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Will gamers again heed the 'Call of Duty'?

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'Black Ops' unleashed
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Military-shooter game "Call of Duty: Black Ops" goes on sale Tuesday at 12:01 a.m.
  • Last year's predecessor, "Modern Warfare 2," broke sales records
  • Some wonder if the new game, set during the Cold War, can match its popularity

Editor's note: Scott Steinberg is the head of technology and video game consulting firm TechSavvy Global, as well as the founder of GameExec magazine and Game Industry TV. The creator and host of online video series Game Theory, he frequently appears as an on-air technology analyst for ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and CNN.

(CNN) -- War's specter once again looms large over the gaming world, as "Call of Duty: Black Ops," the spiritual sequel to last year's smash hit "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2," goes on sale Monday at midnight.

The first-person shooter game -- available for PC, PS3, Xbox 360, DS and Wii -- has a hard act to follow. "Modern Warfare 2" sold a staggering 4.7 million copies on day one and eventually became the second-best-selling video game of all time in the United States.

Industry observers say "Black Ops," the seventh installment in the "Call of Duty" series, has all the makings of another blockbuster -- witness the new TV ads with Kobe Bryant and Jimmy Kimmel -- although the buzz is less deafening this time around.

"We've seen a tremendous amount of interest for 'Black Ops' in our preview coverage," said Peer Schneider, publisher of IGN, a gaming and entertainment site. "It's consistently tracked as one of the most popular games on IGN for the past six months -- often ahead of top performers like 'Halo: Reach.' We're sure it will be one of the top sellers of the year, but it also faces a more competitive field than its predecessor."

Ironically, the greatest threat to the video game franchise's worldwide conquest may be its own success, which will be difficult to match. "Modern Warfare 2" was praised for its lifelike visuals, Hollywood-grade set pieces and expansive multiplayer mode.

Fact Box
"Call of Duty: Black Ops"

On sale: Tuesday at 12:01 a.m.

Publisher: Activision

Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3, Wii, DS

Retail price: $59

That game received review scores that still average an impressive 94 percent, according to online aggregator Metacritic.com.

" 'Call of Duty' titles have high production values and give players an experience similar to an exciting action movie, whether it was set in World War II or more recent times," said Mike Snider, a contributor to USA Today's GameHunters blog.

"Plus the games have extensive features for online and offline multiplayer gaming. After players blast through the story mode -- usually six to 10 hours depending on the skill of the player -- they can battle online for months, even years with that same game," he said. "So 'Call of Duty' isn't just a game that you play for a few hours and put on the shelf. For dedicated players, it's like a full-time hobby."

Inside 'Call of Duty: Black Ops'
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"Call of Duty: Black Ops" introduces several new wrinkles.

There is customizable weaponry, expanded online head-to-head options and a broader arsenal of weapons -- including crossbows with exploding bolts, pyrotechnic shells and ballistic knives.

With characters voiced by such A-list Hollywood talent as Gary Oldman and Ed Harris, "Black Ops" takes place during the Cold War era. Clandestine missions will take gamers into the jungles of Cuba, Laos and Vietnam.

These settings may feel less accessible to the series' core audience -- 20- and 30-something gamers -- than timelier, more familiar locales such as the Afghanistan and Russia battlegrounds found in "Modern Warfare 2."

"Black Ops" also wasn't made by Infinity Ward, the development outfit responsible for "Modern Warfare 2." Instead, the new game was built by Treyarch, the designer of 2008's "Call of Duty: World at War."

Critics are wondering if Treyarch can match the creative heights of Infinity Ward's earlier efforts. The departure of several key Infinity Ward team members and subsequent legal battles with game publisher Activision have also bred skepticism among fans.

In addition, "Black Ops" will face stiff competition this holiday season from such rivals as sci-fi epic "Halo: Reach," also renowned for its expansive multiplayer support, and the latest "Medal of Honor" game, which gives the former World War II-era trigger-masher a modern-day makeover. (Maybe it's a silent nod to "Modern Warfare 2's" resonance).

But, far and away, "Black Ops' " biggest battle will be convincing legions of existing "Call of Duty" fans, millions of whom still play to this day, that an upgrade is justified.

iReport: Share your "Black Ops" experience, review

With its built-in support for cooperative play, replayable assignments and exhaustive multiplayer options, predecessor "Modern Warfare 2" continues to remain one of gaming's top draws.

Whether players will be moved to abandon their posts and take up arms en masse on a new front line remains uncertain.

" 'Black Ops' isn't likely to match the fervor or record-setting sales of 'Modern Warfare 2.' There is less consumer buzz surrounding it and the Vietnam-era time period it covers isn't quite as popular as the modern era for war games," said Russ Frushtick, games editor at MTV News.

But there are still plenty of gamers foaming at the mouth to go guerilla and make like a high-tech Rambo. With a rich thematic backdrop and fully loaded clip of original ways to compete and obliterate adversaries, "Black Ops' " aim may yet prove right on target.

[TECH: NEWSPULSE]

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