Michael Foehrkolb will be out of the office today.
He has aliens to slaughter, a plague to stop and friends to humiliate.
Although he's been a fan of video games for most of his life, the 35-year-old network administrator has never taken a day off work just to play a new one. But then again, there has never been a game more anticipated than Halo 3.
The game arrives in stores today on the heels of a marketing blitz and a potential payout worthy of a major Hollywood blockbuster. Hundreds of stores across the country stayed open last night past midnight to handle the wave of Halo 3 fanatics. Slick commercials all over cable, toys, comic books and even a Halo-themed energy drink are all part of the more than $10 million marketing push.
Amid all the hype, many hard-core gamers like Foehrkolb have decided that today is a day for punching out aliens, not for punching in to work.
"People are saying it's a lot like Star Wars was when it first came out, and I agree," said Foehrkolb, who works in Hunt Valley. "It's expected to make like $200 million. It's really a cultural phenomenon."
Halo players stalk through intricate worlds fighting aliens or other gamers with a large arsenal of weapons in a game that offers an intense first-person perspective. While the format has been repeated in scores of games, Halo's technical sophistication and staggering popularity have made it a standout.
When the series was introduced in 2001, Halo Combat Evolved helped launch Microsoft's Xbox console and quickly became the system's best-selling game. In November 2004, Halo 2 set a one-day entertainment sales record, taking in $125 million. Wall Street analysts are predicting that Halo 3, which retails for about $60 to $130 depending on the version, could earn as much as $200 million in just a few days.
"This erases any sort of doubt that might have been left as to whether this medium has arrived," said Kevin Pereira, a video game reviewer and host of the G4 Network's Attack of the Show. "It's elevating [video games] to the same level as a major motion picture or a book like a Harry Potter."
But unlike a movie, which lasts about two hours, gamers can log hundreds of hours playing, meaning one day off may not be enough for some fans. Rich Thompson, a 19-year-old restaurant worker from Towson, says he needs three.
"I haven't told them yet," Thompson said late last week of his co-workers. "But whether they give me the time off or not, I'm not going to be going to work."
Just how many gamers will be missing from their desks today is unknown. While Halo playing will probably dominate the lunch hour, tech companies like Hunt Valley's Firaxis Games will be open for business as usual. Some local school districts said they weren't even aware of the Halo 3 release. But the game's vigorous online community - energized by glowing reviews and a test version of the game - has been buzzing for weeks with talk of an impending wave (cough, cough) of the Halo flu.
Foehrkolb planned ahead and took the day off way in advance. "I'd say this is better than Christmas. Besides, there's no better present," he said.
A few of his co-workers plan to stop by his Timonium home today to see what all the fuss is about - that is, if Foehrkolb isn't passed out from exhaustion. He planned to buy his preordered copy of Halo 3 early this morning and play past dawn.
Thompson wasn't planning on sleeping, either.
"I have a couple of buddies coming over to play the four-player campaign. But after they leave, I'm gonna set up camp and get everything settled down and play nonstop until I beat it," he said.
"I'm stocking up on anything that has caffeine in it. Mostly I'm going to grab a couple pizzas from my store because I like the meat lovers and that keeps me up."
On the surface, Halo looks like a crude and gory shoot-'em-up, but gamers have grown enamored of its intricate plot line. The story involves Master Chief, a genetically engineered super-soldier that - the story goes - is humanity's last hope against the tyrannical alien conquerors known as the Covenant. The game takes its name from the ring-shaped worlds where most of the carnage goes down. The Halos aren't just battlefields but also a system of ancient weapons that, if activated, can vaporize the entire galaxy.
"You want to know how the story ends," said Thompson, explaining why he can't wait until the weekend to dive into the game. "And you don't want to have to play for a little bit of the chapter and then stop and then come back. You want to run through it all the way."
Industry executives and electronics retailers hope that hype over the game can invigorate the billion-dollar business of video games. Microsoft's latest console, the Xbox 360, has been languishing in sales compared to rivals like the Nintendo Wii.
Brian Lucas, a spokesman for Best Buy, called Halo 3's release "one of the biggest commercial electronic events of the year."
Although Halo 3 is the end of the trilogy, Master Chief isn't going anywhere. More games are on the way. Hollywood director Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame is working on a Halo project, and the game itself is far from a fleeting fad.
The series' addictive multiplayer mode has been the primary engine behind the franchise's success from the start. More than two years after the game's release, Halo 2 chalked up its 5 millionth online player recently and nearly 1 billion hours of game play. That's unheard of in an industry where most games are considered outdated in about six months.
With substantial upgrades to its multiplayer features (four people can now play at once) and even smarter bad guys, the developers of Halo 3, Bungie Studios, are confident that this title will have similar staying power.
"It's kind of a way for guys to bond," Jamie Mantegna of Abingdon said of the multiplayer Halo rounds. "And that's what I've always liked about Halo: It's a reason to hang out with my boys."
Mantegna, 32, and his friend Foehrkolb are members of a local "clan" called the Halo Council. And although technology now allows for gamers to play opponents remotely, Mantenga meets with friends most weeks for rounds of Halo, preferring the trash talk and the comradery.
Mantegna is also taking today off from his mortgage company. His fiancee knows about his "Halo vacation," but he's careful to keep things in perspective.
"She's cool with it," he said. "But everything has its limits."