The seventh console generation—the lengthy span that brought us the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Nintendo Wii—was one of change and upheaval. The explosive popularity of the Xbox 360 gave western developers newfound confidence, and high-definition visuals made video games look more movie-like than ever.
The big-name studios of the era desperately wanted video games to be taken as seriously as movies—arguably, they still do—so for a particular span in time, game commercials were downright cinematic. 2006 through 2008 brought us an especially memorable stretch of advertisements that utilized licensed music and Hollywood-grade cutscenes. These spots are fun to look back on because they almost never show actual gameplay. When a game preview tries the same trick at E3, we rightfully call it out. In the late aughts, however, it was art.
The seventh console generation also marks the last time game commercials still made an impact on television. Decent streaming tech was still some ways off, so cable TV was still king. When people tuned in to watch 24, the Wire, Heroes, or Battlestar Galactica, they were bombarded with the some of the best game commercials the medium has ever offered. To look back on these ads is to look back on the start of a bold, [over-]ambitious time for games.
It's a Mad World in Gears of War
Granted, sometimes these ads convey a very different tone versus the game itself. The commercials are more about catching eyes via cinematography than demonstrating gameplay. 2006's revolutionary Gears of War is a big, loud cover shooter that pits hulking soldiers against a locust horde. You wouldn't know it from the famous commercial from the game. It conveys a sense of mystery, loneliness and futility thanks in big part to the presence of the "Mad World" cover Gary Jules and Michael Andrews wrote for the 2001 film Donnie Darko. I don't know if anyone bought Gears of War because the commercial led them to expect a slower, more thoughtful game. Either way, Gears of War was a smash hit, and its commercial is still great.
Ezio Flies Like an Angel (of Death) for Assassin's Creed
2007 marked the launch of one of the most popular game franchises of all time. Ubisoft seemed to understand Assassin's Creed was destined to be something special, so it paired the commercial with Massive Attack's smooth, melancholic "Angel." The commercial's footage is technically a rendered cutscene, but it shows us what Ezio does best. He climbs, he leaps off a tower, and then he stabs Templar soldiers with grace and class. Unlike the Gears of War commercial, the tone for this spot matches up with the game.
In BioShock, nothing is Better Down Where it's Wetter
Like the commercial for Assassin's Creed, the spot for BioShock is a miniature movie that teases the game's mood and story above all else. To that end, it does an amazing job of walking the line between intrigue and complete nonsense. As Jack sinks to the bottom of the sea and beholds the underwater city of Rapture, a Big Daddy starts roughing him up. Then Jack shoots ice and bees and stuff from his hand.
Then the Big Daddy shares a hug with a dead-eyed Little Sister. The theatrics, which are accompanied by Jack Lawrence's classic "Beyond the Sea," make no sense from an outside perspective—but when we saw this commercial in 2007, we were compelled to know more. If the ad had been a mite sillier or a touch foggier, we might have laughed off what became one of the most influential games of the generation.
Halo 3's Diorama-rama
Halo 3 was one of the most anticipated games of 2007, and Microsoft seized the hype by doing something special for its ad campaign. Halo 3 doesn't have fully rendered characters leaping, shooting, or sinking to the accompaniment of licensed music. Instead, the camera pans across a massive diorama that focuses on hundreds of individual soldiers struggling in a battle against the Covenant. The frozen soldiers weep, cheer, fire their weapons, and carry injured fellows off the field. Every dirt-smeared face is brimming with carefully etched emotion. Finally, the camera sweeps up to the summit of a mountain, where a triumphant Jiralhanae Chieftain scruffs a limp Master Chief for the masses to see. Earth's last hope is dead! Or is he? Believe!
It's not clear what happened to the diorama once Halo 3's campaign was done. A large chunk of it reportedly went to Microsoft's Seattle studios, while smaller chunks were supposedly auctioned off. If you happen to own a little piece of Halo 3's history, treat it with reverence. Your grade 3 teacher was right: a diorama is a powerful way to summarize a story.
Lost Odyssey Goes Down the Rabbit Hole
Mistwalker's Lost Odyssey gets considerable airtime in our Xbox 360 Console Quest episode of the Axe of the Blood God podcast. Microsoft and Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi tried hard to endear western and Japanese RPG fans alike with this highly unique game. Unfortunately, it didn't generate much excitement.
You have to admit Microsoft went the extra mile to push the game into people's eyes. The commercial weaves cinematic footage together with "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane. Like the BioShock commercial, it looks wonderfully cinematic, especially the snake-to-human transition at the :25 mark. Maybe it was a little too strange, though. The seventh console generation wasn't great for Japanese RPGs in general. Critics and players alike mocked the genre for being too old, slow, and cliché. Poor Lost Odyssey. You'll always have Jefferson Airplane on your side.
You can still catch game ads on television, of course: Nintendo seems to be especially fond of advertising on cable. But there's no denying there's been a shift. Publishers rely on flashy trailers to generate hype via word of mouth, influencers, and social media: commercials almost seem like an afterthought these days. Commercials no longer fill me with the sense of excitement or wonder because trailer teardowns on YouTube tell me everything I want to know about a game before it even goes gold. Yeah, it's my own fault for looking, but I miss the period when game ads got my heart and mind racing.
At least I can say I was alive to witness the commercial for 2002's Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. It's not the flashiest game commercial, nor is it the most polished one, but I'll be darned if it's not one of the coolest. Any game commercial that encourages the masses to listen to '80s new wave and synthpop is automatically a legend in my book.