-- Gears of War 3, which arrives in stores today, is Microsoft's biggest Xbox exclusive game ever out of the gate — surpassing even pre-orders for the flagship Halo games.
Sales of this final chapter in the Gears series topped 1.3 million at last tally and are expected to surpass the first two installments, which sold about 13 million copies combined.
"Gears ($60, ages 17-up) just starts off a great lineup, perhaps our best lineup ever of unique content" for the holidays, says Phil Spencer, corporate vice president of Microsoft Studios.
Microsoft's other big action franchise gets an update Nov. 15, when Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, a remastered version of the 2001 original, arrives with updated graphics, 3-D capability and new online features.
In addition to that pair of hard-core gaming heavyweights, the Xbox 360 also gets racing game Forza Motorsport 4 (Oct. 11, all ages) and casual game Dance Central 2 (Oct. 25, 13-up).
The arrival of Gears of War 3 comes at a time when the industry has struggled with a dearth of blockbuster games. This drought "has raised concerns from many investors that the traditional video game market is losing share to emerging platforms such as mobile, tablets and social," says EEDAR analyst Jesse Divnich.
For console video game makers, he says, "Gears of War 3 will be the first true measurement on how the holiday season will look."
Several other potential blockbusters are on the way, including Battlefield 3 (Oct. 25), Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (Nov. 1) and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (Nov. 8).
Spencer is optimistic that the latest Gears game could draw the franchise's biggest crowd. That's because developers at Epic Games included several features that will appeal to newcomers.
For those who haven't played the 2006 debut or the 2008 sequel, there's a "Previously on Gears of War" feature that catches players up on events so far.
The game's story mode can be played solo or with up to three friends, and each can play at their own difficulty level (causal, normal or hard-core). "It's a great way to reach out and bring new people to the fold," says Rod Fergusson, Epic Games' director of production. "We don't want people to feel … if they missed out on Gears 1 and 2 that they can't get in."
A new casual multiplayer setting lets newcomers to the franchise's popular online modes play against other newbies. "Instead of learning how to play the game with people who have been playing the game for years, you can actually play multiplayer with people who haven't played at all," says design director Cliff Bleszinski.
Those who pick up the game will get to experience the biggest game ever from the studio, which is also known for its Unreal games.
"The gameplay and design have been tweaked over two previous releases, and the team has had enough time to really get the core design right," says Kirk Hamilton of video game news site Kotaku.com.
The Xbox 360 audience has grown, and more than 55 million systems have been sold, compared with 25 million when Gears of War 2 came out. Divnich expects early sales of the new game to outpace previous Gears titles and eventually sell 5 million to 6 million copies.