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Activision unveils time-tripping ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops II’

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Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Activision)

Stop the presses: a new Call of Duty is coming out this year.

On Tuesday evening, Activision revealed that its annual Call of Duty release will be the first sequel to 2010 blockbuster Black Ops. Again developed by Treyarch Studios, Call of Duty: Black Ops II continues the story of the first game and puts you primarily in control of David Mason, son of protagonist Alex Mason from the first title. It's due out for the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 on November 13.

According to Activision, about one-third of the game takes place in the 80s, but the bulk will be set in a near future 2025 with a political climate heavily influenced by today's current events and economist predictions. Black Ops II crafts what Treyarch considers a plausible future in which China is the world's largest economy, funded to a large degree by its 95% control of rare earth elements.

Moon rocks? Not quite. Rare earth elements are used in many advanced military technology products and consumer electronics; everything from your hybrid car to your iPhone contain fragments of the stuff. The Obama administration has even brought a case to the World Trade Organization petitioning China to stop its consolidation of rare earth minerals. Ripped from the headlines, indeed.

With that in mind, check out the debut trailer, where an elderly Frank Woods (a key character from the first game) warns of the dangers of advanced robotics warfare:

Activision also points out that Black Ops II's future world is firmly rooted in real military tech and current research. The company even recruited several advisers to keep things legit, including retired USMC Colonel Oliver North (yes, THAT Oliver North), retired U.S. Army Lt Col Hank Keirsey, and author P.W. Singer, who wrote the NY Times Bestseller "Wired for War."

[Related: The Rare Earth Metals the U.S. Wants That China's Got]

Heat-ray weapons, advanced robotics, stealth tech, drones, and cyber warfare are all front and center in Black Ops II, but it's real-world stuff, or thereabouts.

"Anyone who thinks this is sci-fi is bottom line ignorant," Singer said in a news segment aired to journalists at Treyarch's headquarters. Studio head Mark Lamia threw up a real newspaper clipping on the screen, headlined: Trojan Virus in Drone Network. "This is happening today," warned Lamia.

Bigger changes are coming to Black Ops II than just a current events plot. The new game's single-player campaign will break from tradition by featuring a branching storyline based on player actions. Losing a mission doesn't end the game, but rather spins you down a different path. And by taking on different objectives, players can sway the geo-political arc of the entire experience.

It's a bold move for a franchise that has enjoyed unprecedented success by relying on a pretty solid formula: cinematic, linear campaigns that tend to lead players by the hand through massive set pieces. Beginning with 2009's Modern Warfare 2, Call of Duty games have broken entertainment sales records three years running. Last year's Modern Warfare 3 racked up a stunning $400 million in its first 24 hours -- another entertainment high water mark -- though its sales have dipped a bit in recent months, which some attribute to general Call of Duty fatigue.

To freshen it up, Treyarch is tweaking every aspect of the game -- including Call of Duty's hallowed multiplayer. Activision is keeping tight-lipped about specifics, but said that they are philosophically starting from the ground up.

"Instead of just extending multiplayer from Black Ops, we thought critically about what cows are sacred. Do we keep something just because it worked last time?" said Game Design Director David Vonderhaar. That could include fundamental changes that would even remove systems like "Create-A-Class" and perks, which have been a staple in Call of Duty multiplayer since Modern Warfare released in 2007.

"We're done making games where one style fits everyone," said Vonderhaar. "Some people play to become pro, others only load it up casually once or twice a week. Our multiplayer won't be 'one game mode' anymore; we want to create a great experience for people who have 'prestiged' once as well as those who have done it 50 times." (To 'prestige' in Call of Duty is to reach the highest multiplayer rank, trade it in for an in-game benefit, then start from rank 1 again.)

The franchise's vaunted Zombie mode will also make a return, turning Black Ops II into what Lamia describes as three games in one box for very different gaming moods.

"You have the campaign mode for a sit-back-and-enjoy thrill ride, the multiplayer for the ultimate competitive and e-sports experience, and Zombies for coop with friends," he said.

We'll doubtlessly learn more about this upcoming war at the E3 convention in June.

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