After a preview party in a Hollywood cemetery, "Gears of War" storms into stores next week in one of the year's most anticipated video game launches with even its maker calling it "horrific."

German authorities' recent decision to refuse the Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) game a rating due its violence has fed into the anticipation — and also into the chance that the title could fail to live up to the hype.

"Gears," which puts you in the role of a grizzled soldier fighting off alien invaders, has tantalized gamers with graphically realistic faces, explosions and blood.

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The game carries an "M" rating, meaning it is for "mature" gamers aged 17 years and older. [It will not be sold in Germany.]

Microsoft has thrown substantial financial weight behind the game, which is exclusive to its Xbox 360 video game console, hoping to blunt the launches of rival systems from Sony (SNE) and Nintendo Co. Ltd.

"If it's not the most anticipated game of the year, it's up there," said Gerald Villoria, an editor with GameSpy, a popular gaming Web site. "It is riding a rollercoaster of buzz and hype, and the hype doesn't seem to be just smoke and mirrors."

Microsoft is staying quiet on how much it is spending to promote "Gears" or how many copies it expects to sell, but it is clear the company thinks it has a hit on its hands.

STRONG EARLY DEMAND

"I can say that the demand, at least in terms of preorders and support and demand from retail partners, has been outstanding all over the world," said Shane Kim, vice president of Microsoft Game Studios.

"For Microsoft Game Studios it is the number two behind only 'Halo 2.' That's a significant number," Kim said, referring to the wildly popular second installment in the flagship franchise of sci-fi shooters for the Xbox.

Attendees at a "Gears" preview party held at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery last week were eager to try the game.

"It's gorgeous, isn't it?" one gamer remarked as another pumped bullets into a dead body dangling from a chain.

"Gears" doesn't so much incorporate violence as revel in it.

A chainsaw mounted on your rifle quickly fillets enemies amid fountains of gore, and when an enemy goes down in a hail of hot lead, you can finish him off with a gruesome move the designers gleefully call the "curb stomp."

"It's pretty graphic because it's not just visually that you understand a head is being stepped on and squashed like a watermelon — you also hear it as well," said Dan Hsu, editor-in-chief of Electronic Gaming Monthly.

But the question gamers are asking is: "How does it play?"

Hsu characterized it as a mix of the twitchy-fast action of "Halo" and the cautious tactical style of "Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter," one of the most popular games on the Xbox 360.

Hsu said "Gears" shines in its single-player campaign, and will win praise for allowing gamers to play the story with up to three other friends over the Xbox Live online service.

But Hsu reckoned some aspects of the game may disappoint, such as its multiplayer mode, which is bound to be compared to "Halo 2," widely regarded as the gold standard of multiplayer first-person shooter games because of its highly customizable scenarios.

"People are going to like it a lot initially, but I don't think it's going to have the longevity of 'Halo 2'," Hsu said.

Villoria disagreed. He said the hype, buzz and graphics would draw players to the game.

"But what will keep people playing will be the multiplayer. It's the kind of gameplay that might just revolutionize shooters," he said.