds for the guys to find their groove. Slight differences between this “Halo” and the previous one throw them for a loop. The game is beginning to resemble a traditional Yankees-Red Sox matchup as the non-pros choke under pressure.

Then, as if a curse has been lifted, the fans defeat the elite. “Did you get that final score?” they shout. Here it is, forever immortalized in print: 50 to 36.

“Best three out of five,” someone yells.

“That was kill-tacular!”

“Halo 2” midnight madness

If you just can’t hold out until business hours tomorrow, these Seattle stores will open at the stroke of midnight tonight to sell “Halo 2”:

EB Games
in Westlake Center, Pacific Place and Northgate Mall, Seattle.

Lunch Money Video Games
at 1009 Boren Ave., Seattle.

Game Crazy
at 306 23rd Ave. S., 118th N.E. 45th St. and 3820 Rainer Ave. S., Seattle.

in Bellevue Square.

Best Buy
at 457 120th Ave. N.E., Bellevue.


Stung by their first defeat, the Bungie team starts to collapse under the pressure. “I’ve entered a hallway of death!” Brian Jarrard shouts. Frank O’Connor,’s content manager, yells back, “Hey, can you turn down the suck?”

But the pros rally. Final score: 29 to 50. “That was kill-tacular!” says Tyson Green, one of Bungie’s mission designers. Jarrard, used to dealing with fans, is more diplomatic: “These guys are getting better, they’re picking up the clues.”

Team members turn on each other the second it gets ugly. “Try to control the upper platforms,” Avery shouts. Hayes adds, “Or just hide in fear in the upper platforms.” Avery says, “No, they’re already hiding up here. They’ve got a Bungie executive lounge up here!” Everyone laughs. “Easy now, Cap’n Chaos,” one of the Bungites chides.

The JVers also get a little cranky about all the new, unfamiliar maps — a disadvantage as they try to find their way through the levels. Kinney asks the designers for some game modifications: “How about if you give us all rocket launchers, and make sure you guys have no shields?” (In “Halo,” shields equal a lifeline.)

Nuanced game play

By Round 5, the Bungie pros are leading their opponents into nuanced games, where you have to play king of the hill and remain in one place, not just shoot at the enemy team. As the game reloads, the adrenaline runs high. “Here comes the Dream Team,” shouts Nelson.

Galsim, who stays quiet, actually survives for a minute plus at a stint — an eternity in “Halo 2” time. He also kills enemies regularly. His technique seems to prove a “Halo” axiom: Less trash talk equals more kills.

During the penultimate round, they play a game that requires teams to transport a bomb from one side of the map to the other — an electronic tag football match. As Nelson rounds the corner, bomb in hand, he shouts to his teammates: “I’m in! I’m in!” A second passes. “Wait, I’m dead! I’m dead!” Victory and defeat follow very short cycles in “Halo 2.”

For the final round, they head into an urban map called “Headlong,” one of the biggest areas found in the game. Tanks line the periphery, and the guys team up to make their maneuvers: one to drive, one to fire the guns on top.

“I always wanted the ability to use vehicles during team play,” Galsim says later, “but I was disappointed that the Banshee (a kind of plane) seemed a bit sluggish — not maneuverable enough to avoid enemy fire. But,” he adds, “the fact that you can pull people out of the vehicles as well as destroy them makes the game much more interactive.”

Sequel is “amazing”

When it’s all over, the six players are ready to give a verdict.

“It’s an amazing continuation of the ‘Halo’ universe,” Galsim says. He appreciates the upgraded head-to-head features, “like the ability to play eight different teams.” The team games “are a bit more like PC-based games,” he adds, “but at ‘human’ speed,” not hyper-fast like “Unreal Championship” (an Xbox shooting game released in 2002).

Hayes liked all the new details after each round (what he calls “the post-game carnage”). They all praise the new weapons, including swords for close-range slashing, and the improved combat techniques. “Dual wielding completely rocks,” Hayes says. “I would have stayed all night if it were possible.”

In the original “Halo,” some of the weapons (pistols, rifles, etc.) were much more powerful than others. Not so for “Halo 2.” Morgan says, “The weapons seem more balanced to remove any advantages some players might have had.”

Thinking of his alien foes, Hayes adds, “I can’t wait to kick some Covenant keister.”

Reflecting on their epic matchup, all the players discuss plans to meet again on the field of battle. After all, there’s much more trash talking to be done. “We haven’t even turned up the swearing yet,” Nelson says.

Jennifer Buckendorff regularly reviews video games for The Seattle Times: