Microsoft finally launched its Halo: Reach game tonight as stores opened their doors to fans who came to midnight launch events around the world.

One of the most anticipated titles of the year, the game is the last installment of the series that will be created by Bungie, the game’s developer since the first game, Halo: Combat Evolved, debuted in 2001. Previous versions of the game have sold more than 33.5 million units, generating $1.9 billion at retail and creating a cultural phenomenon that cemented Microsoft’s place in the video game business. Online, gamers have played Halo games for 3.3 billion hours on Xbox Live.

As we noted on Sunday, Halo: Reach kicks off the beginning of the fall video game sales season, when game companies typically generate 40 percent of their revenues. Microsoft pulled out the stops for the launch, readying the game for release in 25 countries today. Tens of thousands of retailers are opening their doors for the midnight launches. This kind of enthusiasm just doesn’t happen with every big-budget game; it’s a sign of how Microsoft’s game series has become one of the world’s most valuable entertainment franchises.

In New York, fans are being treated to a performance by hip-hop star Kid Cudi at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square. That event is being broadcast on Spike TV and is airing live on the Times Square MTV billboard. (Pictured at top is a Fox reporter in Times Square). In Seattle, Microsoft is hosting an event at the Seattle: Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. There were also big events at the Westfield Shopping Centre in London, the Spaceworld Megastore in Oslo, Norway, and at Webhallen in Stockholm. Here’s a video of a guy who dressed up in a Halo suit and flew around in a jet pack, which is a feature of the newest game.

Gamers look to Halo for innovation in game play and storytelling. The last major release was Halo 3 in 2007. A year ago, Microsoft released Halo 3: ODST, which was a short snack of a game meant as an appetizer for those awaiting the next big game. Sales of this latest release should be strong, but it’s unclear what effect piracy of the game will have, as hackers obtained a copy of the full game more than a month ago.

So far, the average review score for Halo: Reach is 93 out of 100 on Metacritic, which aggregates review scores. Of 41 reviews posted so far, 13 have been perfect 100s. I’m still playing through the game and am on my fourth of nine levels. Last night, I played a level with space combat and it was excellent. Flying through space is notoriously difficult with a game controller, but Bungie’s developers made it simple and easy. All you really have to do is concentrate on shooting. I also joined a firefight in zero gravity, where I used the same weapons and armor, but saw a very different result based on the lack of gravity. I could, for instance, throw a grenade an infinite distance.

Here’s a video of the scene at the Times Square launch below: