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Gamers go gunning for 'Halo 2'

New York City’s Time Square has seen everything from 25 cents peep shows to rampant "Disneyfication," but the hundreds of screaming males lined up late last night outside the Toys R' Us on 44th and Broadway represented a Times Square first: The video-game release street party.
Gamers queue for the midnight release of video game Halo 2 in New York City
Hundreds of gamers queue for the midnight release of 'Halo 2' for XBox at Toys-R-Us in Times Square, New York Nov. 8, 2004. Seth Wenig / Reuters

New York City’s Time Square has seen everything from 25 cents peep shows to rampant "Disneyfication," but the hundreds of screaming males lined up late last night outside the Toys R Us on 44th and Broadway represented a Times Square first: The video-game release street party.

By 10 p.m. the crowd was so large even the crusty city dwellers were starting to take notice.

"Excuse me, what is this line for?" asked a passerby to a young man bearing a "Save the earth!" sign.

"Halo 2!  Halo 2!" yelled the sign bearer.  The entire line picked up the chant.  "Halo 2!  Halo 2!" they yelled.

"Get a life, you freaking losers!" yelled another passerby. 

"Halo 2!" they yelled back.

For anyone hiding under the rock these past few months, "Halo 2" represents the long-awaited sequel to the best-selling Microsoft Xbox video game of all time.  Noted for its graphics, its storyline of an embattled human race battling the dreaded alien "Covenant" and its fast-paced multiplayer component, the title has an almost religious quality within the video-game community.

Since game developers Bungie and Microsoft announced the Nov. 9 launch date back in May, the game has racked up over 1.5 million pre-orders.  Priced at $49.99 or $54.99 for the "collector's edition," the pre-orders represent a hit nothing short of phenomenal in gaming (and entertainment) history. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

Inside Toys R' Us in a swanky "Halo 2" launch party, Microsoft's Peter Moore eagerly worked the crowd of assorted celebrities and gathered media.

Moore is the Corporate Vice President of Worldwide Marketing and Publishing for the Home and Entertainment Division of Microsoft and is an anomaly in his own right; a corporate executive that actually has facial recognition.  To Halo fans, he's probably better known than their local congressman.

"I've been in this business for five or six years and I have never seen a single title get this much attention.  Halo nation is a fascinating cultural phenomena," he said. 

And this phenomena, according to Moore, is nothing less than revolutionary as far as redefining the entertainment industry.

"One of the things we’ll look back on in 24 hours is what size is the industry. It is very clear to us that this kind of entertainment is usurping others,"  Moore said.  "There was a commotion about the film "The Incredibles" making $70 million over the weekend. I guarantee that we’ll make that by 4 p.m. tomorrow."

Last night was the night that the "Halo 2" hype reached its climax. Across the country over 7,000 retailers nationwide opened their doors at midnight and New York City's Time Square hosted the national release.

The excitement ran up and down Manhattan in the hours leading up to midnight.

Downtown at Forbidden Planet, a comic book and video game story on 13th Street and Broadway, Tamara Carrion calmly stacked the 200 copies of "Halo 2" her customers had pre-ordered and prepared for the madness.  "We're getting ready for the first-person-shooter fanatics," she said.  "I think we're pretty organized."

At EB Games on 14th Street the atmosphere was a bit more mellow, but the fans equally intense.  Sitting in a deck chair at the front of the line was Anthony Cintron.  He had been in line since 9:00 a.m.

"I told my wife when I left that 'I love you honey,' but I'll be late taking the day off," he said.

Nearby Marcos Lemos had almost been waiting as long.  And in the excitement of the pre-launch festivities, Lemos had a confession to make to this reporter.  He had downloaded the pirated French version of "Halo 2," last week.  But he quickly deleted it. "They spent so much time on the product and it was unfair to ruin their hard work."

How many products can boast of this type of loyalty?

It was at the Toys R Us in Times Square, site of "Halo 2's" official event, that the scene represented not so much a launch but a happening.

Microsoft employees loaded with schwag worked the lines. "Who wants a hat?" they yelled. A hundred hands shot up.

A giant neon red and blue "Halo 2" clock over the line ticked away the remaining hours.

"Three, two, one," the crowd chanted. The clock indicated exactly one hour to go.  It was 11 p.m. and by now the line was seven people wide and a block and a half long. 

Near the front of the line, clad head to toe in the armor of "Halo 2" hero Master Chief was Jim Cush who came to Times Square right out of work.  "I changed in my car so people at work wouldn’t see me," he admitted.

The line was predominately male with a couple girlfriends and the occasional girl gamer in attendance.  While the average age seemed to be in their mid-20's there were a couple old-timers - relatively speaking.  John Herrera was here with his 13-year-old son, Matthew.  "He told me that he's taking the day off from school tomorrow," the senior Herrera said.  "And I'm cool with it for one day."

At one surreal moment, a pickup truck loaded with cameras and lighting equipment and pulling a bicycle pedi-cab slowly moved down Broadway parallel to the line.  Showtime was shooting a show and they had stumbled, accidentally, into the equivalent of a lion's den.

In the pedi-cab, Kim Cattrall — Samantha of "Sex in the City" fame —  whose face bore the shock one would expect of a sexy celeb running head-on into a thousand or so unshaven 25-year-old males.  She quickly exited the pedi-cab into a nearby town car.

"Samantha!"  They yelled.  "Halo 2" fanatics may play video games, but they know their "Sex and the City." 

One young man, his bare chest bearing the number "2" painted in blue paint, charged towards the pedi-cab.  "Sex and Halo! Sex and Halo!" he chanted and once again the crowd took up the chant.

"'Halo has changed my life,"  Robert Caraballo, the bare-chested blue man admitted later.  "I'm just so lost in the excitement here. I'm just realizing how many people love this game."

Caraballo added that he had just been laid off earlier that day and called it the best day of his life because he would have more time to play "Halo 2."

But that's just another indication of how unworldly the "Halo 2" culture is.

When this reporter relayed the story of the "Halo" fan who had deleted his pirated copy of "Halo 2" out of guilt.  Microsoft's Moore rapidly nodded his head in understanding.

"For these people it's like stealing the Bible, it's that sacred," said Moore who then recounted how he went through the online message boards after the incident and read of "Halo" fans renouncing the piracy or saying that while they will download the illegal version, they will still buy the legal copy.

It was obvious now why Microsoft had chosen the busiest district in the entertainment capital of the world for its launch of "Halo 2."  Microsoft wanted to prove that video gaming was no longer a hobby to be ashamed of, like, say, running trains in the garage or participating in Civil War re-enactments.  No, they wanted to show that video gaming is a major player  — if not the top player — in the nation's entertainment industry.

And as the clock neared midnight, it was obvious that they had made their point.  The streets now cleared of tourists and theatre goers, Time Square belonged to the video gamers.

The crowd ticked down the seconds to midnight, "3...2....1."   The giant overhead "Halo" clock reached 0:00 and a new message appeared for the faithful:  "At long last the battle hits home. 'Halo 2' has landed."