LOS ANGELES -- When the latest installment in the wildly popular "Call of Duty" video game franchise is released Tuesday, it will transport fans to a completely new place: the future. But setting half of "Call of Duty: Black Ops II" in the year 2025 could be the riskiest gambit yet for the successful shoot-'em-up series known for its relentless past-and-present realism.
"Black Ops II" flip-flops between the clandestine Cold War of yesteryear and a cutthroat conflict in the near future where cyberterrorism, drones and souped-up rifles that can peek through walls serve as everyday instruments of warfare. It's a bold leap for a franchise that's spent the past nine years firmly rooted in an unflinching "Rambo"-esque reality.
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"The new setting gave everyone in the studio a creative freedom we didn't have before," said Mark Lamia, head of "Black Ops" developer Treyarch. "We want our games to have that plausible, grounded feeling, but make no mistake; we'll err on the side of entertainment every time. It is a game. While it's important to tell a story, the game has to be fun."
The flash-forward won't merely affect the story-driven, single-player campaign. Robotic tanks, electrifying grenades, flying drones and other high-tech doodads are being added to the arsenals of "Black Ops" soldiers. The change will undoubtedly alter the landscape of the multiplayer mode, the franchise's addictive feature that keeps gamers coming back.
Despite the fact the "Call of Duty" series began as a World War II shooter before gaining unprecedented success when it morphed into a modern-day interactive action flick, the developers at Treyarch aren't fearful of alienating the legions of die-hard fans who helped make "Call of Duty" the most unstoppable force in the gaming world.
"It's something we attacked right from the start," said "Black Ops" director Dave Anthony. "We knew that even though the game was going to 2025, it still had to feel authentic and gritty. It has to be an extension of the world that you can plausibly believe. I knew the best way to do that was to find a consultant who knew where the current world was trending toward."
The game-makers enlisted military analyst and "Wired for War" author Peter W. Singer to serve as an overseer who could guide the developers away from simply creating science fiction. The first rule? No laser guns, at least not in the hands of soldiers. Another real-world flourish included casting China as a geopolitical superpower opposite the United States.
On the flip side, to maintain the cinematic sensation of previous "Call of Duty" games, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based studio again called upon "The Dark Knight Rises" screenwriter David S. Goyer, who consulted on the story of the original "Black Ops" back in 2010. This time, Goyer advised the "Black Ops II" creators from the beginning of development.
"The one thing people want when they play a video game, particularly a game like `Call of Duty,' is they want to be immersed in the world," said Goyer. "The more realistic the world feels -- even if it's set in the near future -- the more they can briefly take themselves away from their cares and concerns. Anything that's specific makes it feel more real."
Goyer recommended that developers create a "Call of Duty" game with a branching narrative, one that shifts and changes depending on players' actions. While hardly revolutionary for the medium, it's the first time a "Call of Duty" game employed such consequences. Goyer said the idea made the bigwigs at publisher Activision Blizzard Inc. decidedly nervous.
Rightfully so, perhaps, considering the franchise's surefire formula for success. "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3," last year's edition created in tandem by Sledgehammer Games and Infinity Ward, topped previous "Call of Duty" titles and shattered entertainment industry records by selling 6.5 million copies and earning more than $400 million within 24 hours.
"Obviously, the `Call of Duty' franchise is hugely successful, but franchises can only remain successful if you keep innovating," said Goyer. "If you don't innovate, there's going to be a law of diminishing returns. Eventually, all of these companies are going to have to come up with new intellectual properties. No franchise can last forever."
That could prove particularly true for "Black Ops." The sophomore chapter concludes in one of several possible ways -- all depending on how wannabe marksmen play the game. Goyer, Anthony and Lamia acknowledged they're not completely certain where a possible "Black Ops III" would go from there, but they're sure of one thing: They'll think of something.