Halo 2, Microsoft's most prized Xbox asset and its biggest hope for success this Christmas, has been leaked onto the Internet just days after developer Bungie officially completed work on the game and announced that it had shipped it off to manufacturing, and nearly a month prior to its official US release date, November 9th.
The highly anticipated first-person shooter has appeared on various newsgroups and websites already, and its proliferation amongst the underworld of Xbox gamers downloading illegal software is likely to be swift and damaging.
Earlier today a number of websites using the popular BitTorrent file distribution format indicated that hundreds of users were downloading the game, which reportedly clocks in at just under three gigabytes in size. Early reports suggest that it's a PAL version of the game with French language dialogue and English subtitles.
Reacting to the news this morning, Microsoft slammed those responsible and described downloaders and people hosting the file as thieves, encouraging real fans with any information to come forward and help it track down the source of the leak. The company's statement follows in full:
"Microsoft has learned that a version of Halo 2 has been posted to various newsgroups and web sites. We consider downloading this code or making it available for others to download as theft. We are currently investigating the source of this leak with the appropriate authorities. Pending the result of our investigation, we do not have further comment. Microsoft takes the integrity of its intellectual property extremely seriously, and we are aggressively pursuing the source of this illegal act.
"The launch of Halo 2 worldwide remains unaffected.
"We're asking anyone with information on the source of this leak to contact Microsoft at 1-800-RULEGIT or send email to email@example.com."
The good news for Microsoft is that only Xbox owners with modified consoles - a relatively small percentage of the total number of Xbox owners - will be able to play the game at all, and that the key Xbox Live component and the functionality it offers will be unavailable to pirates.
There is also a sense, given the popularity of the Halo franchise and the reverence most Xbox owners offer it, that a lot of the people downloading it this week and in the future will be rather more likely to buy it afterward than they would be with other games.
And even if that weren't true, the publisher would still be able to extract some small consolation from the fact that piracy is unlikely to deny Halo 2 a successful launch. As Doom III proved earlier this year, pre-release piracy isn't enough to stop a highly anticipated game hitting the peak of the charts.
It is nonetheless a source of some embarrassment for Microsoft, particularly with nearly a whole month to go before the game makes it onto high street store shelves, and it'll be interesting to see how the company deals with those responsible when it inevitably unmasks them.