Argos, a UK operator of catalog stores, on Tuesday started handing copies of Microsoft's Halo 3 over to customers who pre-ordered the game on its Web site. The Xbox 360-based first person shooter isn't set for formal release until September 25th.
A copy of Halo 3 has already turned up on eBay's UK Web site -- selling for about $500 U.S.
In a statement, Argos officials blamed the foul up on "a genuine administrative error" and said only a "small number" of Halo 3 copies were sold.
That may not be good enough for Microsoft officials, who are no doubt apoplectic. The company has spent millions on a high profile Halo 3 marketing campaign that will culminate with elaborate launch events in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Seattle next week.
Argos may already be feeling retribution from the software maker. A check Wednesday afternoon revealed that the merchant's Web site is no longer able to accept pre-orders for Halo 3. To date, retailers around the world have taken more than one million pre-orders for the game -- an industry record.
Halo 3 stars Master Chief, a biologically enhanced soldier who has to blast his way through a futuristic, 3-D landscape to survive and accomplish missions. Version 3 of the game, developed by Bungie Studios and published by Microsoft, features a host of new levels, weapons, vehicles, and level types.
Most retailers are selling the title for around $60. A special "Legendary Edition" sells for about $130 and includes a helmet-style case, bonus discs, and collector's art. Microsoft is also planning to introduce a special Halo 3 version of the Xbox 360 that's emblazoned in the same green and gold colors sported by Master Chief.