'Modern Warfare 2' has a bold plan of attack for gaming

You know that pulse-pounding feeling you get when you're watching an action-packed summer blockbuster? That's the feeling Modern Warfare 2 is shooting for.

And how true its aim is could help determine how high the video-game world flies this year.

Modern Warfare 2, the sequel to Infinity Ward's megahit Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, will be unveiled here today at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo convention, or E3. A rare early look at the game finds that the Santa Monica-based studio is putting the finishing touches on a fast-paced, globe-spanning thriller that makes you the hero.

On one of its seemingly impossible missions, you, as an elite combat specialist, follow task force leader Capt. "Soap" MacTavish as he climbs a sheer ice floe in Kazakhstan. You hear the crunch as the ice ax and crampons penetrate the frozen cliff face. At a gap in a cliff ledge, you attempt a death-defying leap, and just when it looks as if you've fallen, McTavish grabs on and pulls you to safety.

Along the way, you also join in Black Hawk Down-style urban combat in the claustrophobic shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro, infiltration of an Afghanistan cave camp and even wage underwater battles.

All this derring-do leads to an enemy outpost where, outmanned and outgunned, you trigger diversionary explosions and escape in a snowmobile chase rivaling the forest speeder-bike pursuit in Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.

The objective is to out-Bauer 24, to out-Bond Casino Royale and out-Bourne The Bourne Ultimatum in scope and action. "We want the player to constantly be going through this emotional roller coaster," says Infinity Ward president Jason West.

He and the game's creative team devour films and books and do real-life research on weaponry, tactics and terrorism. Hollywood screenwriters help them polish the plot. And movie-studio-quality artists and animators bring it all to life.

"Some developers are masterful at scripting a sequence," says Kevin Pereira of G4 TV'sAttack of the Show. "Infinity Ward is a master at scripting an experience."

Its predecessor has sold 13 million worldwide since its release in 2007. Analyst Michael Pachter of Wedbush Morgan Securities says the sequel, due Nov. 10 for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC, could sell 10 million this year alone, a pace that would surpass hits such as Halo and Grand Theft Auto.

"Modern Warfare 2 is the game people are most excited about," says Geoff Keighley of Spike's GameTrailers TV. "It is the one game to beat in terms of buzz going into (E3)."

A hit like Modern Warfare 2 could provide a quantum of solace for gamemakers, caught in a dramatic moment of their own as they face their first slump after years of record sales.

During March and April, sales of games and systems dropped; it's the first time since 2003 that two consecutive months showed declines. Nonetheless, for the first four months of the year, total sales (games, systems and accessories) are only 4% behind 2008's record $21 billion tally. In 2003, the total was $10 billion.

"We will break last year's record," says Michael Gallagher, president of the Entertainment Software Association, the trade group that operates E3. "This is an industry that did incredibly well in a recession year last year. On the whole we are tracking just a little below last year, and we haven't even had a blockbuster release yet."

Pressure to stand out

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