| SAN FRANCISCO/NEW YORK
SAN FRANCISCO/NEW YORK Forget the buzz over the next "Twilight" film or James Cameron's "Avatar." The biggest entertainment hit of the holiday season may come on Tuesday, when "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" hits stores.
The video game published by Activision Blizzard Inc is the most highly anticipated of the year, winning accolades from gaming blogs and Wall Street analysts alike. But it also arrives at a time when the weak economy is punishing sales across the video game industry.
Activision has plenty riding on the launch, and much to lose if the game falls short of expectations. Shares of the company have risen around 30 percent this year, outperforming chief rival Electronic Arts Inc's 18 percent gain.
"This is the one game that could buck the economic trend for the holiday season," said MKM Partners analyst Eric Handler. He estimates the title will account for 16 cents of Activision's earnings per share in the December quarter, and more than one-third of the publisher's bottom line.
Analysts say "Call of Duty's" audience of hard-core gamers, generally young men, are likely to hit stores in droves to pick up the $60 game. Activision is partnering with 12 retailers including GameStop Corp and Best Buy Co for more than 10,000 midnight store openings in North America.
Sales estimates range from 11 million-13 million units by end-2009, which would put the game in rarefied company.
Activision said preorders set a record. The shooter game is likely to be "one of the largest entertainment launches of any media of all time," CEO Robert Kotick said this week.
MKM's Handler expects "Call of Duty" to sell close to 5 million units on the first day, and 7 million-8 million in the first week. That would beat last year's blockbuster "Grand Theft Auto IV" from Take-Two Interactive Software Inc, which sold 3.6 million units on the first day, and 6 million in its first week or more than $500 million in sales.
The new game is the sixth installment in the "Call of Duty" franchise, which was launched in 2003.
It boasts stunning cinematography, with gamers portraying elite soldiers hunting down targets in South America, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan.
Players navigate through modern scenarios, ranging from shooting while racing on life-like snow mobiles, or stealthily moving through arid locales, hunting down enemy snipers and avoiding helicopters overhead.
"Call of Duty" carries a rating of "M," meaning the content is suitable for those age 17 and older.
Some critics point fingers at the video game industry for often graphic depictions of bloodshed -- especially after sensational acts of public violence. But while the "Grand Theft Auto" series has been criticized by some for glorifying crime, "Call of Duty" has not been similarly condemned.
Next week's release comes at an awkward time. On Thursday, 13 people were killed and 30 wounded in a mass shooting at Fort Hood in Texas, the biggest military facility in the world. An army psychiatrist trained to treat war wounded is suspected as the gunman.
When asked if the shooting would affect the launch, Activision said it was still moving forward and there was nothing to suggest a connection between the Fort Hood incident and video games.
Despite the economy, U.S. video game software sales are expected to grow to $19.5 billion in 2013 from $14.7 billion in 2008, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. That makes it a bigger entertainment ticket than Hollywood's $9.6 billion in 2008, according to industry website boxofficemojo.com.
Much like a summer blockbuster movie, shooter games like "Call of Duty" tend to have a massive crush of sales in the first few days as eager gamers flood stores to get their copy.
"By all indicators, we anticipate 'Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2' will be the biggest entertainment launch of 2009, as well as the biggest video game launch in GameStop's history," said Tony Bartel, executive vice president of merchandising and marketing for GameStop.
The video game retailer will open 4,200 outlets on Monday night, some as early as 9 p.m. Some stores will feature promotional appearances by celebrities and athletes.
Other popular games this year, such as Nintendo Co Ltd's "Wii Fit" or the "The Beatles: Rock Band" from Viacom Inc's MTV, have appealed to more casual gamers and include women and older people in their target demographic.
The new "Call of Duty" has scared off Activision's competition, some analysts say.
"A lot of publishers and developers have pushed their titles up either well before the release or to after the holidays, and what that does is just add to 'Call of Duty's' success," said EEDAR research group analyst Jesse Divnich.
(Reporting by Gabriel Madway and Franklin Paul, editing by Tiffany Wu and Matthew Lewis)