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NY's 'Halo 3' launch was no riot, but it was close

For the final installment of its wildly popular Xbox 360 first-person shooter trilogy, Microsoft pulls all the stops. Video: Midnight launch in NY

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read
NEW YORK--Late Monday night, George Clooney waltzed into a midtown Manhattan hotel, with the camera flashes of the paparazzi following him into the lobby.

A block away at the Best Buy store on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, those waiting for the launch of Microsoft's Halo 3 video game couldn't have cared less.

They had their own epilepsy-inducing lights, after all. New York's Halo 3 debut stopped short of pyrotechnics, but it was over the top in just about every other way.

"George Clooney who?" one person near the head of the line joked when he heard the gossip. Like most of the queuers who'd shown up at the Best Buy store for the official launch celebration of the final installment of the Xbox 360 game trilogy, he was young, male and sporting a Halo 3 T-shirt that had been given away as part of the festivities.

"We're more famous than him tonight," a nearby line-waiter added, gesturing at one of the many flat-panel TV screens that had been set up in the windows of the Best Buy store, projecting previews of the title, interspersed with live footage of numerous NFL players from the New York Giants and New York Jets inside the store, squaring off against one another on Halo 3. For this crowd, Clooney couldn't hold a candle to Master Chief, the iconic Halo protagonist who's been blasting away at bad guys on TV screens since the original title launched in 2001.

Don't hold back
Tech reporters and enthusiasts are well accustomed to the fact that Microsoft likes to pull out the public relations guns for a product launch--remember Vista's debut? Halo 3 was no exception.

An enormous spotlight beamed up over Fifth Avenue, and full-out lighting and sound equipment--along with plenty of enormous TV screens--dominated the ground scene. A team of Mountain Dew minions were walking around with trays of plastic shot glasses containing a seemingly endless supply of samples of its Halo 3-branded energy drink, "Game Fuel." There was a guy in a Master Chief outfit, of course. Best Buy and Microsoft representatives were giving away T-shirts and other prizes to the fans who were willing to scream the loudest or wave their homemade signs (best one: "MASTER CHIEF IS MY FATHER"). And in addition to the handful of local NFL players, rappers Ludacris and Chingy and R&B singer Bobby Valentino were also on-site to try out the game for the cameras.

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Video: Midnight launch in NY
Completing the Halo trilogy, Halo 3 launches. CNET talks to fervent fans in midtown Manhattan.

And there were a whole lot of cameras. Microsoft dominated the myriad big-screen TVs with its in-house coverage of the launch, but video and photo crews were around from every local television network, as well as cable channels like Spike TV and G4 that target the Halo demographic. There were also more than a few video bloggers and even Justin.tv lifecaster Sarah Meyers.

At first, it seemed as though the marketing and press were going to overshadow the actual pack of fans. There simply weren't that many of them in line earlier Monday; with fewer than 12 hours left, the line still stood at about 15 people despite the fact that 28-year-old Uche Nwachukwu, the first person to show up, had been there since 6 p.m. Sunday. Things didn't really pick up until schools and offices had cleared out for the day, and by about 7 p.m., the line was pretty respectable. By about 10:30 p.m., it stood at several hundred.

'Mixed reactions, mixed feelings'
All in all, the crowds and the audio-visuals made for a sight that certainly turned heads. "Some people just pass by and say 'Oh, you're crazy. What are you in line for?'" said 22-year-old Alex Escobar, who was near the front of the line. "Mixed reactions, mixed feelings, I don't care. I love my Halo."

But no one, really, was prepared for the spectacle that the Halo 3 event would turn into with about an hour to go. Best Buy and Microsoft staffers kept their swag giveaways going, insisting that the rambunctious crowds cheer at the top of their lungs in order to get a free T-shirt or bouncy ball thrown at them. The bouncy balls were a bad idea, as the line-waiters proceeded to simply hurl them at one other, but thankfully no legitimate fights ensued. (It made you wonder exactly what was in that "Mountain Dew Game Fuel.")

Then the Mongooses arrived. With only 20 minutes left before midnight, three camo-clad bikers atop all-terrain vehicles decorated to look like the Halo 3 pimped rides showed up and incited the crowds to cheering as they performed noisy "wheelies" along the block of Fifth Avenue that had, by that time, been completely blocked off from normal traffic. They were followed by a Hummer H2 decorated in Halo 3 logos, from which an armored Master Chief ceremoniously pulled several copies of the game and took them inside for the first few buyers.

With the combination of massive, energy-hogging audio-visuals, a Hummer, discarded plastic shot glasses and several all-terrain vehicles, it should be noted that this was embarrassingly far from being a "green" event. But that apparently wasn't the point.

At its climax, the New York Halo 3 launch resembled some combination of a red-carpet premiere, a wild sporting event and an apocalyptic action movie. The security presence was considerable, considering the energy of the crowd. But when midnight rolled around, it was unclear whether the eager, heavily sugared and caffeinated gamers or the camera-wielding press would be the ones to start some kind of riot. Luckily, no one did.

The Halo fans, after all, had only one thing on their minds: go home, log on to their Xbox 360s and load up that new game.

"I feel awesome," said Chris Camisa, who had been fifth in line, as he traded Xbox Live usernames with some other young gamers whom he'd met while waiting so that they could eventually meet again and blow each other's Halo 3 incarnations to bits. "I skipped one class today, and it was well worth it," he said.

Next to him, one of the other early line-waiters held up the limited-edition Halo 3 game that was sold to early adopters, packaged with a Master Chief helmet.

"All right!" he exclaimed, waving the box above his head. "Now I'm going to go play--all night."