This holiday season’s biggest entertainment blockbuster likely will be a sequel to a popular franchise, with jarring depictions of war and an intricate story of good versus evil. It could easily rake in more than last year’s record $155-million US opening weekend for The Dark Knight.

But this blockbuster is not a movie.

It is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a video game that Activision Blizzard Inc. released last week. Fans worldwide are expected to spend at least half a billion dollars on the game this week.

That would at least match last year’s Grand Theft Auto IV, which was the most successful video game release in history and might have been the top entertainment launch ever.

To fans, who refer to it as COD, the game sets the benchmark for stunning cinematography and striking realism, with troops of elite soldiers hunting down targets in South America, Russia, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan. Players typically plug into an online community, moving in teams to hunt down enemy snipers.

To retailers suffering through the recession, it’s an early Christmas gift, a product that may get consumers in North America and Europe to open their wallets.

To detractors, it represents everything that is wrong with the billion-dollar video gaming industry: Blood-soaked images of warfare that they say pose a risk to the mental health of children and even some adults who may not be able to tear themselves away.

The release comes at an awkward time, just days after 13 people were killed and 29 wounded in a mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas. An army psychiatrist is suspected as the gunman.

Call of Duty carries a rating of “M,” meaning the content is suitable for those ages 17 and older. Made for the Sony PlayStation 3 and the Microsoft Xbox, it retails for about $60.

The Internet buzzed about the game all day last Tuesday, and there was no shortage of hyperbole.

As pre-orders topped 1.6 million, Amazon officially named COD the biggest selling pre-order video game of all time. Robert Kotick, chief executive of Activision, crowed that the shooter game is likely to be “one of the largest entertainment launches of any media of all time.”

There’s no question that the video-gaming industry is massive. It was worth an estimated $14.7 billion US in the United States last year, surpassing the $9.6 billion movie industry.

Investment banking firm Janco Partners in Denver, Colo., estimated the game would sell as many as 4.6 million units the first day. That would beat last year’s blockbuster Grand Theft Auto IV, which sold 3.6 million units on the first day.

Through the rest of the year, the COD tally could swell to 11.1 million units, said entertainment software analyst Mike Hickey. That doesn’t include revenue from the used or rental market.

Gaming’s popularity is not surprising given the quality of what’s out there, Hickey said.

“Just think of one of your favourite movies, and think about what it would be like to play it through as one of the characters. That’s what gaming is offering today.”

Best Buy Canada has taken thousands of pre-orders online and in stores, said marketing manager Mary Ann McKenzie. “This is absolutely the biggest gaming release of the year,” she said.

“It absolutely drives traffic for us, and it drives it in nice and early in the holiday season.”

In a recession, “anything that creates that sense of excitement that consumers haven’t felt for some months is just great. The response is like, ‘Recession be damned. I’m getting it.’”

In the U.K. on Monday, the Labour Party denounced the portrayal of violence in the game and called for the government to enact measures to prevent sales to minors.

In all, about 28 million Call of Duty games have been sold in the United States, with each instalment doing better at launch than the previous one, said NPD Group analyst Anita Frazier. Optimism about the latest title led Activision to reaffirm its outlook for 2009 last week. It expects more than $2 billion in revenue for the current quarter — roughly half of the year’s total.

Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter estimates Activision is spending as much as $50 million to market the game, including TV spots, billboards and ads on social-networking sites. Activision won’t say how much the game cost to make, but most blockbusters require tens of millions of dollars.

For the 20-something generation, video games are entertainment on par with movies, except they last many more hours and immerse players in stories in which their actions affect the outcome.

Patrick Kienbauer, an 18-year-old student in Austria, said the game’s last instalment, which has sad background music and a “comfortless ambience,” let him “feel the cruelty and violence of war.”

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