Gears of War: I’m Not Buying It

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The most-hyped game ever is coming out on November 7th, and having it’s Grand Opening (AKA Emergence Day) five days later. It’s being praised as the Xbox 360’s Halo; a must-have first-person shooter showcasing all that’s great and wonderful about next-gen technology, cutting edge graphics and the hottest game engine ever made.

And I don’t care.

When The Escapist went to E3 this past May, I was put in the enviable position of setting my own agenda. I had just started at the company, and in spite of the fact that they were willing to give me a plane ride to L.A. they had no idea what to do with me. So they handed me a notepad and asked me who I wanted to talk to and what I wanted to see.

At the top of my list were Microsoft and Gears of War.

Microsoft’s E3 booth was a gigantic plastic and neon monstrosity towering above almost every other booth at the show. It was glaringly white, sickeningly green and deafeningly loud. It had two stories, dozens of private meeting rooms, two separate reception desks and the security-to-flatscreen ratio was off the scale. Very few people got in, and those who did were examined mercilessly.

I arrived on time for my appointment to get hands-on time with Gears of War. I was fifteen minutes late to the presentation. I left after two minutes.

When I hit the downstairs reception desk and handed them my card, I was greeted with a bit of humorous confusion. I would later come to call this “The Shannon Drake” effect. Shannon is the guy who was in charge of setting up our interviews at E3. As a result, most developers had his name listed where ours should have been. The joke at E3 was that Shannon Drake was the most popular guy at the show, yet few people had ever met him. I still believe he planned it that way.

After the nice lady deciphered the confusion and verified that even though I wasn’t actually Shannon Drake, I was entitled to see Gears of War we both had a laugh, she pasted a green dot on my name badge and I hurried through the first security checkpoint.

I followed her directions up the stairs to the second story of the enormous booth whereupon I encountered Security Checkpoint Number 2. There another lady asked to see my name badge and my business card and we repeated the entire charade.

“I just did this downstairs,” I complained, and she looked at me like I was a bad boy asking for candy. This excited me (only a little) but I was starting to become annoyed. It wasn’t like I was trying to get into CIA headquarters at Langley, for crying out loud. I was a journalist trying to get into a media event. And I’d been invited!

The Shannon Drake effect, combined with the ridiculously redundant Microsoft PR/Security machine had at this point cost me 10 minutes of very precious show time. I gave the lady my best “I’m over 30, a paid professional and not in the mood for your crap” look and she gave me what I wanted: the number of the room in which they were showing Gears of War.

The catch: the room didn’t exist.

After exploring the second story of Microsoft’s edifice twice over, and asking one poor sod who’s room wasn’t in demand at all (“people have been asking me about that room all day. What’s in it?”), I discovered the place where the Gears of War room should have been, but it didn’t seem to be there. Or at least, it wasn’t marked properly.

I came to a door partially hidden behind a small wall, which bore a rather dire-looking warning about what might happen if one were to enter. I was now 15 minutes late and had run out of options. If I was going to get hands-on time with Gears of War, the most anticipated Xbox360 title at the show, I’d have to take some chances. So I took a deep breath, grabbed the door handle and twisted.

The door immediately flew open. Inside was a stern-looking guy in shirt-sleeves holding a clipboard. He looked at me like he’d just discovered me in bed with his daughter.

“Who are you?” He asked.

I offered him my right hand to shake, with a business card in my left – my patented “shake and take” networking move. He ignored both and snatched at my badge.

“You’re not Shannon Drake.” He said. But let me in anyway. The presentation had already begun and he wasn’t about to destroy the ambiance to give me what-for. He ushered me to the back of the room and set about ignoring me.

There were about three dozen play stations set up and not a one was currently available. Aside from myself, there were two other people standing in the wings, presumably waiting for their turn to play. Microsoft had apparently overbooked.

I looked over the shoulder of the guy sitting at the terminal in front of me. What I saw wasn’t too impressive. The game looked overly gray and kind of washed-out. And the action looked incredibly slow. I was a little surprised. It didn’t seem to be the kind of game modern FPS fans would enjoy playing. But what was more surprising was they seemed to be enjoying it anyway. Or that’s how it sounded anyway.

Each gruesome kill or spectacular personal victory was greeted with a chorus of cheers and applause, the likes of which every gamer – playing against invisible opponents, in front of a non-existent audience, in their underwear – fantasizes about. There was a camaraderie and excitement in the air the likes of which I hadn’t seen in years. It was exhilarating, intoxicating and completely fabricated.

Skulking about in the shadows was a throng of Microsoft employees, peeking over gamers’ shoulders, waiting for exciting things to happen, and then showering the players with positive reinforcement. The effect was startling. What should have been a solemn, sober collection of gamers concentrating on the screens in front of them (like in every other hands-on room) was transformed into an inspirational power hour not unlike a fundamentalist tent revival.

Microsoft was playing on the age-old marketing adage that if you tell people what to think, they will listen. In the Gears of War hands-on room, gamer/journalists were being told by Microsoft that A) this game was so hot that it justified extreme levels of security and bureaucracy; and that B) it was more exciting than any other game at the show. And people were buying it.

Those would-have-been blank, focused faces were beaming at every exclamation of praise and hours later, every word I heard on the show floor was followed or preceded by “Gears of War.”

Personally, from what I’ve seen of the game, I’m not convinced that it will be the mega-selling blockbuster it’s being hyped to be. I think it will sell, but it won’t be a console seller and it certainly won’t be the next Halo. That game will be coming next year.

What I suspect Gears of War will sell the most of is Unreal 3 licenses. Then again, I’ve been wrong before, and it’s possible I’ll be wrong again. We’ll know soon enough.

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