By Craig Zammit

LAS VEGAS: Microsoft unveiled a raft of Xbox 360 releases at the E3 event yesterday in Las Vegas, including many new titles, a ‘Halo 3’ themed console, the new Xbox 360 Windows Messenger Kit and confirmation of the Xbox 360 Elite in Australia by Winter’s end.

Of most interest to Australian retailers and consumers is the announcement the new ‘Halo 3’ themed special edition Xbox 360 console, which is expected to be released to coincide with the worldwide launch of the blockbuster Halo 3 game on 25 September.

The ‘Halo 3’ console will launch on the back of the 120GB Xbox 360 Elite (expected RRP $599), which Microsoft confirmed will enter Australian stores by the end of the August, spearheading the console’s drive into the Christmas spending period.

Also set to be released in September is the innovative Xbox 360 Windows Messenger Kit (RRP $49.95), which allows Xbox Live users to chat directly with Windows XP and Windows Vista-based PC users across the Windows MSN Messenger platform, bridging the gap between console gamer and PC user.

The kit will include an Xbox 360 headset and the Chatpad – a ‘thumb stroke’ keyboard designed to attach to any Xbox 360 controller and allow chat capabilities while maintaining game-play functionality in one easy-to-hold device.

The Games for Windows initiative also received a boost at E3, with more than 30 new titles from major publishers including Activision Inc., Bethesda Softworks and Midway Home Entertainment Inc. announced.

Microsoft also announced strong support for the Games for Windows – Live online service, with Eidos Interactive Ltd., Sega of America Inc. and THQ Inc. signed on to deliver titles this year.

Additionally, Microsoft Game Studios unveiled plans to bring the best-selling Xbox 360 game of 2006, Gears of War, and the hit game Viva Piñata to Microsoft Windows XP and Windows Vista gamers this year, meaning Xbox Live users will now be able to pit their gaming skills against PC users.

“Microsoft’s Games for Windows initiative is in full swing and set to deliver the strongest Windows portfolio ever,” said Microsoft Australia and New Zealand regional director – entertainment and devices division, David McLean.

“With the support of the biggest names in gaming delivering more than 60 Games for Windows titles this year, Windows gamers will have more high quality choices than ever before for gaming on their PC and online.”

In addition to the spate of Xbox 360 hardware announcements, Microsoft also revealed a buffet of new gaming titles to be in Australian stores by Christmas, with titles such as Halo 3, Mass Effect, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction, Assasin’s Creed, Bioshock, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Grand Theft Auto 4, Guitar Hero 3, Madden NFL ’08 and Rock Band; a game which allows up to four players to collaborate on guitar, bass, drums and vocals to preprogrammed songs to create the ultimate rock experience.