'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

Experts say that to extend their five-year growth, makers of games and systems alike need to keep drawing in new, untraditional players while holding on to recent recruits and longtime hard-core gamers.

"Everyone has to try to attract attention and offer themselves as the alternate to spending your money elsewhere, as far as entertainment," says Francesca Reyes of Official Xbox Magazine. "Everyone's under the gun."

Among other projects expected to generate talk at the Expo:

• Nintendo, which expanded the game audience by selling 20 million user-friendly Wii systems, is improving its wireless motion-sensitive controller with a MotionPlus accessory. Available separately for $20 on June 8, the add-on, which attaches to the current remote, will also be included in special editions of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 ($60, out June 8) and Wii Sports Resort ($50, out July 26). Also expected is an as-yet-unannounced Wii game aimed at Nintendo diehards. "Nintendo needs to show something new and different for the mainstream masses ... to tap back into that mojo the initial Wii launch had," says George Jones of GamePro Media.

• Most observers expect Sony to show a new PlayStation Portable that downloads games rather than using discs. "That will likely be the biggest news of the show," says Jesse Divnich of market research firm Electronic Entertainment Design and Research. "The core gaming market is ready for a new handheld device, (and) digital distribution could stimulate strong sales."

• Microsoft is expected to show its much-rumored hands-free game controller technology today. Pachter expects Sony will show something similar. New motion-control schemes that do not require traditional controllers, he says, are "something to show that the other two manufacturers are interested in regaining some share from Nintendo."

Making, selling 'Warfare'

For companies such as Infinity Ward and publisher Activision, generating a blockbuster like Warfare 2 means promoting it like a blockbuster. A teaser trailer was released in April, and an action-filled minute-long trailer was unveiled on TNT during last week's NBA playoffs. "It's a super-high-quality game," Pachter says. "The name recognition helps a ton, and Activision seems focused on making sure nobody misses its launch with this massive marketing campaign."

West concedes "expectations are higher. This could be the first game in the series that many of these people have ever played."

The studio got its start making first-person shooting games based on World War II. While at developer 2015 Inc., West and current Infinity Ward CEO Vince Zampella helped develop Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, a computer game released in 2002 by EA that sold 1.3 million copies.

A year later, West, Zampella and a handful of others formed Infinity Ward; their first game, Call of Duty, won Game of the Year from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences in 2004, as Modern Warfare did four years later (the only studio to win two such awards).

Although the team is being vague about the new game's story line, they will reveal that a new ultranationalist Russian leader named Makarov has risen to power after his predecessor, Zakhaev, was killed in the previous game. "Events that unfolded from your hands in the last game directly affect what happens in the world now," Zampella says.

As this project hurtles toward conclusion, the team has grown to about 100. Eighteen testers will put the multiplayer mode through its paces. And over the two-year development period, three animators focused solely on the hands and weapons from the player's point of view. That is important, says Zampella, because "when you are playing the game, that's there all the time."

GamePro's Jones recalls that Medal of Honor's re-creation of the Normandy invasion was a video game "magic moment" for him. "Infinity Ward understands how to make those moments," he says, "and how to prolong them and make them intense and fun."