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Gaming Guru

Chris Jones
 

Terror On The Strip

10 July 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Masked gunmen fire rifles into a crowded Las Vegas casino as pixelized images of spraying bullets reflect from a spinning roulette wheel.

Gamblers scatter amid the chaos, and a terrorist shouts, "Everybody down!"

The scene abruptly shifts outside, where an explosion blasts through the front of the Monte Carlo. Helicopters fly past Bellagio's lake, unloading squads of anti-terrorist military personnel onto the Strip below.

Shootouts ensue amid the slot machines. A sniper explodes the forehead of a terrorist holding a pistol to the head of a screaming woman.

Police radios blare with talk of further attacks on Fremont Street, followed by the ominous cry that "Las Vegas is now under martial law."

As its Internet preview suggests, "Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas" has the makings of a kick-ass video game.

But the fictitious adventure could also present a marketing headache for Las Vegas because of its on-screen setting, sources said this week.

"It could be harmful economically, and it may be something that's not entitled to free speech (protection)," Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said of the game's realistic scenes, which he had not personally viewed.

"It's based on a false premise," Goodman said, adding federal and state leaders have repeatedly assured him that Las Vegas is "the safest place imaginable" nearly five years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the East Coast.

"I will ask ... whether or not we can stop it," Goodman said of the game's planned November release.

Sheriff Bill Young questioned the wisdom of showcasing terrorists in this city's bustling tourist corridor.

"It's unfortunate that we're the backdrop for a lot of stuff because of our profile," Young said of Las Vegas. "I'm not a big believer on pushing violence on young people anymore, particularly the more-realistic stuff that's coming out today."

As a child, Young said he and his friends played "cops and robbers" and other imagination-based activities.

"But now it's gone to terrorism, and (video games) make it so realistic. ... I just wonder about bombarding young people's senses with this type of violence," said Young, whose department is dealing with the effects of 19 officer-involved shootings this year, including one that killed a 31-year-old man before scores of Strip visitors on Independence Day.

Las Vegas' high-profile status has long drawn media attention, often showcasing dangerous actions. Frank Sinatra's 1960 caper "Ocean's Eleven" was based on casino robberies, while the 1971's James Bond flick "Diamonds Are Forever" included a Fremont Street car chase.

A plane slammed into the Hard Rock Hotel in 1997's "Con Air," and CBS' hit series "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" offers up a new Las Vegas murder each week. The Stratosphere tower even exploded in "Domino," a Keira Knightley film released in the fall.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority will spend nearly $120 million over the next 12 months marketing and advertising the area as a fun adult getaway. That effort helps make the area one of the world's most-recognized locales, for better or worse.

"I'm confident that the general public can distinguish between what's reality and what's fiction," authority spokesman Vince Alberta said. Nevertheless, Alberta said Goodman has asked the authority's legal team to look into whether the game infringes on any Las Vegas trademarks.

Local casino companies will also monitor "Rainbow Six Vegas" closely.

MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman said the company was unaware of the game until contacted by the Review-Journal Friday. Company officials will investigate the game's content, and take legal action "should we determine that our trademarks or copyrights have been violated."

Boyd Gaming Corp. wished Ubisoft had tabbed another city for the game's setting, said spokesman Rob Stillwell.

"We go to great lengths to present this as a safe and secure destination," he said. "To the extent that this portrays our destination as an unsafe place to visit, it's concerning."

Ubisoft, a French video game maker, has high hopes for the fifth title in its popular "Rainbow Six" series. The story centers on "an escalating terrorist siege in "Sin City" that threatens to take world terrorism to new heights."

Some Las Vegas icons were altered -- Bellagio's sign reads "Villagio," for example -- while others were made up altogether, including the nonexistent Calypso hotel.

But many local elements are precisely detailed, from Fremont Street's lighted canopy to the replica Eiffel Tower at Paris Las Vegas.

"You will find lots of details about (Fremont) Street in the game," a Ubisoft artistic director wrote on a Web log detailing the game's creation. "In truth all the casinos, hotels -- lets face it, the whole damn city -- are magnificent and really absorbing to create in-game. We were so inspired we wanted to create the entire town to the finest details!"

Ubisoft's game designers set the game here to better showcase new technologies that allow for sharper-than-ever images, said Tim Cummins, Ubisoft's San Francisco-based corporate spokesman. Game designers toured the town to ensure their re-creations were authentic.

"Las Vegas might be the perfect location to show off next-generation console technology," Cummins said. "Not only is it a world-famous and recognizable city, it is iconic, action-packed and completely unpredictable."

Cummins did not respond to questions on local leaders' objections to the game.

But Liping Cai, director of the tourism and hospitality research center at Purdue University, said a video game-themed terror attack should have little short-term impact on people's willingness to travel here.

"However, if that video game becomes so popular that a whole generation is educated on that image, it will" affect people's perception of whether this is a safe destination, he said.

Branding expert Rob Frankel also doubts "Rainbow Six Vegas" will deter people from traveling here.

"I don't think it hurts Las Vegas at all," Frankel said. "If anything, it's going to come across as the unfortunate victim of the video game company."

Controversy surrounding the game, Frankel said, could hurt Ubisoft, much like recent criticism of Rockstar Games' popular -- but equally detested -- "Grand Theft Auto" video game series.

"The guys who are in for a lot of heat are the developers of the game," Frankel said. "We're starting to get to the point where people have had enough" of violent images.

Regardless of any bad press, Rockstar's parent company, Take-Two Interactive Software, enjoyed profits of $37.5 million in fiscal 2005. And several factors suggest that Ubisoft's Las Vegas gamble will be a hit with consumers.

The game's characters are based on those popularized in author Tom Clancy's best-selling books including "Clear and Present Danger" and "The Sum of All Fears."

Previous "Rainbow Six" games sold more than 14 million units worldwide, and the series' latest version will for the first time take the franchise onto so-called "next-generation" video game consoles.

Ubisoft previewed "Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas" at May's Electronic Entertainment Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center, where it was favorably reviewed by the popular online video game forum GameSpot.com.

Based in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil-sous-Bois, the 20-year-old Ubisoft is an international powerhouse in the video gaming realm.

Thanks to popular titles such as "Myst" and the "Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell" series, Ubisoft last month reported sales of more than $698 million in its 2005-06 fiscal year ended March 31.

Sales are expected to grow by 5 percent to 10 percent this year thanks in part to the planned rollout of Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's Wii game consoles, Yves Guillemot, Ubisoft's chief executive officer, said in a recent earnings release.

Microsoft Corp. released its next-generation console, the Xbox 360, late last year. Ubisoft quickly capitalized on demand for the new platform: 360,000 units of its "Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter" game sold within a week of the title's debut.

"Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas" -- whose logo even borrows from the Strip's iconic "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign -- will hit stores in November, Cummins said. The initial versions will play on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, with a home computer version to follow later.