As of this writing, there are 616,666 players signed into the lobby of “Halo 3.” That’s five times the population of New Haven. The British Web site released pre-ordered copies a week early. It wasn’t the only one — we got our copy from a shop in New Haven that released it just one day before the official date. A panicked Microsoft threatened to ban Xbox Live accounts found playing contraband copies. Still, for most gamers, waiting an entire week with the sacred disc in their hands was too much. Like others around the world, we hid from the omniscient eyes of Microsoft by unplugging our system from the Internet and dug in.

Halo drives like a rail gun. It survives solely on sustained intensity. In campaign mode, the story moves hard and fast, seamlessly switching between cinematic and gameplay, and propelling you from one checkpoint to the next. In multiplayer, the action feels so tight, the kills so satisfying, and the defeat so crushing that you will stare down the scope of a battle rifle for three hours waiting for the tenth of a second when your opponent flies through it and is dead before he knows what hit him. Regenerating health, an industry standard first developed in “Halo 2,” makes “Halo 3” about moments — there is no chance for attrition, just fury. Only the bold shall survive.

The story operates on a biblical scale — there is nothing less than the fate of the universe at stake. Set against overpowering vistas, Gregorian chants and monstrous enemies, the player becomes a Gilgamesh, a Hercules or even a Link. Picking up right after the last game, the prophet of Truth seeks to activate the Halo rings to fulfill his destiny and become a god, destroying the universe in the process. But we always knew that was impossible, because the only god in this universe is the Master Chief — deemed by the covenant forces “the demon.” When you look to space in Halo, you can almost touch your place as the sole ruler. Incidentally, it’s this same idea that makes multiplayer so satisfying — the player feels it is his duty to prove that he is the only one hard enough to wear the Mjolnir armor.

It’s hard to assess what exactly made “Halo” the event that it became. It wasn’t the first FPS to produce professional competition — it came after “Quake” and was more or less contemporaneous with “Counter-Strike.” Halo was different, though. It pursued atmosphere when the other games only pursued gameplay. Even outside of the more directed single player experience, Halo had a weight that made kills hit harder than they did in any of those other games. It sucked people in, and six years later it hasn’t let them back out.

Of course, aside from the “Halo” phenomenon stands “Halo 3” the game. Gamers wondered whether the Brutes could ever be as worthy opponents as the Elites were, and they are. Gamers downloaded every stray Internet clip they could find on the spiker, the flamethrower and the Spartan laser, and now that they’re here they feel as much a part of “Halo” as the plasma rifle. “Halo 3” is not particularly distinguished from “Halo 2,” but that doesn’t matter. Gamers wanted more weapons, more toys, flashier graphics and a new campaign. Most importantly, they just wanted — needed — more Halo. This is what Bungie delivered.

The gadgets — probably the biggest change in nuts and bolts gameplay — are still a question mark. They’re actually a significant addition to the match dynamic. Time will tell how this will change the high-end tournaments, but even with so little time for these new additions to mature in multiplayer, they seem like they could be a clunky addition to an otherwise to-the-point game. The forge operates in this vein as well. When employed in-game, the new level-tinkering feature could dramatically alter the way a match develops, but I expect most players will end up de-activating this confusing new addition in favor of a more manageable game experience.

A great many readers thought that a part of their childhood was lost when Harry Potter seven came out. But, while Harry Potter fans waited to find out what happened to the boy wizard next, millions of others counted the hours until the next Halo game was released. This is the end of an era. Bungie will make another game, but Master Chief has ended his story. There’s a part of our childhoods lost now too — the next four years will not be spent waiting for “Halo 4.” While Nintendo tries to expand into new markets and attract new gamers, the staggering success of Halo proves that the best audience for videogames might be gamers after all.