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Military recruiters sponsor Halo 3 release party

By CAROL ROBIDOUX
New Hampshire Union Leader Staff
September 25, 2007

Manchester By 9 p.m. more than 100 gamers, some with parents in tow, had gathered at the GameStop for a "Halo 3" release party, and plenty more were expected by midnight, when the wildly popular X-Box game would officially go on sale.

There was only one glitch in the festivities -- a "Halo 2" tournament was delayed after the chain store's district manager, Suzan Shockley, announced that nobody under 18 could participate. Top prize: a copy of "Halo 3."

"I'm sorry, but it's a company rule. We take the game ratings seriously," she said. "Our store manager misunderstood the rules of the tournament."

The futuristic combat game is rated M for Mature for "blood and gore, mild language and violence," which means you have to be 17 to buy it, or a parent has to buy it for you.

Fortunately, the Air Force was on hand to save the day.

As co-sponsor of the gaming event, local Air Force recruiters were manning party central outside in the strip shopping center parking lot off South Willow Street, where underage gamers who had fled the store in despair flocked for pizza, Mountain Dew and a chance to play "Halo 2" on a split screen from the back of a pimped-out military SUV.

T.J. Abbott, 13, propped a cell phone between his left ear and shoulder while his rapid-fire fingers unloaded a plasma grenade, via wireless controller, onto a lanky alien who came into range from behind a tree in a desolate virtual village.

"Nice kill," said an electronic voice.

Abbott and his friends, R.J. O'Brien, Jorge Rojas and Sean Collins, all eighth-graders at Southside Middle School, have been waiting since the 2004 release of "Halo 2," when they were just a bunch of little kids, for this moment.

"We're getting up at 5 a.m. to play it," said O'Brien, who considered taking a day off school after a late night at the launch party. "But then I couldn't talk about it in school."

For more than a year now, gamers who have loved the first-person shooter aspect of "Halo" have been salivating over all the high-tech improvements promised by Microsoft in its final incarnation.

Pre-sales of "Halo 3" beat all previous records by hitting the million mark two months before the game's release, said Darrell Kiley, a GameStop employee and member of the National Guard.

Sales are expected to be unmatched.

That's thanks to heightened anticipation fueled by a mass-marketing campaign that has included a host of strategic TV trailers and key sponsors -- from Mountain Dew and 7-Eleven, to NASCAR, Pontiac and Burger King.

And of course, having the U.S. government on board doesn't hurt.

"This is going to be huge," said Air Force recruiter Staff Sgt. Christopher Johnson, who got to the site about an hour before the party to set up. He took a break from attaching wings to a replica of a mini F-22 jet.

"We expect a big showing. We have the same demographic as they do," he said, nodding toward the video game store across the parking lot, where kids were already starting to mill around inside. "Our target market is identical to that of video game stores," Johnson said.

He said last month's Air Force/GameStop tailgating bash for the launch of "Madden '08" netted two new recruits.

He said he has yet to hear anyone object to the marketing marriage between the military and adolescent video-gamers.

"I was warned when I got to New Hampshire that it was a very liberal, not exactly pro-military environment, but so far I haven't had any negative feedback," Johnson said.

Joe Turcotte of Derry, a veteran of the Iraq war and member of the New Hampshire chapter of Iraqi Veterans Against the War, said there are those who feel the practice of using simulated war games as a recruiting tactic isn't the best way to enlist new soldiers.

"The whole idea of serving your country out of patriotism gets lost. It cheapens the honor and sacrifice when you turn it into a video game," Turcotte said. "We are proud of our service to our country, but there's something about this that just doesn't seem right."

He feels having military recruiters at the biggest video game launch in history is over-the-top marketing.

"I would like to know if there's a disclaimer, if they're warning kids that their actual combat experience may vary," he said. "War is not a game."

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