SANTA MONICA, Calif. – You awaken in a tiled room, strapped to a chair, hooked up to an intravenous drip and surrounded by TV monitors broadcasting images of numbers and your grizzled face. You're being interrogated by a shadowy figure from behind a glass wall who issues a stinging charge of electricity each time you brazenly dismiss his questions.
"I don't know anything about any numbers!" you scream in retaliation.
It's clear from the first moments of "Call of Duty: Black Ops," the year's most anticipated first-person shooter from developer Treyarch, that the game's protagonist won't be the strong, silent type, a departure from previous installments in Activision Blizzard Inc.'s 7-year-old military shoot-'em-up franchise, which usually stars men of few words.
"It was a very deliberate choice," said Dave Anthony, director at Treyarch. "We want the player to immediately be able to relate to him. The first scene is very tense for the character. We thought that if the player himself was feeling what the character was going through right at the start of the game, it would really create a connection with the character."
For most of the plot-driven "Black Ops" solo campaign, gamers will play as Alex Mason, an impulsive member of the top-secret CIA squads Operation 40 and the Studies and Observation Group. Mason recounts his various Cold War era missions, from Cuba to Vietnam, while being held inside that mysterious interrogation room.
"The emotional focus that we've given Mason is more than we've ever done before for a character in a 'Call of Duty' game," said Anthony. "As you go through the story, you will see how Mason's relationships with the other characters in the game change as you go back and forth from the interrogation room. You will actually realize how it all comes together."
Giving the player's character more of a voice on the battlefield presented gamemakers with new technical challenges. Anthony said that because of the game's free-roaming nature, developers needed to make sure Mason didn't spontaneously start to chat with someone who wasn't anywhere near him or blab particular plot points that hadn't come up.
In an effort to make "Black Ops" feel more like an epic interactive action flick, gamemakers enlisted David S. Goyer, who co-wrote "The Dark Knight," to consult on the game's time-hopping script. Instead of the story unfolding chronologically, levels are presented as memories, sometimes interrupted by the garbled voice of Mason's interrogator.
In a recent demonstration of the game to The Associated Press, Mason sounded distinctly like "Avatar" actor Sam Worthington. Anthony declined to say if it was Worthington's voice. Another person with knowledge of the game, who spoke on condition of anonymity because that person wasn't authorized to release the information, said it was Worthington.
Ed Harris portrays Mason's CIA colleague Jason Hudson and Gary Oldman does double duty by reprising his role as patriotic Russian squad leader Viktor Reznov from "World at War," Treyarch's last "Call of Duty" game, and also portraying a British character.
Previous editions have placed players in the bodies of embattled soldiers, usually shifting the action among locales, branches and, in some instances, militaries. At a few points in "Black Ops," the action will divide, allowing players to become Hudson and an SR-71 Blackbird pilot, but Anthony said the story line centers on Mason.
Adding depth to the game's protagonist is one of several bold gambits for "Black Ops," which is following in the steps of the "Modern Warfare" games, the top-selling "Call of Duty" entries developed by Infinity Ward that moved the franchise away from World War II and into the record books by ratcheting up the storytelling and multiplayer intensity.
Infinity Ward experienced a shake-up earlier this year when its top executives and several other staffers departed, putting more pressure on Treyarch to deliver when "Black Ops" debuts Nov. 9. Kevin Perriera, co-host of G4's "Attack of the Show," believes the studio is up to the task, especially considering it had more time to craft this "Call of Duty."
"The bar was set with 'Modern Warfare,'" says Perriera. "There's a minimum level of expectation from gamers. I am personally confident in Treyarch, especially because Activision has to send a message that while Infinity Ward may no longer be under their control, it doesn't matter. Treyarch can handle this franchise and take it in a bold direction."
Other new forays include making "Black Ops" available in 3-D for Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360, Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 3 and PC editions, and introducing a new in-game cash system in the multiplayer mode that allows players to buy perks and gamble their funds in special wager matches. Will it be enough to draw military shooter fans away from the "Modern Warfare 2" juggernaut?
"We've been working hard for a couple years now to make sure fans have another great experience," said Mark Lamia, studio head at Treyarch. "They've had so many great 'Call of Duty' experiences in the past, and we're very fortunate that so many people are excited for 'Black Ops.' We're humbled by it and excited to share with people what we've got for them."
Wedbush Morgan gaming industry analyst Michael Pachter said competition for "Black Ops" is more fierce this season because it's being released on the heels of Microsoft's sci-fi shooter prequel "Halo: Reach" and Electronic Arts' military shooter reboot "Medal of Honor." However, Pachter expects "Black Ops" to have the biggest sales.