360s unleashed at Zero Hour

Next generation of gaming hits North America; first Xbox 360s handed out at launch event in Californian desert; full video coverage inside.

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PALMDALE, Calif.--When the Xbox burst onto the scene in 2001, gamers were uncertain about its place in the market. With Sony and Nintendo already holding firm footholds in the industry, the bulky black box from Microsoft was entering a battle taking place in a town not big enough for three. Though it had impressive specs and a legendary launch title in Halo: Combat Evolved, many looked at the system and wondered exactly what the PC-oriented company knew about console gaming.

Four years later, it's apparent that Microsoft was merely getting its feet wet in a market that has become one of the most lucrative industries to date. The company has learned from its first foray into gaming and has applied its experience to its latest creation, the Xbox 360.

The obvious first lesson it recognized is the importance to be first on store shelves. The Xbox was not only handicapped by a nonexistent fan base, but it had the misfortune of being late to the party that Sony dominated. This time around, Microsoft beat its opponents to consumers today, as gamers across North America got their hands on the first next-generation console.

To celebrate the momentous occasion, Microsoft organized Zero Hour, a gamer-centric event held in Palmdale, California. The launch party took place in a large airplane hangar over a period of 29 hours, beginning Sunday at 7 p.m. Microsoft invited its consumers to make the trek to Palmdale by way of contests, timely registration, and a stroke of luck. The result was more than three thousand gamers from all over the country converging, with the sole purpose of ushering in this latest milestone in the industry.

Beginning early Monday, Best Buy opened up a makeshift store inside the space, and presold Xbox 360s, games, and accessories. There was little worry about getting a console among gamers, as reps constantly reassured concerned gamers that there would be enough consoles for everyone.

Even with all the free tattoos, complimentary massages, and stage demonstrations from industry luminaries that Microsoft set up to keep attendees entertained, the most exciting portion of the near 30 hours was the moment that the first gamers--real down-to-earth gamers--got their hands on the Xbox 360.

At 8 p.m., San Diego-based rockers Louis XIV, who many may recognize from the anthem to Electronic Arts' SSX on Tour, played a solid 40-minute set on the main stage. Though this was considered one of the main events of Zero Hour, most gamers barely even recognized their performance, as they were lined up to get their Xbox 360s.

Those who pre-bought the systems formed a very lengthy queue that took the shape of a horseshoe and spanned nearly three-fourths of the hangar's interior. Glazed eyes and yawns indicated that those first in line had been there for a while, eager to be among the first to say they were an Xbox 360 owner.

Though the event took place on the West Coast, Microsoft agreed to let Zero Hour attendees get the console early and opted for a 9 p.m. launch time to coincide with East Coast midnight-madness sales.

At 8:54 (360 seconds before launch), the gates to the hangar opened up, revealing a convoy of three large Best Buy trucks, complete with a police escort. Inside those trucks were nearly 3,000 Xbox 360s, packed to the brim in the trucks' cabs. Music reached a feverish tempo, and the interior lights strobed on and off, sending the crowd into a frenzy.

As the vehicles made their way to the Best Buy store, the energy was electric--this was the moment that the gamers had been waiting for. All those hours yearning to play as Joanna Dark, tear through a lap of the Nurburgring, or play high-definition sports games were merely ticks away from becoming reality.

Best Buy assembled an armada of employees to dispatch and hand over the consoles, and once the rear doors to the trucks opened, things reached a fever pitch.

One minute after 9 p.m., the first consoles were given to Edgar Bounds and Mike Bedwilder from Senatobia, Mississippi. The two Xbox fans drove from their homes to Zero Hour without the luxury of breaks, a 30-hour-plus journey. A minor miscalculation saw them arrive to the event a full day early, but for the pair it was merely a blip in the road. They were finalists in the Hex 168 contest, which granted them access to the event, but not the complimentary Xbox 360 and passage that grand prize winners received.

"We've only gotten about 10 hours of sleep in the last week," stated Bedwilder, clearly showing the strains of his gaming devotion and insomnia.

"Once we got that e-mail [declaring the two would be admitted], we knew we were going," said Bounds. Their perseverance paid off, as they instantly became the darlings of the night and subjects of mass media attention. The two were so anxious to get their game on, they nearly left before they could bask in their glory.

From then, the throng of gamers made their way through the line, showing their proofs of purchase. Once face-to-face with a register, they were met by a very enthusiastic group of Best Buy employees, who were slapping fives and congratulating the buyers.

The line was pretty much nonexistent at 45 minutes past the hour, as the procession went fluidly. Those lucky enough to get a 360 quickly took their new prized possessions back to their houses, eager to experience the console on their own setups.

And just like that, Zero Hour came to a close. Looking back on the festivities, it was clear that Microsoft held true to its claims of making the event about the gamers. Though photo opportunities were rare and celeb sightings were minimal, those who attended--the hardcore gamer from every conceivable demographic--appreciated not only the fact that they were there, but the fact that they had the opportunity to be there, a rare instance in today's starstruck industry.

For a complete run-down on Microsoft's next-generation console, visit GameSpot's Xbox 360 Launch Center.

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